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Wired for God?: The Biology of Spiritual Experience [Paperback]

Charles Foster
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

15 April 2010
Human religious experiences are remarkably uniform; many can be pharmacologically induced. Recent research into the neurology of religious experience has shown that, when worshipping or praying, a certain part of the brain, apparently dormant during other activities, becomes active. What does all this mean for those of faith and those with none? In this fascinating book barrister Charles Foster takes a survey of the evidence - from shamans to medieval mystics, to out-of-body experiences and epilepsy, via Jerusalem and middle-class Christianity - and assesses its significance. Written in short, accessible chapters, this is a fascinating tour of religious and mystical experiences and their relation to human physiology.

Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (15 April 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0340964421
  • ISBN-13: 978-0340964422
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.2 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 970,240 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm a writer based in Oxford, UK. I teach at the University of Oxford, and am a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. Most of my books, in some way or other, are presumptuous and more or less unsuccessful attempts to work out what we are doing on this extraordinary planet. Those attempts have generated books on evolutionary biology, the physiology of spiritual experience, pilgrimage, Biblical archaeology, theology and ethics, as well as travel books.

I travel a lot, and have bled and left digits behind in some very unpleasant places. I'm a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and have a particular passion for camel expeditions.

I have a very long-suffering wife, Mary, and five wondrous, wild children: Lizzie, Sally, Tom, James and Rachel.

My website is www.charlesfoster.co.uk. It would be great if you could drop by there. If you'd like to email me to tell me how badly I've got things wrong in my books, I'm at tweedpipe@aol.com

Product Description


I have enjoyed an extended argument with this book. Foster's passion and clarity help focus on the key issues concerning the nature of religious feeling in human life, demanding a quality of response from the reader that matches his own high standard of thought and exposition. (Professor Chris Gosden, School of Archaeology, University of Oxford)

'A look at the ultimately important questions of life that is itself wonderfully alive: you may not agree, but you will never be bored'. (Iain McGilchrist)

'In this tour of the weird and wacky in religion and spirituality, Charles Foster displays his gift for making science accessible and philosophy entertaining. He will amuse and irritate religious believers and non-believers in turn but won't let either group stray too far from the evidence. You may not agree with all of Foster's answers, but he is certainly asking good questions.' (Justin Barrett)

'Foster takes us on a most enjoyable journey through the drugs, dreams and profound experiences that lead people to believe in the existence of souls. Although I disagree profoundly with his conclusions Foster's exploration of why we are so incurably religious is both serious and entertaining.' (Professor Susan Blackmore, author of Consciousness: An introduction)

Thoroughly researched and very well written...interesting, stimulating and challenging. (Third Way)

Book Description

A fascinating examination of the neurology behind religious experience

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Foster expertly collates a number of concrete spiritual experiences that are found to occur in all religions and in non-religious activity such as meditation and drug-induced spirituality. These experiences have real and demonstrable biological affects in our neurology and our bio-chemistry.

Foster's worldview is that of a theist (one who readily concedes that supernatural things occur) but he realises this and fairly gives the views of his naturalistic counterpart in these areas: Susan Blackmore. Blackmore is quoted at length from her findings and they do make intriguing reading; so much so that I want to read something by her in this area. For me, a naturalistic explanation trounces the supernatural one every time. The way that he phrases his conclusions and gives the naturalistic explanations from his counterparts is excellent.

The concluding paragraphs to the chapters follow Foster's normal writing style, that is: the reader is brought into his day at the time of writing and from here the reader is led out of the reverie to his conclusion. But, in this work, the conclusion is often left open ended - asking you to make up your own mind. What supernatural explanations there are, are given tentatively.

I can't help but wonder how the plurality of spiritual experience affects Foster's Christianity. Certainly, if I were still a Christian, and I would have read this book then I would have realised that my spirituality was not unique to my religion and this would have caused some doubts.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A counterbalance to many popular science books 25 Mar 2011
This is an interesting counterbalance to many popular science reads which affirm atheistic interpretations of neurological, biological and data from various psychological and research studies.

The narrative will please readers possessing spiritual belief, as it counters those of popular non-believers such as Dawkins, but in tone I found it to be more skeptical and agnostic about the conclusive findings of research such as the God gene or neurological scans of the brain activity of believers. It is much less the case that the author is affirmatively theist or spiritualist than they suspend judgement and present the evidence.

