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Belief and Theology

What Is Neurotheology?

The new discipline Neurotheology is the scientific study of how human physiology (the brain in particular) and mind experience, interpret, generate and mediate beliefs. The discipline engages meaningfully diverse understandings of reality, including the physical, mental, and spiritual. Its primary objectives are the following. 1. Establish comprehensive, interdisciplinary approaches to understanding beliefs. 2. Explain, interpret and predict the influences of beliefs on thought, feeling, behavior and experience. As a discipline, Neurotheology affords different branches of science like biology, cognitive science, genetics, neuroscience, and psychology the opportunity to develop distinct approaches to understanding and explaining the relationship between brain/mind and beliefs. This essay offers a framework to establish Neurotheology as a valuable discipline while sharing over 250 sources in this new genre. Viewpoints from neuroscience will serve as applications for examination.

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What Is Neurotheology?

New field of neurotheology opens door for scientific study of belief NEW YORK (ABP) — If scientists could chart physical changes that happen in the brain during prayer, would it mean that prayer is something that happens only in the mind? And if brain scans show unique molecular activity during meditation, does that mean all religious belief is imaginary? Scientists — and some theologians — are studying those questions using neurotheology, an emerging discipline that addresses the correlation between neurological and spiritual activity. Some say neurotheology proves that God created the brain. Others believe “the brain created the god.” At the root of the debate, some say, is the threat that faith could be reduced to nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain. The coupling of science and belief has become increasingly prominent in popular media. Time and Newsweek magazines have both recently run long stories exploring the newly recognized discipline. And current studies at Wheaton College, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania are using neuroimaging to locate brain regions activated during emotional or spiritual events. The quest is to find a neurological basis for out-of-body or enlightenment experiences, including trances, time perception, oneness with the universe and altered states of consciousness. But neurotheology can also help explain the more mundane habits of a religious life: prayer, beliefs, meditation and senses of the presence of the supernatural. Paul Simmons, a clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, said the brain is intimately related to relationships with and perceptions of God — so neurotheology is a good way to help theologians use all of their capacities to study God. The underlying question, the former pastor and ethics professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said, is whether that experience is “just a mental state or have you gotten in touch with a transcendence?” “Our brain is basic to all that we are, all that we understand, all that we perceive,” Simmons said. “We can't avoid that in theology any longer. At least, we must be aware of the fact that many of our claims made about religion are actually based on science.” Theories about correlations between the brain and beliefs are nothing new. Historians have speculated that figures like Joan of Arc, Saint Teresa of Avila, Fedor Dostoevsky and Marcel Proust had aliments like epilepsy, which in turn led to their obsessions with the spiritual world. Modern scientists differentiate between the brain and mind by defining the brain as physical and chemical, while the mind has to do with thoughts and ideas. Plato's ideas focused on both the brain and the mind. Aristotle argued that God is pure mind, and since people have a brain they can think “God thoughts,” Simmons said. “Aristotle thought you could think pure thoughts and thus get right in touch with God.” Beginning in the 1950s, scientists used electroencephalograms, or EEGs, to record electrical activity in the brain. By placing electrodes on the scalp, they could study brain waves concurring with elevated states of consciousness. In the 1980s, they stimulated different areas of the brain with a magnetic field, causing subjects to claim senses of ethereal presences in the room. The first modern book published on the subject came in 1994. Called Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century, it was promoted in a theological journal called Zygon. And Newsweek recently citied a 1998 book — published by MIT Press, no less — called Zen and the Brain. Since then, scholarly journals have devoted issues to religion and the mind, including studies using data from meditating Buddhist monks and praying Franciscan nuns. The reason for the renewed interest, according to neurotheology pioneer Brian Alston, is that the people writing about it have changed the terms of the field. This popular type of neurotheology focuses on beliefs, he said. “In some ways, with neuroscience in pop culture, it sometimes seems more simple and basic than it really is,” said Alston, who is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology from Argosy University. “What bubbles up to the surface in culture may make it seem simple, but it's not. It's really complicated. In time, as people study it, they will see the complexity here. There's still so much we don't understand about the brain.” Studies since the 1960s have consistently reported that between 30 percent and 40 percent of people have felt “very close to a powerful, spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself,” Newsweek reported. According to the Gallup Poll, 53 percent of Americans say they have experienced a “sudden religious awakening or insight” at least once. But has the fascination with the brain and belief come from an oversimplified version of neurotheology? Some have criticized Time's article as equating science with Darwinism and religion with God — over-generalized definitions for such complex subjects. “It's oversimplified, but at the same time, there's a large kernel of truth in there,” Simmons said. “The issue is whether a religious experience is a matter of brain circuits or God. Religiously inclined people will say, 'Well, that's God using our brain manifesting [itself] in brain activity.'” Alston, who wrote What is Neurotheology?, said popular writing has certainly oversimplified the dialogue between science and theology. Theology does not just deal with the religious and the spiritual — it has much broader implications, he said. The word “neurobelief” — instead of “neurotheology” — is a better way to characterize the discipline, Alston said. Neurotheology should represent beliefs that are broader than just religious and spiritual, he added. It should represent beliefs that are cultural and political as well. “What neurotheology tries to do is say, 'Look, here are ways that all this works together. Instead of seeing these things as enemies, let's look at these as things that can relate,'” he said. Part of the issue, he said, is that, “in the Western world, we have created a dichotomy between what we consider to be physical and what we consider to be spiritual.” That divide has been implicated in some of the criticisms of neurotheology. The key problem with neurotheology is its attempt to unify two strikingly different perspectives on human beings within one discipline, Alston wrote in a paper presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association last year. Some critics believe that even if neuroscience and theology are brought together within the discipline of neurotheology, the differences will inevitably lead to one discipline — namely theology — dominating the other, Alston wrote. David Wulf, a psychologist at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, has written that religious experience is actually normal brain functions happening under duress — not communication with God. Another prominent thinker, Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has published essays questioning the discipline itself. In an essay titled “Neurotheology: A Rather Skeptical Perspective,” Pigliucci wrote that he had two problems with neurotheology: “First, it is no theology at all. Theology is the study of the attributes of God…. [T]he neurological study of what happens to the brain during mystical experiences cannot tell us anything about God because all we can do is to measure neural patterns….” The other problem, Pigliucci wrote, is that it violates Occam's razor, the rule of logic that what “can be done with fewer…is done in vain with more. That is, when faced with multiple hypotheses capable of explaining a given set of data, it is wise to start by considering the simplest ones, those that make the least unnecessary assumptions.” That logic would leave God out of the equation. For scientists to conclude that “the self and the world at large are in fact contained within and possibly created by the reality of [an] Absolute Unitary Being” leaves the “boundaries of both science and philosophy to plunge into pure metaphysical speculation,” Pigliucci wrote. If “we realize that mystical experiences originate from the same neurological mechanisms that underlie hallucinations … I bet dollar to donut that the reality experienced by meditating Buddhists and praying nuns is entirely contained in their mind and is not a glimpse of a 'higher' realm, as tantalizing as that idea may be,” he concluded. Simmons called that criticism “on target.” Neurotheology doesn't deal with theology as it is traditionally done — trying to get religion and experience together with reasonable consistency, he said. Progress in the field will come mostly in mental health, he said. Alston, who studied ethics and philosophy at Yale Divinity School, says criticism of neurotheology depends on who is receiving the information. Much of it has to do with the difference between the physical brain and the metaphysical mind. Some experts believe that ideas in the mind cause action, while others say chemicals in the brain cause action — and if chemicals are altered in the brain, behaviors will change, Alston said. Either way of thinking is okay, since neurotheologists aren't interested in changing firmly held beliefs, he said. “What I'm trying to do with neurotheology is to explain that each of these has a way with relating to the subject matter,” he said. “It once again depends on the standing point of a person in terms of if they're a biologist and what their tools are and if they are a psychologist and what their tools are.” And with the stakes so high in this new and complex discipline, there's likely to be no shortage of opinions from either camp.

