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Posted on January 7, 2019

Neurotheology—Our Top 10 Picks

Dr. Andrew Newberg explains neurotheology by breaking the term into two parts: “For the neuro side, this has to include not just neuroscience, but psychology, anthropology, and medicine in general, as well as other areas of study that are involved in how our brains and our bodies interact. In terms of the theology piece, this also needs to be defined very broadly. Theology is a very specific field, which is focused on studying primarily religious texts and religious ideas…this area of study also needs to include spirituality, rituals, beliefs, and practices, such as meditation and yoga and other disciplines that help us to be spiritual as well.”1
Andrew Newberg, MD, ” The Neurotheology Link, An Intersection Between Spirituality and Health

Neurotheology, or spiritual neuroscience, tries to explain our religious experiences and actions. The term “neurotheology” first came into use in 1962 when Aldous Huxley invented it for his 1962 novel Island. Since then, neurotheology has actually grown into a field of scholarship that attempts to understand neural phenomena as they correlate with spiritual or religious experiences.

Recently we have reviewed some of the top posts, books, and papers that explain the relationship between the brain and religious behaviors or experiences in neuroscientific terms. These studies explore the science and pseudoscience of neurotheology as a field.

Here are our Top Ten, but we would love to hear about your choices in our comments section below:

1 Viatcheslav Wlassoff  composed this article: “God in the Brain: the Science of Neurotheology, wherein he explained, “Some people are so deeply religious that the system of beliefs they practice shapes their whole life. It would be reasonable to assume that something interesting should be going on in their brain. It is also quite likely that these brain processes are different from the processes in the brains of unbelievers. This is what the new science of neurotheology is aiming to study.

In his article, he concluded, “Various religious practices have the potential to influence our health, in both positive and negative directions. It was noted that religious people, in general, have a lower risk of anxiety and depression. This, in turn, is linked to a stronger immune system. On the other hand, people engaged in religious struggles might experience the opposite effects. Research into the brain’s response to religious practices might help to develop further our understanding of the connection between health and spirituality.” Read more …

David Biello, TED Science Curator

2 David Biello, TED Science Curator, is an award-winning journalist, who wrote in the October 2007 of Scientific American, asking, “Is there a God spot in the brain?” Then he answers by reporting. “The spiritual quest may be as old as humankind itself, but now there is a new place to look: inside our heads. Using fMRI and other tools of modern neuroscience, researchers are attempting to pin down what happens in the brain when people experience mystical awakenings during prayer and meditation or during spontaneous utterances inspired by religious fervor.”

In Searching the Brain, he reported on several studies, “to reveal the neural correlates of the divine” that might not only “reconcile religion and science but also might help point to ways of eliciting pleasurable otherworldly feelings in people who do not have them or who cannot summon them at will.” Read more …

Neurotheology—Our Top 10 picks
Vilayanur Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego

3 In his book Phantoms in the Brain, Vilayanur Ramachandran, who is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD, studied the limbic system and concluded that in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, spiritual feelings have been shown to come from those areas of the brain.  But he added, “We have given up the idea that there is a soul separate from our minds and bodies.” He also asked: “Could it be that human beings have actually evolved specialized neural circuitry for the sole purpose of mediating religious experience? The human belief in the supernatural is so widespread in all societies all over the world that it’s tempting to ask whether the propensity for such beliefs might have a biological basis.” Read more…

Neurotheology—Our Top 10 Picks
CraigAaen-Stockdale, BI Norwegian Business School: Oslo, Akershus

4 CraigAaen-Stockdale, who is an experimental psychologist specializing in human sensory systems, wrote Neuroscience for the Soul in The Psychologist. In this article, he searches for the truth about neurotheology by contrasting the views of skeptics and believers concluding, “Sceptics are, in my opinion, far too quick to claim that God is ‘all in the brain’ (usually the temporal lobe) when in fact the evidence base is disturbingly weak. Similarly, believers claiming that God has provided a ‘conduit’ in the brain are making the same mistake. But to say that the jury is out is not to conclude that these are two equally valid positions.” 2 Read more…

Neurotheology—Our Top 10
Dr. Andrew Newberg a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and coauthor of

5 Dr. Andrew Newberg a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and coauthor of Why We Believe What We Believe has devoted his life to studying the links among spirituality, contemplative practices, and brain function. In a Q&A post titled,  The Neurotheology Link—An Intersection Between Spirituality and Health, he explains the birth of neurotheology. He said, “…about 30 years ago, with the advent of brain-imaging studies and the cognitive neurosciences, clinicians and researchers gained the opportunity to explore what is actually going on in the brain when a person engages in various religious and spiritual experiences. However, neurotheology goes far beyond just brain imaging. Basically, in the study of neurotheology,” he explains, “we are trying to understand the relationships among the different areas and functions of the brain and how they help us or restrict us in terms of engaging the spiritual side of ourselves. …this area of study also needs to include spirituality, rituals, beliefs, and practices, such as meditation and yoga and other disciplines that help us to be spiritual as well.”

