Neurobiology & Faith

The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet By James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright. Pilgrim, 233 pp., $20.95.

In late 1997, an unusual story about the discovery of a”God-spot” in the brain began to appear in newspapers and newsmagazines. In a series of tests, epileptic patients with heightened brain activity in the temporal lobe showed hypersensitivity to religious words and phrases. Some news services announced that scientists had discovered the source of religious experiences. On Internet discussion groups, atheists crowed that religion had been proven to be nothing more than a dysfunction of the brain. Some theists countered, equally glibly, that God had designed our brains to be receptive to the divine; consequently, atheists seemed to be missing a vital piece of equipment.

Researchers had indeed found a region of the brain that could be linked to religious experience, but they neither claimed that this region was the cause of all such experiences nor sought to disparage or “reduce” religion or religious experience. What they had discovered, rather, was that what goes on in the brain is profoundly connected to what goes on in the mind, even in the most sublime of all experiences. They also demonstrated that neuroscience is becoming increasingly important for thinking about some of the basic claims of religion.

James Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright seek to break new ground in the dialogue between religion and science. They also hope to demonstrate that neuroscience is not only the appropriate but the preferred partner in that dialogue.

There has never been a better time to make this argument. President George Bush and the U.S. Congress declared the 1990s the decade of the brain, and it has lived up to that declaration. Spurred by the development of advanced scanning techniques such as PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), neuroscientists are getting glimpses of the brain in action. These maps allow them to observe the brain as it never has been seen before.

This culmination of more than 100 years of serious brain research is finally allowing us to ask some truly interesting questions: Where do emotions come from and why do we have them? How do we think and learn? How does the three-pound, gelatinous mass that we call the brain produce our identities? Though final answers are still a long way off, it is significant that we can now begin to frame such questions in a scientific way. In some cases, the answers seem startling. Far from endorsing a simple reduction of mind to mere neurons, many neuroscientists are embracing paradigms that emphasize the holistic character of brain function and the ways that reason and emotion interplay to make up a self.

This book is neither a neuroscience textbook nor a systematic theology. Rather, it is a working-out of theology through the lens of the neurosciences. Ashbrook, who before his recent death was a pastoral theologian and professor emeritus of religion and personality at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Albright, executive editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, seek to develop a “neurobiology of faith.” To do so is possible because the brain holds a peculiar place in the universe–and, more specifically, in our universe. We ourselves, in a sense, are brains. To study the brain is to study ourselves, but in a way that makes us both subject and object. It is as if we were trying to look both in and out of the window at the same time.

Furthermore, to study ourselves, the authors claim, is to study God. Ashbrook and Albright’s introduction states that “God-talk is really human-talk, since it is we who are conversing.” That is, because we can experience God only as human beings, in the process of learning about human life we will necessarily learn something about God as well. Even more than this, understanding the human brain can be the key to understanding God.

It is worth taking this startling claim seriously. Asked to name the most exotic thing in the universe, most of us would mention either the very large (black holes and supernovas) or the very small (all those spooky little particles). But the most incredible structure in the entire universe may be what is sitting behind our eyeballs. Inside our heads is the most complex and sophisticated device in creation.

Every brain contains approximately 100 billion cells called neurons. Neurons connect with one another to form complex communication networks that, among other things, enable us to walk, talk and breath without thinking about it. There are a staggering 100 trillion neuron connections in the brain. As anyone who uses a comparatively simple desktop computer can testify, it seems a miracle that such a complex system could work without crashing. Yet the brain smoothly, day in and day out, enables us to perceive objects in color, distinguish the year and place of a wine by taste, and (sometimes) understand calculus. Black holes seem boring by comparison.

The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet – Review, Christian Century,  Jan 27, 1999  by Greg Peterson



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