Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Book Reviews

Review: Religion Is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture Our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail

Religion Not about GodWhat is religion? Where does religion come from? What function does religion have in human individuals and societies? Can religion survive modernity? What might the future of religion look like? These are five incredibly lofty questions, the likes of which few scholars are prepared to approach. In his refreshingly accessible book Religion Is Not about God (Rutgers University Press, 2005), Loyal Rue attempts to answer all five.

Review: How Religion Works—Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion

How Religion WorksHow to conduct the scientific study of religion has been an important issue for several decades. The humanities, social sciences and natural sciences all contribute greatly to the understanding of religion. But how to combine these wisdoms? Ilkka Pyysiäinen’s book How Religion Works (Brill; 2003) provides a good example.

Review: Rethinking Religion

Rethinking ReligionIn this groundbreaking book, E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley proclaim the birth of the field of cognitive science of religion by presenting a unified cognitive theory of religious ritual action. In their expression of cogitations that had been percolating among cognitive anthropologists, psychologists, and philosophers such as Dan Sperber, Dorothy Holland, and Naomi Quinn, Lawson and McCauley suggest the usefulness of cognitivist methods to explicate, interpret, and predict symbolic-cultural systems.

Review: Beyond the Brain

Beyond_the_BrainComplex and flexible behavior is a major mark of intelligence. But does complex behavior necessarily require a complex brain? The basic goal of the psychologist Louise Barrett’s engaging new book, Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds (Princeton University Press, 2011), is to get us to rethink this common assumption. Using a wide array of examples of non-human intelligence, as well as studies of infant cognition and development, Barrett shows how behavioral flexibility, when viewed within a larger system that includes body and environment, can arise without a big, fancy, and concept savvy brain.

Review: Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion

Neuroscience_Psych_RelAcknowledging the profound implications that recent research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology have for our understanding of human nature, Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown consider the consequences of this research in the context of religion in their book Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion (Templeton Press, 2009). Accordingly, the underlying question throughout much of this work revolves around the relationship between science and religion, a subject consistently enmeshed amidst highly charged controversy. Jeeves and Brown, however, begin with a survey of numerous historical examples lending credence to the possibility of amenable partnership and, more importantly, firmly reject the idea that scientific analysis is somehow able to undermine the significance of religion.

Review: Religion in Human Evolution

BellahUnlike many attempts to use evolution as a framework to understand religion, Robert Bellah in Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age begins with religion instead of evolution. He wants to start with a solid understanding of religion before worrying about whether religion is adaptive or not. In short, his argument states that the origins of religion are directly influenced by our deep evolutionary history that places its mark on axial religions through play, or ‘offline’ activity. Play or ‘offline’ activity is any activity that is not part of a goal-directed behavior towards survival.

Review: Blind Faith

Blind_FaithRichard P. Sloan's book Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine begins with a description of patients who are asked to pray with their doctor as he prepares to perform surgery on them. With this and other examples of ethical and practical concerns, the book examines “the brave new world of religion and health, where science, medicine, faith, and ethics exist in a potentially explosive mixture” (p. 3). In this book, the author, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University, expands on issues he’d raised previously in medical journals, claiming that in contrast to headlines, “evidence about the health benefits of religious involvement is much more questionable that the popular media suggest, and there are many other problems associated with bringing religion into clinical practice” (p. 4).

Review: Why God Won't Go Away

why_god_wont_go_away1Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause, the authors of Why God Won’t Go Away, present a neurological model for spiritual experience. Considering the book’s subtitle, “brain science and the biology of belief,” readers might be surprised by the inclusion of literary and philosophical parsings of religion as well as sections covering myth and ritual. For a book that presents itself as “science” and clearly allies itself with empirical explanatory models, it is far more constructive and poetic than it is data-driven. It posits a convincing and provocative neurological basis for myth, ritual, and most cultural processes; when it proceeds into metaphysical and theological speculation, the text weakens.