His team at the University of Pennsylvania used brain scanning technology to study Franciscan nuns, Tibetan Buddhists, and Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues. They were surprised by what they found, “meditation, prayer and so forth—help reduce symptoms related to depression and anxiety, and may actually help improve the way the brain works cognitively… Therefore, not only are there clinical responses that people may experience through these practices, such as reduced blood pressure and improved mood and emotional status, but there also may be a fundamental biologic shift that occurs and affects human beings at the genetic level.” Concluding his paper, he encourages clinicians to help patients take “paths that take them to a level of happiness and healthfulness that helps patients to engage their psychological, spiritual, and biologic parts of themselves as effectively as possible and in an integrated way.”Read more…

Alireza Sayadmansour, Department of Philosophy, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran

6 In the Iranian Journal of Neurology, Alireza Sayadmansour, published “Neurotheology: The relationship between brain and religion,” which argues, “As an emerging field of study, neurotheology has the potential to offer a great deal to our understanding of the human mind, consciousness, scientific discovery, spiritual experience, and theological discourse. In particular, there are many potentially rich areas to consider in the context of Islam.”

Sayadmansour explores both brain functions and theological topics. In the holistic functions he says, “we perceive and understand wholeness in things rather than particular details.” For example, we might know the body’s parts and we may “understand a concept of absolute oneness as pertaining to God.” But a “holistic process in the brain allows for the expansion of any religious belief or doctrine to apply to the totality of reality, including other people, other cultures, animals, and even other planets and galaxies …The holistic function pushes us to contemplate that whatever new reaches of the universe astronomers can find, God must be there. No matter how small and unpredictable a subatomic particle might be, God must be there, too”

To explore his other brain functions, including quantitative, binary, causal, willfulness, and orienting, you will have to read his complete paper here…

Most interesting was this: “Another area in which neurotheology could provide important scientific information is in understanding the link between spirituality and health. A growing number of studies have shown positive, and sometimes negative, effects on various components of mental and physical health.1 Such effects include an improvement in depression and anxiety, enhanced immune system, and reduced overall mortality associated with individuals who are more religious.

In his conclusion, he says that “if neurotheology is ultimately successful in its goals, its integrative approach has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the universe and our place within it. A better understanding of the human mind, its biology and neurocircuitry have the potential to solve man-made problems. It can even create a bridge between the empirical science of neurology with the intangibility and sensitivities of theology.”

7 In his book”Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience,” Malcome Jeeves explores whether neuropsychology has anything to offer psychotherapy and counseling. He wrote,” Research findings in psychology and related subjects such as neuroscience produce fresh challenges for our generation to develop an ‘examined faith,’ engaging both heart and mind. This book is a conversation with “Ben” who has some experience in neurotheology.

In conversation, Ben says, “Any claim to talk about the integration of psychology and Christian belief must, I believe, deal with psychology as it actually is today. It is not satisfactory to attempt to confine one’s discussion of psychology to some small section of it… We’ve already seen that psychology has very strong links with neuroscience and cognitive”

Ben, explains to Malcome that, “more than forty distinct regions of the brain …had been shown to be selectively active in different religious activities such as praying and meditating.” Read a sample of the book here…

8 In the New Mind Journal, Huỳnh Phúc Huy wrote a two-part article: “Are we really designed for Spirituality? The Neurotheology teaches us something revealing (Part 2).” He askes, “How is the brain ‘wired’ to produce spirituality?’ This question keeps researchers from the fields of neurology and theology quite busy, and has essentially forced neuroscience to generate a new discipline called Neurotheology.”

“As an emerging field of study, Neurotheology has the potential to offer a substantial amount of information to elucidate our understanding of the human mind, consciousness, scientific discovery, spiritual experience, and theological discourse. Remember that the Neurotheological scholarships must tread carefully on these issues and try to develop new research methods. All of the results should be viewed by the students on Neurotheological scholarships, interpreted with caution, and in the context of the existing doctrine, beliefs, and theology. However, if Neurotheology is ultimately successful in its objectives of employing an integrative approach, then it will undoubtedly have the potential to revolutionize our assimilation of the universe and our place in it. A comprehensive outlook of the human mind, its biology and ‘neurocircuits’, has the potential to solve problems for the man. You can even create a bridge between empirical science of neurology with the sanctity and sensitivity of theology.”6  Read more…

George Johnson. journalist and author, writes for the NY Times and other publications

9 Writing for Slate, George Johnson wrote, “God Is in the Dendrites—Can ‘neurotheology’ bridge the gap between religion and science?” He reported on several studies that showed the brains of those who have meditated for years were bigger in ” regions devoted to attentiveness and the processing of sensory information.” He also noted that “If the mind is what the brain does, any kind of exercise is bound to leave a physical trace.”

