Neurology and Spirituality
© Brother Greg 5/25/10
The book Why God Won’t Go Away describes various functions of the brain and theorizes about how our neurological circuitry enables to have spiritual experiences. The authors focus on a type of spiritual experience they call “Absolute Unitary Being.” To my mind, it sounds like the “all is one, one is all” sort of experience some people describe. It’s a kind of egoless ecstasy of feeling a connectedness with all that exists—all being. The authors argue that this is the deepest and most fundamental spiritual experience that makes its appearance in all major religions. The authors do not claim that the brain structures, patterns of neurologic activity and spiritual experience prove the existence of “God,” but they point out that knowing how the brain processes spiritual experience does not prove that the brain simply generates the experience internally. The brain may really be processing real spiritual experience, just as it does any other perceived experience. In short, scientific understanding of the brain neither proves nor disproves the existence of God. But they lean toward the belief that spiritual experiences are quite real and not self-generated.
It’s an interesting, provocative book that is worth reading. It was written by two neurologically knowledgeable physicians and a freelance writer. I admit, I appreciate a book that basically points out that the doors remain open to consideration of an unknown universe that eludes the reductionistic grasp of scientific inquiry.
I’m not convinced, however, that the “Absolute Unitary Being” experience the authors describe is the be-all and end-all of spiritual experience. There are a variety of vivid spiritual experiences people have described in different cultures and periods of time—some of them nice and warm, some of them terrifying, and some of them startling in any number of ways. The attempt to argue that one particular kind of spiritual experience is the deepest and most profound arrival, toward which all other experiences are merely steps, is yet another narrow assertion of religious truth. It’s another form of religious fundamentalism. I wish the authors had truly accepted the open-endedness of their own neurologic inquiries and not fallen through the trapdoor of religious conclusions.
Andrew Newberg, MD; Eugene D’Aquili, MD, PhD; and Vince Rause. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books. 2001.