Is this is your brain on God?

A series on NPR examining the science of God brings up a lot of interesting points, focusing primarily on brain chemistry and structure. Titled Is This Your Brain On God?, the series has five parts, each with accompanying articles and multimedia. The part that I found the most interesting was The God Chemical. Evidence has been slowly amassing for decades showing that certain chemicals or mind states can induce spirituality. These types of experiences have been documented by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her  new book Fingerprints of God.

In her interview with Diane Rehm, Barbra says that these experiences reaffirm her personal belief in god, and insists that the science is still inconclusive on whether or not god exists. The evidence could either say that god is simply a creation of certain brain chemistry or that god has set up these conditions in order to communicate with us. She seems to subscribe to the “god on a mountain” idea, that all religious experiences are different paths to the same diving being at the top. This is a lovely idea that could help bridge the divide between adherents of different religions and encourage believers of one religion to accept and value the beliefs of others. However, the similarity of spiritual experiences across religions may be evidence that these experiences are simply due to brain chemistry.

Atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people may have “religious experiences” while taking mind altering chemicals but do not believe there is a supernatural component. If these same chemicals are taken with the presupposition of the supernatural, the experience may be seen as communication with god. Is either view right or wrong? Could these shared experiences somehow help non-religious to better understand the fervor of the religious? I look forward to having this as a discussion topic in the fall semester.

Crossposted at Clashing Culture.

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6 comments on “Is this is your brain on God?

  1. Everyone has o believe in something, it doesn’t have to be God, it can be another human being, a genius, weather, whatever! It gives people hope. And that’s a part of our “religious experiences”.

    • Zach says:

      this seems like a trivially true statement. There are no human beings without a belief. But this does not seem to say much. And if that is what a religious experience is I think religious experience as a term is basically equivalent to the human experience.

      • Anastasia says:

        I think the definition of belief here is important. I believe lots of things, the majority of which I have evidence for, and I don’t think these beliefs are religious in any way.

        Since they aren’t religious beliefs, I’m not having a “religious experience” unless the definition is the same as that for “human experience”.

  2. bgress says:

    As someone studying neuroscience, I have always been very interested in neurological aspects of religion and belief. However, I’ve never thought that the God Spot in the brain was very interesting or surprising because if God did exist, you would still predict a single part/pathway in the brain to be activated during religious experiences. I believe this chemical is similar in that it doesn’t do much to support to disprove the existence of God; however, I am very interested in reading more about the God Chemical. It seems that studying this chemical, as opposed to the God Spot, will have actual implications for human happiness, well-being, and will give us a better understanding of ourselves.

    • Anastasia says:

      I didn’t know you were studying neuroscience. Very cool!

      I agree that regardless of whether a deity/deities exist, a God chemical could be useful. Although, I have one qualm – while the state of religious ecstasy might be very nice for the individual, it might reinforce the entire set of religious beliefs, some of which are less than positive for society. I imagine some futuristic world where the God chemical ends up like a drug creating happiness and religious fervor in its wake. I might just read too much sci-fi though 🙂

  3. Anastasia says:

    One of the articles on NPR about this topic (may have been the one I mentioned in this post) discussed the possibility of using “spiritual virtuosos” to determine what is possible for the human mind, then using that information to help people achieve better use of their minds through training.

    I’ve never been able to achieve a meditative state on my own, but would perhaps be able to get there with some guidance… very interesting stuff.

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