Review: The Descent of Man

Descent_of_ManFor contemporary readers seeking out a lucid, interdisciplinary Darwinian theory of religion, no need to stop at New Atheists Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Charles Darwin himself accounts for religion, morality, ethics, evolutionary psychology and the ancestral roots of human anatomy in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, an accessible and humane (albeit sprawling) tome. Published in 1871, Darwin’s Descent of Man is the companion volume to his groundbreaking 1859 On the Origin of Species, in which he introduced natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution.

Review: Medicine, Religion, and Health

Medicine_Religion__HealthWith Medicine, Religion, and Health (Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), Harold Koenig makes a valuable contribution to understanding the relationship between religion, spirituality, and health for both practitioners and the general public. Koenig is a physician currently on the faculty at Duke University Medical Center and also the co-director of Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health. This field of religion, spirituality, and health, he informs us early on, is new and controversial. This direct statement lets the reader know from the start that the work is situated in an emerging field where findings are contested and conclusions tentative.

Review: Inside the Neolithic Mind

inside-the-neolithic-mindDavid Lewis-Williams and David Pearce’s Inside the Neolithic Mind (Thames & Hudson, 2005) claims to descend into the nebulous world of Neolithic people’s consciousness in order to explain the meaning of religion. They contend that the structures and motifs that we encounter at Neolithic sites are products of interplay between: 1) universal patterns that are neurologically generated during altered states of consciousness, and 2) cultural specifics that shape one’s experience and interpretation of these patterns. The authors argue that Neolithic sites display how neurological structures produced experiences that were religiously interpreted and led to formation of beliefs and practices that masked exploitative social relations.

Review: In Gods We Trust

With In Gods We Trust (Oxford University Press, 2002) In_Gods_We_Trust_CoverScott Atran has written a rich book motivated by a subtle political impulse – namely, the realization that the mythic Abraham really does attempt to sacrifice his son to a voice, people really are interested in faces appearing in otherwise inanimate objects and events, and individuals as perfectly sane as you or I really will cut open the chests of other (sometimes willing) individuals, remove their beating hearts, and all-too-ceremoniously drench objects and themselves in the resulting gore. The feeling and thinking such individuals undergo is naturally very interesting and, possibly in the same way, horrifying.

Review: How Religion Works

How_Religion_WorksWith a refreshing outlook in a discipline long dominated by the social sciences, Ilkka Pyysiäinen in How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion (Brill, 2001) approaches the study of religion through the lens of cognitive science. He advocates for an analysis by way of neural and cognitive mechanisms, persuasively drawing upon a tremendous amount of empirical research in the process.

Review: Religion Explained

Religion_ExplainedAccording to Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained (Basic Books, 2001), religion is no longer a mystery.  Recent work in biology, anthropology, and cognitive psychology has uncovered the evolutionary basis of human cognitive systems and transformed the unknowable terrain of religion into a landscape of tractable problems (48-9). Amongst the vast diversity of religious phenomena a set of nearly universal patterns is discernible: religions almost always involve supernatural entities, moral norms, concern about death, formulaic rituals, and exclusive group identities. To explain the recurrence of these themes, one must look beneath culture and conscious minds to the evolved cognitive architecture which produces both. According to Boyer, themes that stretch across religions are easy to understand, remember, and incorporate into human life because they activate specialized cognitive systems that evolved for other purposes.

Review: Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity

Ritual-and-Religion-in-the-Making-of-Humanity-9780521296908As one might expect given the title, Roy Rappaport in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 1999) spends a great deal of time exploring the notion of ritual in this book. A majority of the chapters are devoted to a consideration of this subject in regards to its form, structure, the type of information it communicates, and the manner in which it substantiates this information with significance or meaning. Rappaport also dedicates many sections to various relationships that ritual forms with ecological and social phenomena, concepts of time, and even the individual self. In addition, he demonstrates these aspects of ritual by drawing examples from a wide variety of traditions throughout much of his analysis. Ultimately, this focus on ritual serves the purposes of a much greater and far more encompassing message.