The book ranges across a number of topics, including neurology and biology (particularly with reference to stigmata as an exception to the rule that spiritual experiences are in the mind), drugs and neurotoxins in relationship to spiritual experience, sex and spirituality (which was disappointingly short and focued upon tantric sex and celibacy pretty much to the exclusion of anything else) and finally some good chapters on consciousness which dealt with Cartesian philosophical ideas.

Style and pace within the book are good, the narrative is interesting but now and again Foster lapses into a sort of pop journalistic sound bite exercise which I found a little distracting. So while reading and throughly enjoying insights on topics such as memetics (which Foster suggests can explain dissemination of ideas at best but not origins) I felt that Foster could spoil it by insisting on choosing to try to make a joke at just the wrong moment.

A good spiritual and pop science fusion read for those who read either genre or both, although not entirely original for anyone who has read about theories such as Julian Jaynes Bicameral Mind, neurological findings leading to the invention of a "God helmet", the God gene, the spiritual centres of the brain and similar topics. It is a good synopsis though.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars all in the experience 7 Nov 2011
origins of human spirtuality and experience from wearing a god helmet to second hand shamanism tantric sex , magic mushrooms NDE and OBEs
accurate and without bias
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A trip through the psyche 19 Aug 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The book was not quite what I expected. What I thought we were going to get was mostly neurological with some talk about how "religious" experiences affect the brain, along with discussions about causality, and whether what happens in the brain was the result of a "real" external stimulus or whether the experience was merely a product of what was going on in the brain.

Instead, what we have is a survey of various psychological experiences which might be considered to lie "outside the norm." A lot of space is given to psychotropic drugs and the different effects experienced by users of a variety of different substances. Foster also covers some aspects of shamanism, out-of-body experiences, near-death-experiences, epilepsy and sexual ecstasy.

Foster hides his own voice in the book sometimes. He does this by spending most of the chapter laying out the testimonies of others and gathering other viewpoints, whilst not commenting on them until the very end of the chapter. This left me a bit frustrated, as I would be reading a chapter, disagreeing with it, shaking my head, only to find in the last couple of pages that Foster actually & I were in agreement.

Along the way, he has a few pops at the reductionists, most notably Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett. Though written with erudition, his critiques are potentially too concise to be effective and I would love to read a fuller comment from Blackmore on Foster's work (she does contribute a quote on the cover, but little more than that).

In conclusion, I think the book spends too little addressing the subject of the subtitle, and too much on merely describing drug experiences which may or may not be related to spiritual experiences. An interesting read, nonetheless.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read
very skeptical but not overly biased in either direction, there's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing from on threory to another and picking the bones out of each one, keeps you thinking... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Bizniz D. Smith
4.0 out of 5 stars Asks intersting questions
I have heard this guy lecture on this subject and this book is a good follow up to what is a fascinating subject.
Published 16 months ago by Barry Cross
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking and inspired
Charles Foster has once again forced us to think long and hard about some crucial issues in life. His approach to this emotive subject is sensitive,entertaining and controversial,... Read more
Published on 10 Aug 2011 by Mick the Knife
1.0 out of 5 stars Beware this book unless your faith is Rock solid.
This book is very confusing for anyone whose Christian faith may be just kindling or perhaps uncertain in any way. Read more
Published on 15 April 2011 by J. Griffiths
5.0 out of 5 stars More Foster genius
I was blown away by this latest outpouring from the pen of the polymathic Foster. How he manages to combine scholarship and readability is beyond me, but he succeeds marvellously... Read more
Published on 16 Dec 2010 by Mandy
3.0 out of 5 stars Broad and readable but not deep
The strength of this book is that it covers a tremendous breadth of subject matter, ranging from brain imaging to near-death experiences and from mysticism to magic mushrooms, and... Read more
Published on 2 Aug 2010 by Peter Clarke
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant exploration of mystical experience and its neurological...
This masterly work serves as an exciting sequel to The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin. This time the veterinary barrister and archaeologist Charles Foster tackles the... Read more
Published on 23 Jun 2010 by Samston
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