Neurotheology: How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality

Religion is often cast in opposition to science. Yet both are deeply rooted in the inner workings of the human brain. With the advent of modern cognitive neurosciences, the scientific study of religious and spiritual phenomena has become far more sophisticated and wide-ranging. What might brain scans of people in prayer, in meditation, or under the influence of psychoactive substances teach us about religious and spiritual beliefs? Are religion and spirituality reducible to neurological processes, or might there be aspects that, at least for now, transcend scientific claims?

In this book, Andrew Newberg explores the latest findings of neurotheology, the multidisciplinary field linking neuroscience with religious and spiritual phenomena. He investigates some of the most controversial - and potentially transformative - implications of a neurotheological approach for the truth claims of religion and our understanding of minds and brains. Newberg leads listeners on a tour through key intersections of neuroscience and theology, including the potential evolutionary basis of religion. When brain science and religious experience are considered together in an integrated approach, Newberg shows, we might come closer to a fuller understanding of the deepest questions.

The book is published by Columbia University Press. The audiobook is published by University Press Audiobooks.

"A tour de force...Truly mind-blowing." (Harold Koenig, Duke University Medical Center)

"This is an excellent introduction to the emerging field of neurotheology." (Reading Religion)

"A magnificent work! ...A true work of scholarship." (Lisa Miller, PhD, professor and founder, Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Columbia University)

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How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality

The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life

Brain research has found that our thoughts and beliefs affect our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Mind and body are interrelated, and we are designed for healthy relationships of love and trust. When we understand God as good and loving, we flourish. Unfortunately, many of us have distorted images of God and mostly think of him in fearful, punitive ways. This leads us to unhealthy patterns of self-defeating behaviors and toxic relationships. But our lives can change when God renews our minds with a truer picture of him.

Psychiatrist Tim Jennings unveils how our brains and bodies thrive when we have a healthy understanding of who God is. He dispels common misconceptions about God and shows how different God concepts affect the brain differently. Our brains can adapt, change and rewire with redeemed thinking that frees us from unnecessary pain and suffering. Discover how science and Scripture come together to bring healing and transformation to our lives.