Review: Saving God

Saving_God_JohnstonMost professors of religion seem content to stay in their ivory tower. They stand above popular-level religious debates and so have little to do with them. However, Mark Johnston (Princeton University) has decided to sully his hands by engaging the ongoing “theism/atheism” debate in Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). Calling popular atheist writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens “undergraduate atheists” (apologizing to undergraduates who may be offended), he argues for an understanding of God free from the naiveté of undergraduate atheism and the superstition of fundamentalism.

Review: The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain

spiritual_doorway_in_the_brainIt is a pleasure to review a book about the science of spirituality that is refreshingly free of ideological axes to grind. The author of The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience (London: Penguin Press, 2011), Kevin Nelson, is a clinical neurologist who treats patients with disorders of the brain. In his many years of practice he was impressed by the phenomenon of near death experiences (NDEs) and began to collect cases. Once he had a few dozen case histories in hand he, like many other investigators before him, noticed that these experiences evidenced some commonalities between them.

Review: Religion in Mind

religion-in-mindGiven its penchant for to publishing findings in obscure journals, one can easily miss the profound discoveries in the field of the cognitive study of religion. Fortunately, every once in a while, a book comes along that gathers together the key researchers from this field. Religion in Mind: Cognitive Perspectives on Religious Belief, Ritual, and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), an anthology recapping the most important results of the cognitive study of religion from the 1990s, is one such book.

Book review: Science and the Spiritual Quest

Science_and_the_Spiritual_QuestNearly a decade and a half ago, an elite group of scientists gathered in Berkeley, California, to participate in a groundbreaking project called Science and the Spiritual Quest. Their object was to share insights from science’s front lines about the ways that the scientific and spiritual lives could be integrated. Science and the Spiritual Quest: New Essays by Leading Scientists (Routledge, 2002) is a product of that meeting. From the development of artificial realities to the implications of Darwinian evolution, the essays contained within its pages are thought-provoking investigations into how science can teach us about the spirit.

Book review: Andrew Newberg's Principles of Neurotheology

neurotheology_2Until recently, the standard position in the perennial religion vs. science wars was one of truce. Stephen J. Gould, the late evolutionary biologist, coined the phrase "non-overlapping magisteria" to formalize the terms of the truce: religion would confine itself to its concerns with the immaterial soul and science would concern itself with the nature of the material world. Neither discipline would or should attempt to interfere with the other. Andrew Newberg, M.D.'s new work, Principles of Neurotheology, challenges this division.

Review: Principles of Neurotheology

principles_of_neurotheologyOne of the most fundamental quandaries in theology and philosophy is the pernicious difficulty of using the mind to examine itself. The trickiness of inverting conscious attention back towards itself has caused countless philosophers (and their students) to throw up their hands in despair, and it hasn’t made life easy for modern-day consciousness researchers, either. But one scientist claims to offer a new hope: in his new book, Principles of Neurotheology (Ashgate, 2010), Andrew Newberg attempts to outline a bold, even revolutionary, strategy for unifying the study of conscious, subjective experience with the objective research of neuroscience.

Review: The Grand Design

Grand_designIt often seems that religion and philosophy have been fighting a losing battle. They're no longer seen as credible in terms of addressing questions like “How old is the universe?” and “How does human anatomy work?” They propose an answer only to find it later discredited by a more accurate, more precise, scientific answer. Nowadays, it seems that the only questions left for religion and philosophy to answer are the “ultimate” questions of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Why are we here?” In his latest book, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010), Stephen Hawking, along with Leonard Mlodinow, argues that science can answer even these questions, leaving little room for religion and philosophy at all.

Review: The Empirical Stance

EmpirStanceRenowned philosopher of science Bas C. van Fraassen (Princeton University) had long remained silent on issues of religion. So by his own admission he was surprised to learn that he had been invited to give the Terry Lectures, a lecture series dedicated to "the building of the truths of science and philosophy into the structure of a broadened and purified religion.” The end result was The Empirical Stance (Yale University Press, 2002), a book that argues for both philosophy (specifically empiricism) and religion as stance.

