Are Conflicting Beliefs Tied to the Brain?

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Using neuroimaging technology, researchers claim to have found the cause for the conflict between science and religion (evolution and creationism) in the brain.


Since the “Decade of the Brain” in the 1990s, an increasing number of scientists and philosophers believe that there is no aspect of our lives that neuroscience cannot, in principle, help to illuminate. Unfortunately, and sadly, the interpretation of neuroscientific information about us is often surrounded by a fog of illogic and confusion. Clearing up the fog requires, among other things, careful scrutiny of the researchers’ basic assumptions; eradication of incoherent assertions, inconsistencies, and conceptual confusions; and an examination of conclusions and implications in the light of Scripture.

A case in point is a news article in the March 23, 2016, ScienceDaily.1 This article presents research results that purportedly found the cause for the conflict between science and religion in the brain. According to the article, it “is perhaps most visible today in the arguments between evolution and creationism.” In a nutshell, scientists discovered two networks or structures in the brain, one associated with analytical thinking and science (naturalism and materialism),2 and the other with religion (emotion and moral concern). These networks, we are informed, are in “tension” or “competition.” So when someone thinks analytically and critically about the world (i.e., scientifically) then the network associated with it “suppresses” the network associated with religious beliefs (i.e., religion), and vice versa.

I wish to provide a few observations about how the conflict between science and religion can be avoided and indicate some of its implications. Near the end, the news article stated,

Conflict can be avoided by remembering simple rules: “Religion has no place telling us about the physical structure of the world; that's the business of science. Science should inform our ethical reasoning, but it cannot determine what is ethical or tell us how we should construct meaning and purpose in our lives.”

Image by Nevit, via Wikimedia Commons.


The suggested “rules” are quite consistent with much scientific and philosophical thinking today, and are neither new nor surprising. Philosopher Wilfred Sellars,3 half a century ago, wrote, “In the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.” Francis Collins,4 geneticist and founder of BioLogos (a thinktank for theistic evolutionists), makes the same point in different words: “Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world.” This attitude is an expression of what an increasing number of scientists and philosophers acknowledge to be a religion and worldview called scientism (naturalist/evolutionary materialism).5 Hence, it is not strange that the rules are mutually exclusive.

What could possibly prevent a religious, good scientist from saying something truthful about the world and using good science to support his religious claims?

However, it is arbitrary to assert that it is the business of science to tell us everything we want to know about the world and, in the same breath, assert that it is not its business to tell us what is right and wrong or how to construct meaning and purpose in our lives. If scientists are able to show that a human being comes into existence at conception, then it would be wrong to destroy a human embryo. Conversely, if religious people are able to truthfully determine what is right and wrong about human action and can truthfully tell others how they could construct meaning and purpose in their lives, and if all of that involves facts, then there is nothing, in principle, that could possibly disqualify them from truthfully telling others about the things that exist in the world and their origins. That it is not an odd or incoherent inference is quite evident from what is stated in the article: “You can be religious and be a very good scientist.” So what could possibly prevent a religious, good scientist from saying something truthful about the world and using good science to support his religious claims?

To exclude biblical creationists from saying something truthful about the world is a fallacy, and it is more an indication of a failure, or refusal, to acknowledge that creationism is a knowledge tradition (i.e., it is based on historical facts). The fallacy is to think that their knowledge claims can be ignored purely on the basis of where they originate (i.e., the Genesis record of creation). However, it is irrelevant whether or not a Christian or atheist claims that something cannot come from nothing, that life cannot come from non-life, or that a cause cannot produce what it does not possess. The dividing line that is drawn between science and religion appears, therefore, to be arbitrary, misleading, and misguided.

MRI Brain Scan

An MRI image of the brain. Image by DrOONeil, via Wikimedia Commons.

The researchers’ assumption, or conclusion, that the brain network associated with analytical thinking (science) is in tension with the network associated with feelings and moral concerns is also not new. It is just one more variant of the neuroimaging research that has been conducted over the last 15 years or so on the moral judgments of people.6 One of the conclusions the researchers have drawn from this research is that objective reasoning is actually an illusion; moral judgments, such as that incest between two consenting adult siblings is wrong, is based on feelings that are hard to justify.7 This apparent fact is explained in terms of two brain systems (i.e., feeling and reasoning) that evolved over millions of years. However, that there is tension between brain structures is at best a tension that has been invented by the researchers and at worst a tension without foundation, as we shall shortly see. Instead, we have every reason to believe that the dichotomy is between rational and irrational, and between reasonable and unreasonable beliefs and feelings. Good reasoning is exhibited when conclusions are justified by the evidence and the reasons from which they are derived. And reasoning is poor or bad when conclusions are unjustified, when conclusions that are justified are not drawn, or where no conclusions are drawn where they are justified. Likewise, believing and feeling something can be unreasonable if, on discovering that the evidence for believing or feeling what someone believed or felt was wrong, a person nevertheless continues to believe and feel as before. And someone is irrational when he discovers some fact X that he knows is incompatible with some fact Y but continues to think X. In short, beliefs and feelings are rational to the extent that they are justified by one’s valid reasoning, reasons, and evidence. Therefore, to be rational and reasonable are not determined by whether a person is religious or not.

