Neurotheology: God is real...inside your head

Has anyone learned about neurotheology?

Sounds like a fascinating field of study. It doesn’t suppose that gods exist, but could help explain why believers are so certain that their own inner experiences reflect some objective truth.

I’m a hard atheist, but I don’t like to invalidate believers’ personal experiences. Those experiences occur in their minds, though, like experiences with hallucinogens do. (And no, I don’t claim religion is a “mental illness.”)

It seems clear to me, also, that people have group spiritual experiences, from visions to visitations by “ghosts,” which vary by culture. Something transcendent occurs, but it doesn’t have to be supernatural. It’s the way our brains evolved, with connection to the group important to our survival.

Neurotheology is a relatively new science that explores the relationship between the body and religious experiences. These “experiences” can include meditation, near-death experiences, trance states, the feeling of being one with the universe, or encounters with supernatural beings. There is no determination if these experiences are imaginary or real, and it’s unknown if the experience causes changes in the brain or if the brain creates the experience.

Research into neurotheology began … (in the 1800s) …and for a long while centered on documenting experiences induced by hallucinogenic drugs…

The refinement of neuroimaging delivered a more quantitative method of research. Those who study a person’s neurological response to religious experiences use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to measure blood flow to various parts of the brain. Researchers then compare brains at rest or engaged in a neutral, non-religious activity with brains experiencing some kind of transcendence. Using fMRI, scientists have discovered that reciting Scripture (from whatever religion) correlates with distinct activity in certain sections of the brains; subjects who have a more intense religious experience show even more activity, as do those who practice such things as prayer or meditation on a regular basis. If an agnostic or atheist recites Scripture, the corresponding brain activity does not occur.

Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene d’Aquili wrote:

“The sensation that Buddhists call ‘oneness with the universe’ and the Franciscans attribute to the palpable presence of God is not a delusion or a manifestation of wishful thinking but rather a chain of neurological events that can be objectively observed, recorded, and actually photographed. The inescapable conclusion is that God is hard-wired into the human brain.”

…Researchers have also discovered that practicing meditation or prayer strengthens parts of the brain, and an exercise showed that a moderate amount of meditation improved the memory of people with dementia."

https://www.gotquestions.org/neurotheology.html


 

Is it God or a Sense of the Eternal that’s hard wired? . . . and that “God” is the only language we’ve developed to discuss it.

Just tossing it out there.

Sounds to me like the bullcrap part of the Neuroscape that lights up when a person is engaging in believing bullcrap has been discovered.

But to respond to your question, in Tee’s post it says that a study showed differences amongst believers’ and practitioners’ experiences vs. those of skeptics and atheists. Also differences of experiences among persons according to the amount of engaging in some practices. So that suggests to me that if this sense of “a presence of whatever” is hardwired, that it is at least malleable to learning, iow, a person’s sense of it would be dependent in part on his life experiences.

@citizenschallengev3

Is it God or a Sense of the Eternal that’s hard wired? . . . and that “God” is the only language we’ve developed to discuss it.
Well, I think obviously they don't claim that "God" is hardwired into our brains, or else religious beliefs would not have evolved over millennia into millions of extremely different ideas. You are right, ideas like "God" and "religion" are fairly new.

And I wouldn’t call it “the eternal,” either. I would think an idea like that may have taken time to develop.

But I think we ARE hardwired toward things transcendent and magical, because our brains need to make sense of things.

Imagine you are a very early man. You know that sometimes water pours from the sky, sometimes the world becomes very white and cold, sometimes small humans come out from between other humans legs, and that there comes a time when humans you know stop moving and turn to bones.

Surely, you don’t think, “Weather! Climate! Rotation of the Earth! Human reproduction! Cardiac arrest!!” You think Something Out There makes these things occur. And because of suffering, hunger, animal attacks, etc., it makes sense to want to make that Something happy.

To me, it makes a lot of sense.

