'That’s a question for a neurotheologian.'
'Meaning what?' he asked.
'Meaning precisely what it says. Somebody who thinks about people in terms, simultaneously, of the Clear Light of the Void and the Vegetative Nervous System.'
Aldous Huxley, Island, 1962
This exciting new discipline, sometimes called spiritual neuroscience, is the scientific attempt to correlate neural phenomena in the brain with subjective spiritual experiences. Is there a neurological and evolutionary basis for the spiritual and the religious?
Dr. Andrew Newberg is a pioneer in this research. In his work, which has included brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and various trance states, he has shown that spiritual experiences do indeed involve a neurological process, which can be traced through brain activity. This of course could lead to a conclusion that God is 'all in the mind.' But Newberg is quite clear from his own rigorously conducted scientific experiments that spiritual experiences are not 'in any way less real to the brain than any other information it receives and processes, including perceptions of the material world and everyday life.' (1) We cannot, he rightly claims, trust one without trusting the other.
But what is all this to do with religious tolerance, you may ask.
Work of doctors such as Dossey and Koenig who are recognizing a further healing dimension in medicine beyond the body and brain, and the ideas of scientists such as Radin and Newberg are, I believe, incredibly important in helping us gain an understanding of a further dimension in religion beyond the dogma and doctrine. There is a massive overlap between the phenomena described by the scientists and the power of prayer, meditation and healing for example in a religious or spiritual setting.
But there is still a great deal of prejudice against these views, particularly those where the focus is specifically on religion, rather than on a more generalized concept of spirituality.
I believe we need to get over these prejudices, and fast! Ideas such as those I have described in this series of posts have a deeper significance, for building religious tolerance. Why? Because there seems to be the potential for finding so much common ground between the findings of scientists and doctors such as Newberg, Byrd, Dossey and Koenig on the one hand and the spirit and power of prayer, meditation and spirituality in any religious setting, on the other, whatever our faith or religion or creed. Eternal life, the power of prayer and meditation, distance healing; latest science is surely lending support to such beliefs, not destroying them?
It would be extreme to say that religions need reinvention, but they certainly need to change, to adapt to a changing world. They need to return to their spiritual roots, to learn again how to cater for our spiritual needs. But perhaps they also need to bridge the gap with science, be receptive to what latest science is showing us. Perhaps we can begin to understand religions better through the latest consciousness studies; religions should possibly no longer ignore the evidence for many supernatural phenomena, such as out of body experiences, non-local healing, and so on. Maybe they need to tap into what many who call themselves spiritual but non-religious intuitively know already; we are all interconnected at some level of consciousness or spirit or energy level.
Are we on the cusp of recognizing with new eyes the link that has always been there but has been lost in the digital noise of the last few decades? Perhaps it will be such a link that in the end will help to bind all religions, faiths and spiritual philosophies together, help us all understand and respect each other, feel a deep mutual empathy, without in any way destroying the basic tenets of each faith? Newberg is attracted very much to this possibility. So am I.
As Proust observed, 'The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.'
(1) Newberg's research is discussed in some detail in John Drane's (2005) book, Do Christians Know How to be Spiritual? The Rise of New Spirituality and the Mission of the Church, Darton, Longman & Todd, London and Norwich
Adapted from Why Religions Work: God's Place in the World Today
© Eleanor Stoneham 2012
My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.
"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden