From the Archives: Religion and the Brain

In December 2009, Cerebrum played online host to quite a debate: Does evolution explain why the human brain supports religious belief?

Dimitrios Kapogiannis and Jordan Grafman, scientists at the National Institutes of Health, argued that brain networks that evolved for other purposes have given rise to our capacity for religious belief and experience. Andrew Newberg, the radiologist and psychiatrist who wrote How God Changes Your Brain, argued that the brain may be an instrument of religious experience but is not necessarily the origin of that experience. Each side of the debate first wrote a position statement; they then exchanged statements and wrote rejoinders.

Kapogiannis and Grafman started with the science and its implications:

Critics might seize upon our findings as evidence that religion is a phenomenon of the primitive mind, and it might one day disappear as science ‘enlightens’ humanity. Not so fast: Our need for religion might be embedded in our biology. Religious belief engages some of the most recently evolved brain areas, which perform uniquely human functions that define our species: the ability to comprehend the intentions and feelings of our fellow humans, symbolic language, reasoning. For better or worse, humans are not strictly logical creatures but social animals. We imagine, observe, interpret, love, and occasionally detest each other. Therefore, we cannot consider religion strictly an outdated response to the modern world. Instead, we believe that religious belief emerged for the purpose of social structure…

Although we have rightly ceded explanations for natural phenomena to science, we still struggle to create optimal social relations within and among societies, and in this quest, religion continues to play a vital role.

Newberg’s argument started wide and went wider:

At issue is how each of us understands reality. Our individual perceptions of reality ultimately lead each of us to conclude whether religion is nothing more than a product of the brain (adaptive or not) or a necessary result of a spiritual realm that our brain may occasionally access. This fundamental epistemological problem challenges all aspects of human thought—scientific, philosophical and theological…

Both science and religion provide potentially important information about the world that our brains perceive. We may ultimately find that religion is nothing more than a manifestation of the brain’s function set in place by millions of years of evolution. We might find that perceived spiritual dimensions help us to get in touch with the more fundamental nature of reality. Either way, we should tread carefully and strive to understand reality—on all levels.

You can imagine what they each had to say to the other—or you can read them here: Kapogiannis and Grafman’s response to NewbergNewberg’s response to Kapogiannis and Grafman.

– Nicky Penttila

One response

  1. I’m not religeous, but this is an extremely interesting topic to me. I plan on buying Andrew Newburg’s book and reading about this topic in more depth now that it has sparked my interested.

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