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“Atheists hate me because I’m saying religion has some basis in the brain and fundamentalist Christians hate me because I’m saying religion is nothing but brain impulses.” Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University and author of the forthcoming Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t, is sceptical about many neuroscientific attempts to explain God, pointing out that recent advances have weakened the theory that only one area of the brain is responsible for certain functions.“In any case,” he says, “the temporal lobes light up for any kind of excitement, not just religious experience.” However, he agrees that it is imperative to examine religion scientifically.
“When this happens, you lose your sense of self,” he says.
There you see increased frontal lobe activity in the areas concerned with concentration, but the speakers in tongues had decreased activity in the same area, which would give them the sensation that someone else was ‘running the show’.” And what about me?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you have a harder time letting go of frontal lobe activity, so you tend to observe and take a more critical eye of events, while other people’s brains allow them to simply surrender to events around them.” Newberg is director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Centre of Integrative Medicine, in Philadelphia, and co-author of, among other books, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought.
Throughout history, spirituality has been viewed as something outside science, just as the soul is separate from the body; both ineffable essences, transcending the materialist universe.
No wonder, then, that neurotheology (or biotheology), with its implications that the brain is merely a “computer of meat”, is hugely contentious in the US, where only 1.6 per cent and 2.4 per cent of the population declare themselves “atheist” or “agnostic”, respectively.
But if Newberg and his colleagues are correct, such experiences are not proof of being touched by a supreme being, but mere blips in brain chemistry.