@Timb

Sounds to me like the bullcrap part of the Neuroscape that lights up when a person is engaging in believing bullcrap has been discovered.
Well, I'm all for dissing harmful dogmas. But I disagree with calling all of this "bullshit."

If you put all of human history onto a calendar, it’s only about 5 minutes ago that hard atheism became a thing for more than a tiny number of people in any society.

These ideas don’t just cover, say, Charismatic Christianity, but also meditation and other things that even skeptics are okay with.

And what’s “okay” depends on the culture and era. Today, anyone who claims to see a ghost is written off as crazy or stupid. But in the 18th & 19th Century, MOST people reported seeing ghosts of loved ones.

But Mark Twain, Sir Conan Doyle, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Nikola Tesla were all deeply convinced of Spiritialism. Were they stupid?

 

a study showed differences amongst believers’ and practitioners’ experiences vs. those of skeptics and atheists. Also differences of experiences among persons according to the amount of engaging in some practices. So that suggests to me that if this sense of “a presence of whatever” is hardwired, that it is at least malleable to learning, iow, a person’s sense of it would be dependent in part on his life experiences.
Yes, probably like what happens with people who are naturally good or bad at music or sports. The brain changes.

Maybe someday they can study people like me and see what happened to our brains when we were fully on one side and then fully on the other.

Yes and even before early man was particularly verbal, it is a natural process for organisms in general to develop unusual behaviors, at times, by virtue of chance contingencies. (superstitious behaviors)

Then once humans had relatively complex language, superstitious ideations would be off to the races.

I think that lots of other species would have developed some form of religious conduct or belief, IF they had developed complex verbal behavior.

@Timb

Isn’t a lot of it connected to the fact that humans are hard-wired to notice patterns and associations? Even if they are false?

If you happen to bowl a perfect score all three times you were a yellow t-shirt, you might joke that it is your lucky shirt. You may even actually bowl better the next time you wear it because your confidence is improved, even if you don’t “really” believe a superstition.

It seems like at their most basic level, religious rituals may have begun like that.

When I said “Sounds to me like the bullcrap part of the Neuroscape that lights up when a person is engaging in believing bullcrap has been discovered.”

I was not disputing the existence of certain brain activity that connects some individuals with a sense of something sublime or a presence of such. I was suggesting that if there is some commonality of the neural firing patterns that exist in conjunction with these experiences, then THAT is what I am referring to (descriptively, not to suggest it doesn’t exist). So what I called the bullcrap part of the Neuroscape, I didn’t mean to say that the existence of that neural phenomenon does not exist, I just mean to label it that because it involves the tendency to believe bullcrap.

Yes at it’s most basic level natural superstitious behavior (organisms being hard-wired to respond to patterns and associations even if they are only accidental or manipulated) is probably a prerequisite for development of religiosity. But it also follows that the development of religious thought and religions themselves would develop naturally in large enough groups ONCE complex verbal behavior is developed.

Iow, I think it is correct to suggest that the development of religions has been a mostly unavoidable artifact of our complex verbal behavior.

 

I didn’t mean to say that the existence of that neural phenomenon does not exist, I just mean to label it that because it involves the tendency to believe bullcrap.
@Timb

Yes, I understood this.

My reaction actually WAS to calling the beliefs themselves bullcrap. Clearly (to us) religious dogma is untrue, and sometimes harmful… but to me, anyway, “bullcrap” suggests that anyone with any spiritual beliefs, or who practices meditation, or who has ever experienced something they cannot explain and attributes it to some other plane of existence, is either stupid or crazy and I don’t think that’s true.

They may not be stupid or crazy but they sure do believe bullcrap. And my world is too full of people believing bullcrap lately.

in Tee’s post it says that a study showed differences amongst believers’ and practitioners’ experiences vs. those of skeptics and atheists.
Seems a no brainer (:-), if the one is about a Mindscape built upon religious dogma, that is living without introspection and behaving by rout. Keeping it in the comfort zone and closing themselves off from novel experiences and exposure to 'those others.'

