Beyond neurotheology

In Newsweek’s 2001-05-01 cover article, “Faith Is More Than A Feeling”, Kenneth L. Woodward wrote:

The problem with neurotheology is that it confuses spiritual experiences—which few believers actually have—with religion.

Well, that’s not a “problem with neurotheology”, but it does point out how neurotheology has failed to properly categorize its subjects of inquiry, and chosen a misleading term to apply to itself. There are problems with both the “neuro” part and the “theology” part.

“Neuro” liimts the focus too narrowly to the brain. We don’t know much about how our entire organism implements the human predilection to religion, but it is possible, even probably, that more is involved than just the brain. That would argue for the prefix “bio”, which has already been used in the alternative term “biotheology”.

But the “theology” part is problematic as well. The dictionary definition that is relevant is:

  • the study of the nature of God and religious truth; rational inquiry into religious questions

which seems broad enough, but in fact most people interpret the term “theology” more narrowly, with an emphasis on “God” or established religions, which doesn’t encompass so-called religious or transcendant experience, which is indeed what many “neurotheologians” are focusing on.

We need a clear taxonomy and clear terms to apply to its categories:

  • biotranscendance: study how biological mechanisms interact with transcedant religious experience
  • bionumenology: focus on how biology promotes human experiences of and beliefs in the divine and supernatural
  • biomythology: study how human wiring gives rise to human societies sharing and passing down myths of every kind, including but not limited to beliefs in bearded white men in robes controlling everything
  • biological study of ritual: show how biological systems impose or are satisfied by ritual
  • biological bases of human emotional growth: learn the correlation between changes in the brain and other biological components and upward personal evolution

3 Responses to “Beyond neurotheology”

  1. Vincent Henderson Says:

    I’m discovering the mere notion of neurotheology right here and now, so forgive my ignorance in the following contribution. While I find the linguistic arguments and suggestions developped above very convincing, there is an assumption in this debate that I find strange.

    Why such a focus on the human biological “wiring” that would be responsible for such a cultural or social behavior as religion?

    While invoking scientific and darwinian concepts in analysing human social behavior seems indispensible, why associate the notion of “scientific” with “bio-chemical”? The concepts of darwinian evolution are indeed very useful to analyse social behavior, but not in their biochemical dimension. Surely someone has noticed that the chronological scale of evolution for human societies is of many orders of magnitude shorter than that of biological evolution. This observation is very important: it shows that genes play an incredibly negligible role in the evolution of social or cultural behavior (such as religion).

    But the heritability concept, central to darwinian theory, doesn’t have to apply only to biogenetics. Cultures and societies have structural codes akin to genetic codes. If one accepts that hypothesis, there are two elements that are entirely consistent with the difference in timescales between bio and socio evolution:
    1- anthropo-cultural evolution is an evolutionary process in which acquired traits can be heritable!
    2- collective traits are evolved and transmitted by more or less conscious or subconscious processes, that participate of a complex anthropo-socio-cultural economy of utilitarian or meaningful signs and behaviors. They are not random mutations!

    It presents many analogies with darwinian processes, but has its own set of dynamics that seem to me very interesting to understand, yet have little to do with our gene pool. Behaviors, philosophies, religions survive or perish according to their ability to maintain a function in the social environment.

    It seems to me much more interesting, and (to put it nicely) entertaining a much more productive relationship with reality, to study the emergence of social, cultural and anthropological phenomena such as religion, as a property of the social body rather than being obsessed in finding in each individual’s gene capital reasons for them.

    As for the idea implicit in neurotheology (or whatever more appropriate term) that psychotics who opt for religious extasy as a medium for their acting-out would be genetically any different from other psychotics seems simply preposterous to me.

    The linguistic precisions proposed above go some way towards alleviating this major problem, but not quite enough in my view. In particular, it seems to me that the highly conjectural nature of this activity should entail that the above definitions start, if it purports to maintain any semblence of scientific purpose, with “find out if”, rather than “study how”.


  2. Bob Myers Says:

    It’s natural to think of religion as a cultural phenomenon, and seek its origins in a cultural development process. And you are right to note that I had been making an implicit assumption that the basis of religion was biological, and that this assumption needs examining.

    Although others have studied this question in far more details than I ever will, I’ll just offer a couple of data points. First, no human society has yet been found which does not practice something identifiable as religion (and no animal society has been which does). Second, Bouchard’s famous “Minnesota twins” study of identical twins raised separately showed that approximately 50% of differences in religious behavior can be accounted for genetically.

    This article from the Humanist which I just stumbled across goes over some of this territory again

  3. Vincent Henderson Says:

    If what you mean is that no human group has been found that does not attempt to ascribe meaning to their environment (pattern-seeking, as Michael Shermer puts it), then I agree. And I do believe that this particular predisposition is likely to be genetically coded. But as far as I can tell from my exposure to various kinds of knowledge, it seems that although the ability for developing language (a necessary companion—prerequisite?—to developing meaning) seems to be reasonably held to be genetically coded in the human brain—short but interesting paper here —, attempts at identifying an actual root grammar in the brain that would provide a domain to which all known human grammars could belong seem to have failed.

    My view, pending further convincing data to the contrary, is that if even something as basic as an actual grammar isn’t coded in the brain, I find it hard to believe that religious structures, let alone specific religions, would be allocated their own set of genes.
    Other satisfactory explanations for the systematic emergence of explanatory and behavior-regulating belief systems (religions but also most other non-god-based ideologies) in human groups exist. I find it convincing that it would be a logically emerging phenomenon arising from the language and meaning ascription disposition coupled with the social disposition, i.e. highly likely to arise in any species with a brain wired for creating and maintaining systems of meaning as well as societies.

    The Humanist article is interesting, but doesn’t make much of a case for the genetic basis of religion. It merely reports on a research that goes in that direction, but only provides as support, beyond the researcher’s own affirmations, quotes of the kind: If we recognize the brain does all the things that we [traditionally] attributed to the soul, then God must have some way of interacting with human brains.
    Can we really take seriously people whose research is oriented to giving credibility to such statements?

    As for the the Minesota Twins study, I find convincing those who consider that the wide-ranging and and earth-shattering sweeping conclusions drawn from a sample of 54 pairs of twins, the questionable communications strategy of its authors prior to publication, and their refusal, after publication, to release enough raw background data that would enable a critical peer review, leaves significant room for doubt in the methodological validity of the study. Especially in the context of such a highly politicised field as “twin studies� and its apparent history of research that was either debunked or turned out to be fraudulent.

    I therefore prefer to not base an entire and philosophically very significant portion of my personal cosmogony on such material.

    Disclaimer: As I say, “twin studies� is a politicized field, and I may betray a politico-philosophical bias in that stance, although my own internal experience is that of a rational process to arrive at these conclusions.

Leave a Reply