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“Neurotheology” examined

Empty head“Neurotheology” is the field that tries to explain the religious with neuroscience. In particular, it seeks to provide a common, neurological basis for all of the types of mystical experiences found in the world’s religions. Neurotheologians reason that since all experiences have a neurological root, this would include mystical experiences, and thus all one should find and understand the common root of mystical experiences in order best to understand them. In a recent paper, however, scholar David T. Bradford takes a critical look at neurotheology, and argues that it bites off more than it can chew. In other words, neurotheology fabricates unity among religions were none exists.

Bradford critiques neurotheology in three major areas: history, philosophy, and neurology. Historically, Bradford argues, the weights and explanations given within the religions themselves differ greatly from what neurotheology proposes. For instance, neurotheology explains prayer, meditation, and ritual all in the same way by reducing them to the neurology of mystical experience. By contrast, the particular religions themselves (for example, Buddhism and Christianity) treat these items in very different ways. Hence the question arises: If all of these have the same neurological basis, why have so many people from across various traditions treated them differently? That is, is it really plausible that no one noticed that the same event was occurring neurologically, only taking different forms (the forms of prayer, ritual, etc.)?

Furthermore, from a historical perspective, religions emphasize more than prayer and ritual but also morality. Neurotheology has given little attention to the role of morality in religion. With its focus on mystical experience, it may perhaps be able to explain why those who attain to great mystical heights come back as moral persons, but then why should the average believer feel compelled to do the same? Does prayer make one moral? Or ritual? If not, neurotheologians need to find some other mystical experience-like explanation to account for the persistent importance of morality.

Regarding his philosophical considerations, Bradford raises two problems. First, he doubts that neurotheology can seriously offer an answer to the age-old problem of the relationship of the world religions: Are they all at bottom the same? Bradford finds neurotheology’s attempt to address such a question far from convincing. As he puts it, “To exaggerate a little, the neuroscientific study of religious experience displays a level of erudition in the history and phenomenology of religion comparable to an advanced undergraduate course in religious studies.” He says this because he believes that instead of offering an answer to the question of the relationship of the world religions, neurotheology inherently assumes one. That is, it assumes not only that the primary tenets of all the world religions are basically the same, but also that all the world’s religions seek God or something God-like. Bradford fails to see how Buddhism, Shintoism, or Taoism could be seen as in line with Western conceptions of God.

On a final philosophical note, Bradford thinks that the approach of neurotheology ties itself into a knot: it takes a neurological reductionist approach to mystical experiences and yet aims to explain why people experience supernatural objects. It tries to solve this by personifying the brain—the brain, and not the person, “sees” God—but the brain is an impersonal, material organ like the rest. Perhaps if the brain had an immaterial, soul-like component this problem could then be solved (because the brain could be rightly said to “see” and “experience”), but this clearly runs against the desired reductionism.

Lastly, Bradford critiques neurotheology’s strongest point: neurology. He does not dispute the brain-scan results that neurotheologians have achieved but their interpretation. The most important example of this is what Bradford takes to be as the overemphasis on “spatial oneness” in mystical experiences. Spatial oneness, the feeling of being at one with everything, is the bread and butter of neurotheology—from this, neurotheologians hope to unify the world’s religions. Yet, Bradford argues that such spatial oneness if far from the pinnacle or even primary importance in other religions. In Buddhism, one should undergo a series of meditations, none more important than the other, and none of ultimate significance. In other words, there is no one, grand mystical experience at which point one becomes enlightened. Likewise, as the classical Christian theologian Evagrius Ponticus (4th century AD) taught, the feeling of a spacious region is but the first contemplation. In other words, it’s a stepping stone to higher contemplation, the highest of which is true prayer. And unfortunately for neurotheology, Evagrius’s true prayer is not at all described as the spatial oneness that they seek to make the cornerstone of all religion.

To be fair, Bradford does point out that spatial oneness is indeed the pinnacle and ultimate goal in certain forms of Hinduism. And spatial oneness does have a role in other traditions (again, it is found in Evagrius' writings, but it’s simply not terribly important for him). Of course, regardless of Bradford’s almost mocking critiques of neurotheology, neurotheology as a project should not be shut down. After all, if there’s nothing but matter and we’re nothing but neurons, then the neurotheologians will have the last laugh.

For more, see “A critique of “Neurotheology” and an examination of spatial perception in mystical experience” in the journal Acta Neuropsychologica.

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