It’s been trendy for years for researchers to run brain scans on the religious and the irreligious, searching for signs that the supernatural is only in our heads. A study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers the latest look at the relationship between brain functioning and religious attitudes.
None of the results are mystifying, nor do the results as a whole affirm or deny the validity of religion.
In a two-part study, participants—both believers and nonbelievers—were first exposed to “a range or spectrum of religious beliefs relating to God’s perceived involvement in this world, God’s perceived emotion, and personal experiences as opposed to abstract doctrine.” In the second part, the participants heard “religious statements reflecting those beliefs.” An fMRI scanner recorded brain activity as they heard and considered the ideas.
The scans revealed that participants “fell back on higher thought patterns” when reacting to and considering the statements given them. A certain aspect of the brain consistently “lit up” when participants were presented with a “detached” God, but individuals’ brains varied significantly when considering an involved God. For example, when read statements contradicting their own religious beliefs, some participants’ brains showed disgust, while others’ showed conflict.
Some results were unsurprising. Statements about God’s love stimulated brain regions associated with positive feelings. Statements of religious doctrine affected the part of the brain that deals with abstractness. Statements about religious experience stirred brain regions associated with memory retrieval.
None of the results are mystifying, nor do the results as a whole affirm or deny the validity of religion. In fact, if we were to proclaim that the disparate results supported the reality of the supernatural, the irreligious would have a field day attacking us! But read how cognitive neuroscientist Jordan Grafman interpreted the results: “[It] suggests that religion is not a special case of a belief system, but evolved along with other belief and social cognitive abilities.” Grafman hopes future studies will look at non-Western religions so “we can better define why those brain areas evolved in humans.”
Talk about proving one’s presuppositions, since many evolutionists already believe religion is the product of evolution! A much more reasonable view is that God created various parts of the brain to process different types of information and emotions, and all people have similarities and differences in thought patterns and mental reactions. Statements about religion clearly trigger various areas of the brain; the same would probably be true of any complex topic that involves both abstract ideas and personal emotions.
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