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How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life

Principles of Neurotheology (Routledge Science and Religion Series)

"Neurotheology" has garnered substantial attention in academic and lay communities in recent years. Several books have been written addressing the relationship between the brain and religious experience and numerous scholarly articles have been published on the topic, some in the popular press. The scientific and religious communities have been very interested in obtaining more information regarding neurotheology, how to approach this topic, and how science and religion can be integrated in some manner that preserves both.

If neurotheology is to be considered a viable field going forward, it requires a set of clear principles that can be generally agreed upon and supported by both the theological or religious perspective and the scientific one as well. Principles of Neurotheology sets out the necessary principles of neurotheology which can be used as a foundation for future neurotheological discourse. Laying the groundwork for a new synthesis of scientific and theological dialogue, this book proposes that neurotheology, a term fraught with potential problems, is a highly useful and important voice in the greater study of religious and theological ideas and their intersection with science.

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Principles of Neurotheology (Routledge Science and Religion Series)

Neurotheology: " The Neurological Explanation of The Religious Experience "

Neurotheology, also known as spiritual neuroscience, attempts to explain religious experience and behaviour in neuroscientific terms.It is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena. This contrasts with the Psychology of religion which studies psychological, rather than neural, states.Proponents of neurotheology say there is a neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally categorized as spiritual or religious. The field has formed the basis of several popular science books, but has received criticism from psychologists."Neurotheology" describes the scientific study of the neural correlates of religious or spiritual beliefs, experiences and practices. Other researchers prefer to use terms like "spiritual neuroscience" or "neuroscience of religion". Researchers in the field attempt to explain the neurological basis for religious experiences, such as:1)The Near-death-experience (NDE)2)Visions & Apparitions3)Tunnels of Light4)The perception that time, fear or self- consciousness have dissolved5)Spiritual awe6)Oneness with the universe7)Ecstatic trance8)Sudden enlightenment9)Altered states of consciousnessThis is a relatively new field of neuroscience that seeks to explain the numerous experiences outlines above. It has been shown, through extensive studies (some with the use of the so-called 'God Helmet') and new methods of brain imagery, that these experiences are normal functions of the brain under relatively extreme circumstances such as stress, neurochemical dysfunction, surgery, mental illness and anoxia.This book is designed to be a general overview of the topic and provide you with the structured knowledge to familiarize yourself with the topic at the most affordable price possible. The level of discussion is that of Wikipedia. The accuracy and knowledge is of an international viewpoint as the edited articles represent the inputs of many knowledgeable individuals and some of the most currently available general knowledge on the topic based on the date of publication.

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The Neurological Explanation of The Religious Experience

Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century

The most lively, readable, and authoritative work on the interface between mind science and religion, Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century has become the classic in its field, a standard by which others are measured.
Teachers, scientists, students, and readers worldwide have found answers they wanted to basic riddles we all face. McKinney’s ability to trace the basis and evolution of religious and metaphysical practice with modern brain scanning technology has been praised by experts in every field including leading Christian theologian Harvey Cox, the Dalai Lama, and visionary writer Arthur C. Clarke.
What will we actually experience at death? Why do all religions let us escape hell? Why does God act like your father, and not your friend’s father? Why do we get that tunnel of light? How do athletic training and sincere religious practice both alter the mind in positive ways? Exactly how did we become "human"? What were we thinking between conception and birth? When did we first notice the time?
Be prepared to marvel at how the brain manages our world from moment to moment as it weaves the tapestry of consciousness. Then be prepared to relax when you finally learn why "heaven" in any religion is not only likely but nearly impossible to avoid for reasons quite acceptable to modern science.
The Harvard-educated author skillfully re-examines cutting-edge brain science through social and cultural context to re-examine birth, infancy, life, and death through radically new perspectives.
If you enjoy thinking but want deeper answers, this is an owner’s manual for your mind. If you are religious, but enjoy science, this is the book you’ve been searching for. Neurotheology earned an honorable mention in the Writer's Magazine First Works competition and remains the classic in a growing field.

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Virtual Religion in the 21st Century

Neurotheology: Science and Religion: A Brief Look at How Practicing Religion Neurologically Affects the Brain

An introduction to how practicing religion actually affects the neurology of the brain. This fascinating and relatively new field of science called, neurotheology, investigates how a person's brain is affected when he/she is engaged in religious activity. This is an introduction piece that explains neurotheology and introduces the pioneers in the field for further study.

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 Science and Religion

NeuroTheology: Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience

Is the Brain Wired for God?
Is There a Scientific Basis for Spirituality & Religious Belief?
Does God Exist?
What is the Physics of God?
Is There Life After Death?
What is the Anti-Christ?

These questions and more are answered by the World's Leading Experts... Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, Matthew Alper, Eugene G. d'Aquili, Scott Atran, William James, Michael Winkelman, Carol Rausch Albright, Fraser Watts, and more. Over 600 pages. Nearly 200 illustrations. Thirty-Eight Chapters. Thousands of References. And more...

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 Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience
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