As opposed to the mindscapes of the engaged.

People who take it in as best as the moment will allow, trying to remember, trying to process, trying to learn - as a way of life.

Yeah, I’d expect brain scans to look dramatically different between the two.

Just catching up on this one. Good stuff, a bit obscure maybe, but it’s about that fine line I often point to, the one mentioned in the OP of not knowing if experiences cause the brain changes or the brains are different, resulting in a different experience. I always allow people to report their own experience as true, because it is true to them, but then draw the line when they say it proves something that I should accept and act upon.

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt compares the Dawkins model of religion to Scott Atran’s. This is something you don’t see much in the atheist community, we can be just as guilty as paying attention to the louder voices as any community. The two agree on the theories of hyper-agency detection, and how that leads to believing spirits are behind the rustling of leaves.

But once that forms into religious activity, Dawkins sees it as a viral meme, an error that needs correction, and something that can be corrected by correcting the meme. This assumes our brains have stayed pretty much the same for 50,000 years and that successful religious memes haven’t changed much either. Atran sees religions as adaptive behaviors that encouraged cooperation and cohesiveness. That influenced group selection, so individuals didn’t survive just for being better hunters but for being better cooperators and for encouraging the group to stick together. As Haidt puts it, we are now struggling to deal with our tribal past, but if we didn’t have those tendency then, we wouldn’t be here to argue about it now.

@Lausten

I always allow people to report their own experience as true, because it is true to them, but then draw the line when they say it proves something that I should accept and act upon.
Yes.

@holmes

Good question. When I went to clarify it, I saw I should use different terminology for clarity.

Since atheism is not a religion or philosophy, there is no “official” description of what “types” of atheism there are. Different people have come up with different descriptions.

One is this:

 

I am ? on this scale.

When I said “hard,” I meant that I don’t believe in any God or gods, nor do I believe in any supernatural realm. (I was distinguishing myself from some Buddhists and Hindus, who are “atheists” in not believing in a Supreme Diety yet do believe in reincarnation and spirits. But that’s not the way most people use the term.)

In this understanding, I would be “negative/weak/soft” because I acknowledge the fact that as humans, we cannot “know” ANYTHING for positively certain. But it doesn’t go to the level of pure agnosticism re God. It’s that I cannot know for certain that I really exist, that I’m not in a coma, or a brain in a jar, or a character in a computer simulation. However, re God, I’m 99% sure.

 

Another is this:

 

I am “6,” because as I said above, maybe I am not real, so since I can’t know that, I can’t declare anything for sure…but I’m 99% sure there’s no God.

The arrow is where I used to be, from my earliest memories (age 4 or 5), until 2012. I literally, honestly went from one to the other, in a moment.

To be clear, I became a “6” after years and years of spiritual struggle. But my struggle was about what SORT of God existed, WHICH religion or denomination was the right one. The possibility that there wasn’t a God at all was logically impossible to me. (I was one of those people who didn’t believe in atheists!! I believed that drop-down inside, everyone knew there was a god, they just didn’t want to admit it. Now, I see Christians & Muslims say that, and I want to scream!)

The difference in paradigm was sudden and complete. To compare: A woman isn’t a “mom” until her child is born. From that moment on, she is someone’s mother. It isn’t gradual. She goes from “not a mother” to “mother.” I went from “believer” to “not a believer.”

I have acknowledged all along that my belief COULD change. Christians have accused me of “hardening my heart” or “closing the door,” but that’s not my experience. If God appeared before me and communicated with me directly, maybe I’d worry I was crazy, but I don’t know that for a fact. Maybe I would believe again. But it hasn’t happened.

However, it would have to be something that direct. I understand too much about Confirmation Bias to think of anything else as proof of God.

How do I know I really don’t believe? Because the difference in my thought process is so profound.

