Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
double exposure of the Passion of the Christ

The Brain Prosperity Gospel: Can “Neurotheology” Be Real Science?

The study of the neuroscience of mental states, including religious belief, is a reasonable pursuit but neurotheology, as a science, faces huge obstacles

Neurotheology is the study of the neuroscience associated with spiritual experience. It is a growing field. In a recent essay, Andrew Newberg, a prominent researcher, discusses recent advances:

The field of neurotheology continues to expand from its early origins several decades ago to the present day. In its simplest definition, neurotheology refers to the field of scholarship that seeks to understand the relationship between the brain and our religious and spiritual selves. As I always like to say, it is important to consider both sides of neurotheology very broadly. Thus, the “neuro” side includes brain imaging, psychology, neurology, medicine, and even anthropology. And the “theology” side includes theology itself, but also various aspects related to religious beliefs, attitudes, practices, and experiences.

Andrew Newberg, “Mind and God: The new science of neurotheology” at BigThink

Newberg highlights three key tenets of the field:

● Neurotheology is a field that unites brain science and psychology with religious belief and practices.
● There are several indirect and direct mechanisms that link spirituality with improved mental health.
● Compassion and love are positive emotions that will make your brain healthier.

The study of the neuroscience of various mental states, including religious belief, is a reasonable pursuit. But I believe that neurotheology, as a science, faces huge obstacles, including these:

1.How reliable is the technology on which neurotheology depends? The use of fMRI brain imaging, which slows activated regions of the brain during thought, is fraught with technical and interpretative pitfalls. The signal-to-noise ratio of fMRI imaging can be quite low, and there are devilish problems with interpretation. To cite a famous example, in 2010, researchers published a paper in which they successfully used fMRI to measure brain activity in a dead salmon when it was put into a variety of social situations. The results were, of course, false positives but, in fMRI imaging, false positives are a plague and call into question many studies. So the science of fMRI brain imaging, which is the cornerstone of neurotheology, is sketchy to say the least.

2. The quest is plagued by materialist bias. Researchers either assume or find it easy to conclude that spiritual experience is caused by brain states. This is, of course, not true: spiritual experience is abstract and mediated by the immaterial intellect and will.

There are undoubtedly correlates between genuine spiritual experiences (prayer, infused contemplation, mystical union, etc.) and imaging. But correlation is too easily mistaken for causation and, given the mind set of current neuroscience, neurotheology is likely to become just another materialist fad in which the human rational and spiritual soul is reduced to evolved meat. The potential for abuse of neurotheology far outweighs its modest scientific or theological value.

3. The most subtle and, I think, most dangerous consequence of neurotheology is its implicit endorsement of a sort of “prosperity gospel” in terms of making the brain “healthier.” The prosperity gospel is the teaching that belief in God and right conduct will bring you prosperity — wealth, health and happiness — in this life. Religious belief becomes a matter of self-improvement, a cerebral face lift. Neurotheology stamps a scientific imprimatur on the profoundly misguided doctrine that if you believe in God, if you observe the Sabbath, if you never fail to pray your rosary, your brain is better! Your frontal lobes get better blood flow, your hypothalamic neurotransmitters are better balanced, and your cerebellum is more finely tuned! But for what?

Faith in God — genuine faith — is faith in Truth. In the Christian perspective (with which I am most acquainted) we are created to know and love God and to enjoy him in intimate friendship for eternity. There are no promises about more robust cortical gyri and enhanced striatal dopamine.

Some of the most holy men and women have not exactly prospered neurologically — martyrdom tends to ablate, not augment, cerebral blood flow. St. Peter’s brain worked no better when he was crucified upside down for his Lord and St. Paul’s worked no better when he was beheaded for the Faith. St Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross (pictured) had agonizing dark nights of the soul. St. Francis of Assisi lost his health and shortened his life through his austerity, and St. Catherine of Siena probably starved herself to death.

Genuine religious faith and practice is a search for transcendent truth, not a program for brain health and emotional happiness. Neurotheology can be a useful, if somewhat banal, science if it sticks to objective investigation of the neural correlates of spirituality. But if fMRI brain imaging is misused to make unsupportable claims about neuroscience (which is the bane of cognitive neuroscience), to explain away spiritual reality by invocation of materialist ideology (religion evolved!), or to foster a new prosperity gospel for better brain health, neurotheology is pernicious and should be criticized.

The benefits of spirituality accrue from our deeper knowledge and love of our Creator, not from enhancement of our neurotransmitters. Often, knowledge and love are found in suffering and in sacrifice, in a dark night of the soul, not in the artificial light into which neurotheology entices us.

You may also wish to read:

God’s existence is proven by science. Arguments for God’s existence can be demonstrated by the ordinary method of scientific inference. If we approach the arguments logically, as the ancient philosophers did, we will see that it is more certain that God exists than that anything else does.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

The Brain Prosperity Gospel: Can “Neurotheology” Be Real Science?