Religion is a celebration of excellence: Review of ‘Born Rich’

One of the major theories of religion advanced in the 19th century, most particularly by Nietzsche, is that it is fueled by envy, fear,BornRich and resentment of the heroic virtues. People used religion to reinforce their own mediocrity and to justify their hatred of excellence. Religion was a manifestation of resentment. The theory is certainly consistent with the fact that if you possess any virtue or excellence at all you will eventually become the object of a murderous, venomous envy. Resentment is out there and is ubiquitous. It and envy are certainly major social forces. Religion scholars ignore them at their peril. Resentment in particular has been harnessed by unscrupulous politicians for millennia and used by these ‘leaders’ to perpetrate murder and dispossession and all kinds of other less bloodthirsty but no less nefarious social projects.

Ann Taves's Religious Experience Reconsidered

For those of us who view some features or aspects of religion (such as ritual or religiousTaves_Cover experience) as adaptive, their sui generis character presents few obstacles to the scientific study of religion. The evolutionary history of these aspects of religion is assumed to have stabilized the features that proved beneficial or that promoted reproductive success in the individuals who possessed or practiced them. Nor do the findings on religious experiences and practices emerging from the neurosciences seem that surprising from this perspective. If some aspect of religion is adaptive, then it should exhibit consistent design features that can be detected in brain and behavior. Similarly, from this perspective, religion’s affect on health is also predictable and unsurprising. However, there are very serious problems with this “religion as adaptation” position, many of which have been discussed ably by others in a variety of venues. One of the most intractable problems for this position is the issue of the nature and putative function of experiences deemed religious. In Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things, Ann Taves rightly recommends the somewhat more cumbersome phrase, “experiences deemed religious” rather than the more familiar “religious experiences” because this shorthand expression obscures some important facts about religion and “religious experiences” in particular.

Bruya's Effortless Attention

Everyone has experiences of being “in the zone.” These usually occur while engaged in someEffortless_Attention_Cover challenging but enjoyable activity, like playing basketball or ballroom dancing. When the challenges presented by the activity are matched by our skills, they are perceived as opportunities rather than obstacles, and our mind enters a groove of exceptionally focused and yet effortlessly maintained attention. During such episodes, awareness merges with action so that we “lose ourselves” in the activity. We feel secure and in control, not because the activity has become predictable, but because we are able to stay engaged, spontaneous, and “in the moment,” responding to challenges as they arise. Such experiences are richly rewarding, partly because they accompany our highest levels of performance. But more importantly, we enjoy such experiences for their own sake: their extraordinarily rich texture constitutes its own reward, regardless of objective measures of performance. Brian Bruya’s new book, Effortless Attention: A New Perspective on the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), brings together an impressive collection of essays that explore these experiences within the context of contemporary cognitive science, focusing especially on the implications of effortless attention for current models of attention and action control.

Miller on Heaven

Most of us have heard stories of near-death experiences (NDE). The feeling of being out of the body and visions of tunnels, Heaven_by_Millerlight, even a gate or door, are the stuff of ubiquitous pop culture. These relatively rare experiences even provide a measure of reassurance for some religious believers primarily because of the oft-reported sense of being reunited with lost loved ones and sometimes even God, and the apparent resemblance of these experiences to traditional religious accounts of the afterlife. Nevertheless, as with all human experiences, NDEs are mediated by the circuitry of our brains. For this reason, and in telling witness to the bio-cultural nature of religion, Lisa Miller in her new book on Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife takes up the topic of the scientific study of NDE alongside the Bible, art history, and Dante.

