From the Archives: A Debate on Religion and the Brain

artworks-000023945745-0femft-t500x500In 2009, Cerebrum’s editors invited three scientists to debate: Does evolution explain why the human brain supports religious belief? Each side wrote a position paper, which they exchanged, and then each wrote a response to the other’s statement.

Dimitrios Kapogiannis and Jordan Grafman, scientists at the National Institutes of Health, followed up on their then-recent research by stating that brain networks that evolved for other purposes have given rise to our capacity for religious belief and experience.

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 Therefore, we cannot consider religion strictly an outdated response to the modern world.

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.

Our quarrel with Newberg’s perspective is that he shies away from the scientific method’s commonly accepted grounding in natural causes and effects, reproducible experience and logical reasoning. Our essay is a purely scientific dialogue: We did not seek to criticize the usefulness of experimental design, but instead explored whether religious beliefs are special compared with other belief systems by discovering the brain systems and cognitive/social processes involved.

Andrew Newberg, the radiologist and psychiatrist who wrote How God Changes Your Brain, took a different approach, arguing that the brain may be an instrument of religious experience but is not necessarily the origin of that experience.

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.

It is difficult to determine which of the functions related to religion ultimately provided the adaptive advantage that led religion to thrive throughout human history. Simply finding a relationship does not necessarily imply causality, and whether these findings ultimately imply that religion is nothing more than a brain-based phenomenon is another matter. The findings we are discussing link religion and the brain, but the brain may be receptive to religious experiences rather than creating them. Whether the brain generates religious belief or serves as a conduit for it remains a complicated question.

Both sides had a lot more to say, so settle in cozy and enjoy the rest of this #longreads piece.

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