The researchers’ assumption that the brain network associated with analytical thinking “suppresses” the network associated with religious beliefs when someone engages in scientific work is highly questionable on purely conceptual grounds. Firstly, knowledge is connected with the acquisition, reception, and retention of information. What is known is what someone can learn, be taught, and find out, detect, or discover for himself. Knowledge is also gained in many different ways and by different means and methods, for example, by perception, observation, scrutiny, and investigation. People receive knowledge by noticing, recognizing, becoming aware and conscious of things, or realizing that things are so. And what people come to know, they retain in memory. Secondly, knowledge is also connected with beliefs about the world, the choices of people, and their daily way of life (morality). All that is clearly evident in Romans 1:18–32. So what are the implications of all this?


The first implication relates to the understanding of a person: a person is not a brain, and it is, therefore, a category mistake to ascribe psychological powers (for example, perceiving, thinking, reasoning, believing, judgment, understanding, and remembering) to a brain.8 Scripture teaches that it is persons “who suppress the truth” of what is evident to them about the attributes of the Creator, and it is persons, not brains, who do not “like to retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:18–20, 28). From that follows two logical truths. On the one hand, a person who has been informed about something can say that he did not believe what he was told, but he can never say he did not know. And on the other hand, knowing something logically excludes the possibility of being ignorant, and that implies that no person will ever be able to blame his brain for his unbelief. We can, therefore, understand that people are held responsible for their beliefs and, by implication, why they are answerable for them. By contrast, a brain network or structure or system is neither answerable nor responsible for anything at all; it cannot be praised or blamed for its beliefs for it does not have any. Beliefs, understood as what is believed, can be criticized; but there is nothing going on in a brain that can be criticized. But if we are to believe the neuroscientists, then evolutionary and/or materialist scientists cannot be criticized for their unbelief, including their beliefs about right and wrong—and that is absurd. This is why: a person learns the difference between right and wrong, and then comes to know the difference, acquires a sense of responsibility, and cares about right and wrong. These may be lost if he becomes cynical, may be abandoned when he becomes callous, and may cease when he becomes uncaring. None of these things can be said of a brain. In short, there is nothing whatsoever going on in a brain that could have the consequences of believing; nothing going on in a brain can ever imply that a person is right or wrong about anything, including whether the Creator exists or what he believes about the origin of life on earth. Hence, no description of what is going on in a brain could ever imply that a person is right or wrong about whether things are as they are believed to be.

It is erroneous to think that there is conflict between science and religion.

A second implication follows from the inextricable connection between believe and love. To believe a person is to trust his word, to take his word on trust. And when someone takes a person’s word for something, he relies on what that person affirms; he depends on it, and counts on the truth of his report. We also say that people hold and cleave to their most cherished beliefs, and that they embrace, foster, and nurture them. The elements of trust, dependency, and reliance are also connected with faith, both in the sense of believing in God and the truth of His Word. Here is the implication: Scripture teaches that it is “impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18) because He “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2), and is, therefore, to be trusted. It follows, logically, that what is recorded in Scripture can be believed and trusted to be so (cf. Proverbs 30:5–6; Matthew 4:4; John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16–17). All of that is consistent with how we are to love our Creator:

Jesus said to him: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

I conclude that it is erroneous to think that there is conflict between science and religion. The conflict is also emphatically not between brain networks but between people with different beliefs. The beliefs of young-earth creationists are based on the only eyewitness of the origin of the universe and life on earth, namely, that of God in the Bible. In the final analysis, it would be a good thing for neuroscientists to consider that it is not the brain but “a man’s heart [that] reveals the man” (Proverbs 27:19).


  1. “Conflict Between Science, Religion Lies in Our Brains,” ScienceDaily, March 23, 2016.
  2. Anthony Ian Jack et al, “Why Do You Believe in God? Relationships Between Religious Belief, Analytical Thinking, Mentalizing and Moral Concern,” PLoS One 11, no. 3 (2016): 4, 14.
  3. Wilfrid Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality (London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), 173.
  4. Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Believe (London, UK: Pocket Books, 2007), 6.
  5. Richard N. Williams and Daniel N. Robinson eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 1−21.
  6. For a critique, see Guy Kahane, “On the Wrong Track: Process and Content in Moral Psychology,“ Mind & Language 27, no. 5 (2012): 519−545.
  7. Jonathan Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” Psychological Review 108, no. 4 (2001): 814−834.
  8. See Callie Joubert, “Are Mental Disorders Brain Disorders?,” The Journal of Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry 17, no. 3 (2015): 185−201. The paper can be obtained from the author at [email protected].


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