Even if I was never fully certain of a particular religion, and in the final few years I sensed God had turned away from me, I still always "felt’ a presence, that he was watching me, and had a running dialogue with him. I felt that every moment of my life, as far back as I could remember. But not after that day in 2012.

And a few things have happened that I think would trigger belief if I still had it. Two examples:

》A couple winters ago I spun out on an icy road and went into a ditch. And

》 A few weeks ago my elderly mom came very close to death. For a few days my stepdad and I were certain she was gone each time she closed her eyes. (However, she recovered. At least, back to where she’d been before.)

In both cases, I would have spontaneously called on God, without even thinking about it. BOOM. I’d be saying the Lord’s Prayer, in fear and then in thanks. But nothing.

I signed off last night with a comment to Holmes about Good Faith Discussion - and how the participants have certain responsibilities - such as clearly enunciating their positions and explaining claims if asked.

It’s so refreshing to have woken up to the above excellent example of a person who’s doing her part to uphold a constructive civil discussion.

I’m just mentioning it because it would be nice if Holmes took notice and perhaps raised his game.

Tee, your description of atheism is great. It explains two of the main ways of classifying atheists, and I would put my smiley-face next to yours in the first image, and my arrow points to the same rank on the Dawkins Scale.

There’s one small difference between our transitions. You said:

To compare: A woman isn’t a “mom” until her child is born. From that moment on, she is someone’s mother. It isn’t gradual. She goes from “not a mother” to “mother.” I went from “believer” to “not a believer.”
That's a great analogy that makes perfect sense, but it's different from my transition. I agonized and worried for years after coming to the realization that being a 6 on the Dawkins Scale was the most rational position to take. My brain was torn between understanding that there's no god and the fear of 'but what if there is and I'm going to hell because I think that?' That makes for a really crappy few years.

I intellectually knew that there was no reason to think a god existed, however, one that didn’t want to interact with me could exist.

My emotional thoughts and ‘what-if’ fears took ages to slowly diminish until they disappeared. Now that I’m free, I wonder how smart people can’t easily understand what I eventually came to understand.

A woman isn’t a “mom” until her child is born.
Ouch, I'm no mom, but I've watched a few get pregnant, then becoming slightly scared newbie moms, then evolving into seasoned moms, don't those first nine months of creating and nurturing that little potentiality worth something.

I might as well add, it applies more to the kiddo inside - a child isn’t a child until it is born, before that it is a bundle of miracles, a potentiality, a wonder, a hope or a dread, a human being in the making, but no child.


okay, sorry Tee, I was just being picky, it’s true, once that babe is put in mom’s arms for the first time - it’s a whole new world. Those first nine months are prep.

The problem with defining what type of atheist you are is because saying you’re an “atheist” is almost as generic as saying you’re a “Christian”. The “6” on that list I have heard defined as “agnostic atheist” before, which doesn’t really sound like it should be second from the top of the list. Being an agnostic atheist is to not believe in any gods, but to be open to the possibility, and even that definition doesn’t sound anything like the one Tee gave.

The problem with the meaning of “atheist” is that it means something different to each person using it. To fundamentalist Christians it can even mean “devil worshiper”. To many, I suspect, it means “I’ve never really given it much though, but I don’t go to church.” I do not know for certain, but I’m pretty sure that type is where at least most of the “I used to be an atheist” stories come from (well, the ones that aren’t just made up, as a great deal of such stories circling people’s churches are. But hey, it’s not a lie! It’s a parable! And I’ll happily point that out to you after you catch me in the lie…er, parable!)

To be “atheist” is simply to not believe in any gods. It’s not to say there are definitely none, just that you don’t believe in any. Then there are many “flavors” from there, far more varied than is easily listed off. Though these definitions like the one Tee gave are generally pretty good, I’ve never really seen a good “catch all” that couldn’t be argued with. I, for example, am 100% certain there are no gods. I am as certain there are no gods as I am there is no Santa Claus. However, if you can offer me real, quantifiable proof of either I would be willing to entertain the possibility.