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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.
The message of the book is that religious experience is real because it is empirically, neurologically traceable. Ecstatic merger with all that exists is seen as the goal of all religion. The brain is the container for experiencing unitive transcendence; neuroanatomical structures and function provide a tailor-made setting for this experience; and myth and ritual are inciting cognitive and behavioral tools for beckoning the human being out of the self. The authors employ a SPECT camera (single photon emission computed tomography) to capture neural patterning during spiritual practice. Their subjects are an American practitioner of Tibetan meditation and a group of Franciscan nuns. They set out to demonstrate “that biology, in some way, compels the spiritual urge” (8). Initially the book presents plenty of neuroanatomical detail and evolutionary theory, but by the final chapters it transitions into a philosophical treatise in which the authors propose Absolute Unitary Being, a channel of transcendent expansive consciousness which all humans can tap into. This is their framing for God, and they are here to prove it.

The primary finding of the SPECT scan comprises the empirical kernel of the book’s argument: during the apex of spiritual practice, the brain’s orientation association area (OAA) decreases its activity. The OAA orients the individual in physical space and provides a sense of where the body ends and the separate world begins. If the OAA is completely disarmed, “the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and endlessly interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses” (6). The perception of unity with all that is is what the authors of Why God Won’t Go Away see as the telos of religion. Thus the finding of their SPECT scans presents a categorical neural event that the authors then extrapolate into a provocative metaphor for the entire book: religious experience is a neurological event, and that event is experienced as a sensation of unity with all that is, and because there is a neural imprint then it must be real.

Why God Won’t Go Away describes the ways in which the brain, in a self-preserving attempt to allay existential anxiety, invests in certain framings of experience in order to stabilize a chaotic world and enhance longevity. Myth and ritual, as the conceptual and behavioral vehicles to reinforce and compartmentalize components of experience, create a sensation of existential security. It may not be actual, but believed security equates to security in the mind. The illusion is adequate for the purpose of a feeling of comfort and normal functioning. Since survival “is the ultimate goal of all of the neurobiological workings of the brain” (32), myths and rituals serve a function to create security, causality and predictability.

Even though myths may propose seemingly impossible and preposterous deus ex machina scenarios, they fulfill the evolutionary and biological cognitive imperative to “make sense of things...to sort confusion into order...into a world full of meaning and purpose” (60). The fact that the resolution proffered by the myth is not necessarily a salient, provable or falsifiable empirical event does not matter. What is important, for the biological imperative of stability, is that the person fully believes the truth of the myth. The more watertight the rationale of causality is, the more secure and evolutionarily successful the human will be. A closed system of internally consistent logic will dissolve ideational, and, the authors say, even physical dissonance. There is no clear explanation of how a cognitive event like myth recollection translates into neural regulation. Another conspicuous absence of information lends to the book’s mounting trend of science segueing into myth.

The brain’s tactic for resolving threateningly dissonant information, via privileging the illusion of favorable conditions over the reality of endangering chaos, is demonstrated in the findings of the SPECT scans. When the OAA (which provides the sense of personal separateness) is aroused by a peak spiritual experience, the excess of brain activity and stimuli causes specific brain regions to decouple, or compartmentalize functioning. The OAA becomes a closed system, totally self-referential, and the owner of the brain experiences a feeling of blissful union with the universe. The irony, which the authors fail to acknowledge, is that this feeling of blissful union comes from the fact that the brain center providing this feeling has successfully partitioned and sequestered itself off from all interbeing. Thus the illusion of unity is enough for the person to experience the bliss of unity. But unity it is not. It is neurological solipsism, and the authors of this book call it God. They ignore that unitive sensation is made possible by utter division.

The authors universalize the unitive “merger” experience as the telos and trademark of all religion. Most of their anecdotal evidence of religious people and textual references are either Buddhist or Catholic—likely owing to their subject pool—but they apply their observations of Buddhism and Catholicism to all religion. They do not address traditions with an ethical or communal focus. Indeed, they cleave to William James’s persuasion that religion concerns the “experiences of individual men in their solitude.” They make sweeping statements such as: “The transcendence of the self, and the blending of the self into some larger reality, is a major goal of ritualized behavior” (80) and the footnote to this citation reveals that they are quoting their own publication. Citations from world religious texts seem to be cherry-picked to support their hypothesis that “religion” is the same thing as mysticism, spiritual experience, and a sense of universal oneness. Social structures and cultural tradition are never referenced as components, byproducts, or impacting phenomena of religion.

Since the authors suggest that “scientific research supports the possibility that a mind can exist without an ego” (126), they are able to square science with mysticism. What they cannot square science with is radical unknowability, so it makes sense that they do not define God this way. In order for religion and science to be compatible on their terms, i.e., scientifically explainable, it has to withstand rationale. But this is problematic thinking, and the authors have to be dogmatic in order to support their self-referential house of cards: “Mysticism...is the source of the essential wisdom and truth upon which all religions are founded...mystical experiences must be interpreted in rational terms” (136).

