on 5 July 2001
If you are interested in the subject of religious thought and experience, this book will take you on the most unexpected journey. From the experience of nirvana to the consciousness of the presence of God, from Tantric Sex Yoga to the Catholic Mass, this book shows the common neurobiological roots of religious experience and their links to myth, ritual, mind, self and modern scientific thought.
This book explains in layman's terms the process by which the brain gives birth to all religious experience and explains in a simple and easy to understand way how religions and the myths and rituals which accompany them come to be established. The examples used (both actual and hypothetical) are excellently chosen and the authors demonstrate how religious thinking has been part and parcel of human experience from the dawn of humanity and why, despite the so called 'triumph of reason', it is likely to continue to be so.
They also show that religious belief and experience is not necessarily the sign of an unhealthy psyche (as was thought in the early part of the 20th century) but may in fact be a sign of above average mental health and can be and is accompanied by a corresponding improvement in overall physical health as well.
In pinpointing the commonality of religious experience, the book also points the way to a deeply spiritual approach to life accompanied by an equally deep tolerance of other means of obtaining this experience. In short 'all roads lead to .......'!
Finally, the authors lead the readers to the very lip of the abyss and invite them to look over. Religious experience is a neurobiological event but for human beings all experiences are neurobiological events. Therefore, is religious experience any less real than any other experience? The authors daringly suggest that religious experience might even be more real, for unlike dreams and hallucinations which once past reveal themselves for what they are and even unlike our waking reality, religious experience has a concrete quality which is beyond denial in those who feel it.
The conclusion they leave to the reader.
on 23 May 2011
Newberg and d'Aquili present the neurophysiological evidence of the brain's `Mysticism Module'. Meditation, prayer, and spiritual experience activate and excite certain identifiable parts of the brain. This would seem the most likely primary basis of religious experience for humans. (Or for Neanderthals - they had their shrines too.)
Leaving aside the thorny question of whether or not God exists, the book suggests that our brains' capacity to experience mystical excitation is a more powerful route to religious belief than is cognitive deduction - which will neither, it seems, produce evidence for God, nor make God `go away'.
A noteworthy 21st century take on religion!
The Pope of Paleontology once bemoaned the woeful inadequacies of education in evolution in America. The authors of this book represent a prime example of the validity of Stephen Gould's lament. It may seem an oversimplification of the authors' theme to call it "neurotheology" or "hardwired for gods", but their case is so overstated that perhaps a balance is thereby achieved. Relying on Buddhist meditators and praying nuns, the authors recorded brain activity states to compare with "normal" conditions. They then go on to link various areas and functions of the brain to demonstrate that religion is an evolutionary product. For the prurient reader, they contend that the transcendental feelings we obtain from sex links through the limbic system to other parts of the brain becoming the foundation for "religious experience". Freud would have loved this book.
The authors map the brain/mind to build a framework to explain the universality of religion. Their outlook is almost entirely from Western Civilization - even the Buddhist meditators are American. From this flimsy foundation and the contributions of some Western philosophers, the authors go on to construct their edifice. The brain, they argue, is designed as a "window to [g]od" which they rename the Absolute Unitary Being. They contend that gods are not the product of a cognitive, deductive process, but were instead "discovered" in a mystical or spiritual encounter. Shoring up their structure with numerous spurious assertions of the brains' processes, they see this capability having been designed through evolution. Not since the concept of "the Great Chain of Being" have humans been granted such a glorious role. GCoB exalted reasoning as giving humans "superiority" over the rest of the animal kingdom - telepathy to the divine was a step too far.
Many fine books reflecting recent brain research have been published in recent years. While their descriptions of brain processes make vivid reading, there are far better sources available on the topic. The authors cite a few and ignore the rest. The ones they cite utilise information with adroit selectivity. In fact, most of their sources have been chosen with finesse. A glaring omission is Walter Burkert's Creation of the Sacred. Whatever Burkert's flaws he, at least, makes a serious attempt to extract valid evolutionary roots for religious ideas. Newberg and D'Aquili begin with the premise that there is a god [one, please note] and then manipulate neurological research to "discover" it. Like Burkert, this pair ignores the power of memes to propagate ideas and stimulate response behaviour, a major element in the dissemination of religious thought, but Richard Dawkins is ignored in this book at any level. It's interesting that after pages of "neurotheology" explaining how the brain is there to communicate with a god, at the end they waffle over its actual existence.
Although the flaws in the authors' logic are immeasurable, their frequent references to human evolution display even more glaring faults. They assert that Australapithicines likely didn't have sufficient brain power to invoke deities, but grant this level of intellect to Homo erectus. They assert H. erectus was the first to have a mind capable of considering "existential dread", but unable to perceive their deity. Not until H. Neanderthalis did the concept of deities arise, which they claim is evidenced by ritual burials. Ritual burial and deities are linked in today's world, but there isn't a shred of evidence to suggest this is the way of Neanderthal thought. Nor is there any reason to believe that "dread" alone was the prime mover in considering the natural world. Benefits were clearly available - successful hunts, available fruits and vegetables, water - were these not also granted divine status? Their theme, rife with inconsistencies, keeps the deity at arm's length until a hominid evolved to talk to It. That presupposes 3.6 billion years of their god waiting in limbo. Divine patience, indeed! And if the Chixculub asteroid had missed the Earth, who would the AUB communicate with today? [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 25 May 2008
As an atheist I almost did not read this book. I was pleased that I did. The authors did lean so heavily towards religion or mysticism that I was often put off. On the other hand their quotes about the destruction and vindictiveness of orthodox religions, and particularly the quotes from Karen Armstrong, somewhat redressed the balance. Equating Einstein, Neils Bohr and Schroder with mysticism was a touch too tendentious for me. However, I thought this was an interesting and intriguing dissertation on the origions of religion which will do more to erode religious belief than it will damage atheism. On one point it is unequivocal: the belief in a personal god is destructive and leads to vast cruelties.
No mention of Dawkins. That would be a step too far, I suppose.