Why God Won't Go Away? And Why Should We Care?

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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Why God Won't Go Away? And Why Should We Care?

Mariya Simakova


"Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief" is an achievement that is rare both in the history of theology and in the history of science. On the one hand, it is a collaborative realization of an interdisciplinary team of the neurobiologist and radiologist Andrew Newberg, his late colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, psychologist Eugene D'Auili, and journalist Vince Rause. Such an effort to bridge the gap between humanities and science is admirable in its own right, especially because it is successful. Moreover, this book is a testimony to the possibility of a respectful and productive dialogue between science and religion. Written from a neurobiological perspective, it does not attempt to dismiss spiritual experiences on the grounds of their material manifestation. On the contrary, the writers, while maintaining an agnostic stance, point to the fact that the neural reality of the feeling of oneness achieved in meditation or prayer is not less than the neural reality of our relishing the taste of an apple pie.


At the core of the book lie the authors' experiments with eight Tibetan Buddhist monks during meditation and several Franciscan nuns during prayer. All subjects, skilled in their respective modes of achieving a state of transcendence, were allowed to create an atmosphere conducive to it in the lab. At the self-reported height of the mystical experience, the subjects were injected with a radioactive tracer. Immediately, they were placed into a SPECT (Single Photon-Emission Computed Tomography) machine, similar to PET and CAT devices, in order to take "a photograph of God" (Newberg 1). The images of the blood-flow patterns showed an increase of activity in the prefrontal cortex. That was predictable, since that area is associated with controlling attention. The more interesting discovery was the decreased activity in the "orientation association area" or OAA. This region of the brain orients the self in physical space and also generates a distinction between the "I" and the "not-I", the individual and the rest of the world. It is known that the patients with physical damage to this area cannot successfully maneuver themselves. But in their case, the condition is irreparable. What Newberg and D'Aquili found was not a complete shutdown of the OAA but a period of its temporary inactivity, corresponding to the subjective experiences of oneness with the Universe and the presence of God reported by monks and nuns. The researchers postulate that during meditation and prayer we somehow cut off the incoming sensory information to the area, which results in our temporary loss of boundaries between ourselves and the world. The brain "has no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses" (Newberg 6). And this perception feels unquestionably real.


Building on their research, the authors discuss the nature of this experience. They point out that what "we think of as reality is only a rendition of reality that is created by the brain" (Newberg 35). The simplest things – apples, chairs, other people – actually exist in relation to us only through our neurobiological perceptions of them. Therefore, the mere fact of the spiritual experiences being based in the brain cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. On the one hand, our brains are perfectly capable of creating illusions. On the other, if God exists, we have no way of experiencing Him but via our neural machinery. "Both spiritual experiences and experiences of a more ordinary material nature are made real to the mind in the very same way – through the processing powers of the brain" (Newberg 37).


In the rest of the book, the authors discuss the possible evolutionary meaning of the brain's mystical capabilities, the relationship between spiritual and sexual arousal and pleasure, the human propensity for myth-making (and the similarity of those myths) in light of neurobiological necessities, and the significance of religion as the answer to human existential anxiety. They also consider the neurobiological basis of ritual and the connection between ritual as a communal activity and meditation/prayer as the individual expression of spirituality. Although they acknowledge that the neurobiological states corresponding to the feeling of transcendence can be purposefully sublimated by ritual or induced by illness, the authors insist that spiritual experiences can proceed from sound, healthy minds reacting coherently to "perceptions that in neurobiological terms are absolutely real" (Newberg 111). They work through the neural mechanisms that correspond to the mystical journey, from its beginning within the human will to its consummation in the feeling of communion.


Overall, they conclude that "the deepest origins of religion are based in mystical experience, and that religions exist because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences" (Newberg 129). A neurological approach suggests that religion is not the result of faulty logic or cognitive processes, but the product of a holistic mind-body event (with or without the presence of the Other). As such, religion could never be explained away. God, the researchers argue, is here to stay, and it is time for science and religion to explore the meaning of this presence together.


"Why God Won't Go Away," in its discussion of nature of reality and of the fact that all experience is grounded in the workings of the brain, extends and confirms the thoughts that have fascinated us as a class throughout the semester. It insists that all "reality" is, in a fundamental way, a product of our brain, whether or not anything actually exists outside of it. Moreover, the spirit of the neurotheological respectful cooperation and co-investigation into the mysteries of the human mind that is present in this book corresponds to the course's aspirations to combine scientific and non-scientific perspectives. Another common theme is the question of what constitutes the human self and the acknowledgment that, rather than being a unitary "thing" somewhere in the brain, the self arises from the interactions both within the nervous system and between the NS and the body.


The perspective that this book offers and that I wish our course considered more in-depth is the deep connection between religion and science, the spiritual and the material proper. Although we have touched on these subjects throughout the semester, a fuller integration of these matters into our discussion would have informed our understanding of the neurobiology of the self. The questions of religion and spirituality are not confined to the believers and the skeptics. They are present at the very foundation of the brain as the organ physically disposed to "mystical" experiences.


Works Cited

D'Aquili, Eugene, Andrew Newberg, Vince Rause. "Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief." New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.

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