It may be said that the Constitution is the source upon which America is founded. But even if we can explain the Constitution ideologically and historically, that doesn’t mean we understand America, that the Constitution is a monocause for the American experience, or that the complexities and impact of America on history have not changed America herself. The idea that a rational, monocausal explanation of the spiritual impulse provides a “proof” for a higher spiritual reality hinges on binary thinking that God should be proven or disproven. The authors make a pitch for God and in so doing present God as subject to proof and falsification.

Perhaps the authors of this book successfully “prove” their version of God, but authentic mystics would probably not approve of their effort to do so. The authors are very nervous for spiritual experience to pass the test of rationality, and they are very anxious about the so-called incompatibility of  religion and science. So they dissolve their own dissonance by prioritizing their own interpretive framework, thus missing the point of the very thing they propose to explain. Given the degree of responsive self-adjustment and reframing religion has delivered to the rational establishment over the last few centuries, it is promising to see real live scientists so enthusiastic about religion, but they lack understanding of the thing they are promoting and they rely wholly on the terms of their own dominant paradigm. This is like using Christianity to prove Baha’i, or like a Protestant denomination proposing an interfaith service and insisting that only Christian semiotics be engaged.

The authors attempt to bridge the gap between science and religion by using science (specifically neurofunctioning and evolutionary biology) to prove religion, thereby reinforcing the superiority of their own explanatory model instead of placing the two realms in discrete harmony. By their use of science to legitimate religion they imply that religion cannot legitimate itself. The authors occasionally acknowledge the limits of science to parse spiritual truth, and yet do not display self-consciousness about using science as the locus of authority, and the claimant of correct thinking and terminology, over and above religion.

But, as the authors themselves taught us, explanations do not have to be right in order to be comforting. If indeed “myths almost always involve the resolution of seemingly irreconcilable opposites” (177), the field of neurotheology is a persuasive myth, and this book its effectively stabilizing ritual. Neurotheology, or spiritual neuroscience, is regarded as a new “field” that encapsulates the trend of neuropsychological imaging, and its most prominent representatives are Andrew Newberg (see his book Principles of Neurotheology) and neuroscientist VS Ramachandran. The field is criticized along the same lines as this review criticizes Why God Won’t Go Away – that is, for its scientism and epistemological issues.

Not till the final chapter do the authors parse the meaning of the word they most frequently invoke in the book: “real.” They claim, “all that is really real is material” (145). Thus if spiritual practice surfaces in observable neurological events it must be “real.” This claim makes unreal such causal abstractions as ideas and hopes because they lack neurological traces, and ignores pragmatic rationale that can address all levels of experience, of material origin or not, because they all bear impacting reverberations and byproducts on the material level. It also ignores that most experiences bear a neural imprint. The authors of Why God Won’t Go Away seem to think that specifically religious neural patterning is quite distinct from all other types but do not successfully distinguish it. Though they close Chapter 1 with the question “How does the brain tell us what is real?” (10) they do not successfully address the question “does the brain tell us what is real?” or even, “What is real?” This is surprising, and conspicuous, considering their conviction that “What we think of as reality is only a rendition of reality that is created by the brain” (35).

Ultimately, the authors of Why God Won’t Go Away can dish it out but they can’t take it. They see the religious impulse as a neurologically functionalized coping mechanism that enables understanding and control in the face of chaotic unknowability. But this is also the scientific impulse. There’s nothing wrong with this, but more self-consciousness from the authors would help their argument. Inasmuch as science is employed to explain religion, religion might explain science by theologizing as a creative life force the curiosity, resourcefulness, and anxiety for harmony that have driven the authors of Why God Won’t Go Away. These authors seem quite secure with their stab at understanding reality. Despite their confident dissection of religious epistemology, they do not acknowledge the disciplinary solipsism of their own cognitive imperative. Their system of logic is closed, self-referential, and, in another display of evolutionarily advantageous self-aggrandization, positions itself as more powerful and revealing than its counterpart.

This lack of reflexivity is where the book fragments further. Descriptions and rhetoric leave the purview of empiricism and become persuasive, metaphorical, and value-driven, all the while labeling itself “science.” Moreover, it is quite unclear who is the intended audience for this book. The book’s use of “science” is too metaphorical, reductive, and light on data to satisfy empirically rigorous readers; its treatment of “religion” as monolithic and solitary is also too reductive to satisfy religiously devout readers. The book seems ultimately to be for people who cannot hold in tension the dissonance of different definitions of reality, and need one framework to resolve the other. It is an exemplary product of the impulse to establish adequately satisfying, albeit somewhat illusory and totally partial, explanations of human experience.

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