In frustration, he penned this, “In the neurological search for the spiritual, there is no shortage of data. But pile it as high as you like, and you’re left staring across the same divide. Depending on your predisposition, you can interpret all these experiments in two different ways. The believers take them as scientific evidence for the reality of their visions, while the atheists claim more proof that God is all in your head.”

Concluding he noted, “So it goes, round and round.  Either the brain naturally or through a malfunction manufactures religious delusions, or some otherworldly presence speaks to homo sapiens through the language of neurological pulses. Hot in pursuit of this undecidable proposition, neurotheology will keep on churning out data—but when it comes to the biggest questions, it will never have much to say.” 7 Read more…

Columnist David Brooks of The New York Times

How Our Brains are Wired for Belief, puts Andrew Newberg (see 5 above) alongside columnist David Brooks of The New York Times with moderator Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life at the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life in May 2008.

Brooks said, “There is this incredible revolution going on in brain research. To me, it’s a bit like the revolution of psychology or psychiatry that Freud started …The bottom line of it all is we are now discovering the tremendous power of the unconscious, of the levels of cognition we’re not consciously aware of, that shape our thoughts. If you look at behavioral economics, if you look at neuroscience, if you look at psychology, if you look at field after field, in theology, in literary criticism, people are taking this template of unconscious cognitive processes and applying it to how we think.”

You can listen to this fascinating presentation here: Listen to the audio transcript. Note: Apple’s Quicktime player is required to play the audio file. If you do not have the Quicktime player, you can download it here.

Or read the transcript sections here :

Andrew Newberg speaks on:
Liberal and conservative brains
The physiology of beliefs
Brains in meditation, prayer and worship
Why belief in God persists

David Brooks speaks on:
The revolution in brain research
Why science is now more open to religion
Neuroscience points toward “soft-core Buddhism”

Q&A discussion topics:
Brain responses to “flip-flopping”
Does science reject the soul?
Is religious Darwinism valid?
Does neuroscience confirm religious belief?
What causes religious or political transformations?
Brain physiology in party politics
Is scientific materialism really in decline?
Should society prevent the spread of harmful beliefs?
Do unconscious drives negate free will?


However, it is not all as happy as this list makes it. For example, in an essay published in 2006, Dr. Milind Ovalekar, of the Centre for Neuroscientific Studies, in Vasai, India, wrote: “In conclusion, let us reaffirm that ‘Neurotheology’ as a nouveau scientific term is absolutely bereft of rationale. Researchers wishing to study such arcane phenomena would do well to restrict their foundational bases to the time-tried concepts and categories of conventional behavioral and social neuroscience, before venturing into the quicksand of newly minted hypotheses that are sadly more in tune with commercial vigor than scientific rigor. Else, they stand exposed to the peril of having their solid empirical research hijacked by ancient dogmas often motivated by a reactionary agenda.” 8

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and author of The Mind, The Brain, and God.

In his book, The Mind, The Brain, and GodRick Hanson, Ph.D., wrote “I am not asserting that there is or is not God; nor am I asserting that, if God exists, he/she/it/none-of-the-above plays a role in mind, consciousness, or morality. I am asserting that attempts to draw inferences from neuropsychology about God’s existence or role in human affairs are usually a waste of time. At most such inferences can refute a particular theory about God’s role in life – such as God is necessary for human morality, or for the existence of our species altogether. But that leaves all sorts of other theories about God that are not yet disproved – as well as the fundamental matter that God is by definition categorically outside the realm of proofs or disproofs within the material universe.” 9

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FOOTNOTES

Andrew B. Newberg, MD, “The Neurotheology Link, An Intersection Between Spirituality and Health
2Aaen-Stockdale, Craig (2012). “Neuroscience for the Soul”. The Psychologist. 25 (7): 520–523
Newberg, ibid.
Sayadmansour A. Neurotheology: The relationship between brain and religion. Iran J Neurol 2014; 13(1): 52-5.
5  Jeeves, Malcolm. Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience . InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
6 Huỳnh Phúc Huy, Are we really designed for Spirituality? The Neurotheology teaches us something revealing (Part 2) in the New Mind Journal,
7 George Johnson, “God Is in the Dendrites—Can ‘neurotheology’ bridge the gap between religion and science?,Slate
8 Milind Ovalekarr., Neurotheology’: A semantic trap set by pseudo-science for the unwary scientist,”
9 Rick Hanson, The Mind, The Brain, and God

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