Wallace's Contemplative Science

Buddhist scholar, B. Alan Wallace's Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism aBook_Jacketnd Neuroscience Converge (Columbia University Press, 2007) is an attractive read for anyone interested in neuroscience, consciousness, psychology, Buddhism, or religious studies. Educated in the West and having studied under H.H. the Dalai Lama in the East, Wallace represents a unique type of interdisciplinary scholar. He has written many books exploring the interface of consciousness and Buddhism, translated and interpreted for many Buddhist contemplatives and scholars, and most recently established the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

V.V. Raman's Truth and Tension in Science and Religion

Professor emeritus Raman deals with the title theme in 10 chapters: Introduction, On scienceTruth-and-Tension and religion, Epistemological aspects, Explanatory dimensions, Belief systems and God, Spiritual aspects, Ethical aspects, Dissimilar visions on common themes, Origins and ends, Concluding thoughts. All of these issues are dealt with elsewhere. So, why should anybody read this book? The answer is because of the overarching, encompassing, balanced, knowledgeable approach of the author, his sure, differentiating discernment, and his positive attitude. It is no secret that discussions of science and religion give rise to controversies, and (too) often to sterile confrontations. The present volume is a guidepost for better, more fruitful ways to go about difficult (controversial) issues. Raman describes himself as "one whose mind has been enriched by science and who has derived fulfillment from religious associations" (p. 7). He wishes to foster readers' similar experiences. The volume is dedicated to "all men and women of goodwill who recognize whatever is ennobling and enhancing in both religion and science, and choose to discard what is not" (p. v).

Vaillant on 'Spiritual Evolution'

Spiritual Evolution front coverConcepts like “religion” and “spirituality” are notoriously difficult to define. Does religion have to do with ethical norms, as Kant claimed? Or is it, as sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote, “something eminently social?” And how are religion and spirituality related? In his highly readable book Spiritual Evolution (Broadway Books, 2008), Harvard psychiatrist George E. Vaillant lays out a fascinating argument: that spirituality has primarily to do with positive emotions such as joy, compassion, awe, and gratitude, and that during the course of human history these emotions have been, and continue to be, evolutionarily adaptive.

Hagerty on 'The Fingerprints of God'

altWe’ve all seen images of brain activity linked to spiritual experience, but what do the patterns of light and color in those images mean? Are they simply the record of the neural activity that generates these anomalous experiences, or are they somehow more than that? According to a new book by NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagert, neuroscientists are witnessing the “fingerprints of God” – the manifestation of a transaction or communication between the individual and divinity.

Robert Wright on ‘The Evolution of God’

Evolution of God CoverMany scholars have pointed out that the ‘personality’ of the God of the three Abrahamic faiths appears to have evolved over time. It has also frequently been claimed that the evolution of God’s personality as depicted in the Bible and the Koran was toward a more compassionate and moral God. In his new book, The Evolution of God (Little, Brown and Company, 2009), Robert Wright reviews a good deal of that evidence and suggests that the reason God grew to be more moral is because the people of the societies that believed in him had to interact with people of other faiths in distant lands in a non-zero-sum way. It was acceptable to be compassionate and loving toward other people – as long as both groups prospered from the interaction.

Is the brain a computer?

Why the Mind is not a Computer Book CoverCan human thought be understood as an elaborate form of computation? A quick survey of some of the most influential cognitive scientists (including Steven Pinker and Jerry Fodor) and philosophers of mind (including Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland) suggests that the answer is yes. This view is the “computational theory of mind” and is so widely held that it currently dominates the field of cognitive science. Even those who have argued for the importance of neurobiology for our understanding of mind have often asserted or assumed that “nervous systems are information processing machines” (Churchland, 1986, p. 36). The hot question of the moment is not, Is the brain a computer? but rather, What kind of computer is the brain?

Review of recent religion-and-science articles in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion

JAAR CoverIt seems that conversations about religion and cognitive science are heating up in the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the nation’s largest organization of religion scholars. At least that is what I have surmised from the most recent issue of the AAR’s Journal (June 2008), which devoted a substantial section (about 80 pages) to discussions of the import of the natural sciences for the study of religion. Two articles presented contrasting views of this import, and the authors of each article were given additional space to respond to one another.

Book: The Spiritual Brain

Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard's new book is titled The Spiritual Brain. He advances a case for the existence of the soul. Is it possible to agree with Beauregard's argument against a flatly materialistic view of human beings, but remain unconvinced about his argument for a non-physical soul? In other words, are his two options the only ones?

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