We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The God in Our Heads

Researchers at the University of Missouri studying the location of religious activity in our brains have determined that several different parts of the brain are involved in that activity.  They report (here) that, "spiritual experiences are likely associated with different parts of the brain."  There is no so-called "God spot" in our brains, something that previous research suggested there might be.

One atheist blogger finds in this research further confirmation that there are no such things as gods.  This blogger writes (here), "All of this is within the mind and has been demonstrated to be an effect of brain activity. Any anecdotal evidence for gods will have to prove that this mechanism is not in play." This observations leads to the hardly surprising conclusion that, "I feel more confident in my stance that gods and ghosts are simply imagination at work, aided by misinterpretations of fuzzy sensory input and wilful misguided understanding of the evidence."

OK.  That is one way to read the results of the University of Missouri study.  But on the face of it, the conclusion that spirituality activity occurs in several parts of the brain says nothing about God one way or the other.  It certainly is not proof that there is a divine being of some sort, but it also does not prove that there isn't.  The response to our atheist blogger is an obvious one: if we are created by God, then we would expect that God would create our minds in such a way as to be open to spiritual experiences of God.  Thus, a theist blogger might well jump on the Missouri data as "proof" of his or her belief in God.  The atheist blogger cited above concludes, finally, that "Gods are just ghosts in the machine between our ears."  There is no scientific way to prove that statement.  It is a faith statement.

 There is another way to read the data, one that has nothing to do with proving or disproving the existence of some sort of divine reality.  This alternative perspective is the insight that if we are created by God, then we would expect that God would create our minds in such a way as to be open to spiritual experiences of God.  Those of us who do believe humanity is part of divine creation are not surprised that several parts of the brain are involved in our religious consciousness.  Indeed, we take comfort in the fact.  Clearly (from our perspective) God is present in human evolution creating us for perception of God leading to a future we still cannot discern.  We need to  be clear here.  Reading the data this way is a matter of faith.  For people of faith it makes just as much sense to see God's presence in the data as it does for an atheist blogger to see God's absence.

This point is important because there are many Christians who inadvertently take the position of the atheist blogger.  They think that scientific data like that contained in the University of Missouri research is dangerous because, if true, it would show there is no God.  They act like theological luddites, rejecting science because they think science is dangerous to their faith.  Science is no more the enemy (or friend) of our faith than are rocks, trees, or the planets.  It is valuable, however, because it helps us to better understand creation even as it leaves to us the task of discerning the presence of the Creator in creation.  We take comfort in data that shows our brains capable of discerning the Presence of God.  How else could things be?