Neurotheology is an emerging field of study that seeks to integrate in some manner cognitive neuroscience with religion and theology. Its development as a field is attested to by significant interest in both the academic and lay population. Neurotheology is multidisciplinary in nature and includes the fields of theology, religious studies, religious experience, philosophy, cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, and anthropology. Each may contribute to neurotheology, and conversely, neurotheology may ultimately contribute to each of these fields.

Individuals engaged in neurotheology can help develop theoretical models of the neurophysiological mechanisms of brain activity during religious and spiritual practices, such as meditation, prayer, or ritual. This analysis also includes the spiritual or religious experiences associated with such practices, as well as those that arise spontaneously, such as near-death experiences. The overall purpose of this area of neurotheology is to generate a substantial theoretical base from which to explore the other aspects of religious and spiritual phenomena. Models typically build upon both the known neuropsychological and neuroscientific literature to determine exactly how various brain structures function both individually and as an integrated whole. Models typically include not only general brain function but changes in a variety of neurotransmitter and hormonal systems. An analysis of various types of neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia or temporal lobe epilepsy, as they relate to religious and spiritual phenomena, must also be considered as a way of helping to understand various aspects of religious experience. The work of Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili, for example, demonstrates one method for developing a complex integrated model in which various aspects of brain function are correlated with religious experiences. The brain structures that have already been shown to be involved in religious practices such as meditation or prayer include the frontal lobes (involved in attention focusing and emotional processing), the limbic system (part of the temporal lobes and involved in emotional responses), the parietal lobe (involved in spatial and body orientation), the thalamus (a main sensory relay), and the hypothalamus (regulating basic body functions, hormones, and the immune system).

Empirical Testing of Religious Experience

Once theoretical models of religious and spiritual experiences are developed, they provide a hypothetical framework from which significant empirical testing can be performed. Much of the theoretical and empirical work depends upon a strong neuroscientific background with regard to how the brain functions in general, and then how such functioning can be applied to religion and theology. The brain must handle tremendous amounts of sensory, cognitive, and emotional information to provide human beings with a reasonable representation of the “external world.” It may be helpful to simplify the understanding of how the brain abstracts elements of meaning from various input by considering basic approaches to organizing this information. Such basic brain functions have sometimes been called cognitive modules or cognitive operators. Cognitive modules refer to brain structures with specific functions for manipulating input into the brain. Cognitive operators typically refer to more generalized brain functions that operate on input with the understanding that there are underlying brain structures or groups of structures that subserve such functions. A partial list of the cognitive operators initially developed by d’Aquili that are relevant to neurotheology are given below. It should be noted that a number of brain-imaging studies, including studies of positron emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have demonstrated more specifically how the brain processes input along a variety of different functions. seconds of 1 minute, 4 secondsVolume 0% 

  1. The causal operator permits reality to be viewed in terms of causal sequences of abstract elements.
  2. The abstractive operator permits the formation of a general concept from the perception of empirical indi-viduals.
  3. The binary operator permits the extraction of meaning by ordering abstract elements into dyads involving varying degrees of polarity so each pole of the dyad derives meaning from contrast with the other pole.
  4. The formal quantitative operator permits the abstraction of quantity per se from the perception of empirical individuals, generating arithmetic and mathematics.
  5. The emotional value operator permits an affective valence to be assigned to various elements of perception and cognition.
  6. The holistic operator permits reality to be viewed as a whole or as a gestalt. It is responsible for the generation of absolute unitary being discussed in the second part of this article.

The causal operator has much scientific support and likely resides at the junction of the superior temporal and inferior parietal lobes (Pribram and Luria, 1973; Mills and Rollman, 1980). The abstractive operator likely resides in the region of the left inferior parietal lobe, most likely near the angular gyrus, and forms an important part of the language axis (Luria, 1966; Joseph, 1996). The binary operator may arise near the region of the inferior parietal lobe in close proximity to the area that underlies the ability to formally quantitate objects (Dahaene, 2000). However, with regard to quantitation, evidence suggests that the left hemisphere is more associated with specific mathematical functions, whereas the right appears better equipped for comparing numbers. In terms of the emotional value operator, much evidence for the importance of emotions in human behavior and reason has come from the research of Antonio Damasio (1994, 1999). His somatic marker hypothesis suggests that emotions are critical in helping human beings make decisions and think rationally. Furthermore, emotions appear necessary to assign relative value to all of the other products of the cognitive operators. Evidence for the holistic operator derives from studies that have explored the functions of the right hemisphere, demonstrating more holistic applications to perceptions and problem solving (Nebes and Sperry, 1971; Gazzaniga and Hillyard, 1971; Gazzaniga, 2000). Other physiological information relevant to the study of religious experiences may be provided by measuring parameters, including blood pressure, heart rate, and reaction times. Future studies will likely measure the effects of various hormones and neurotransmitters as they relate to the religious practices and experiences.

Religious Experience and Health

Another area within neurotheology is the study of the health-related effects of religiousness and religious experiences. A number of studies have shown positive (and sometimes negative) effects of religion on physical and mental health (Koenig, 1998, 2001). In general, studies have linked religiousness with an overall lower mortality rate and specific decreases in the incidence of cardiac disease, liver disease, and some types of cancer. Studies of mental health have shown that religion is a primary source of coping for many individuals, and practices such as meditation and prayer may have beneficial effects on depression and anxiety. On the other hand, some studies have indicated that, when an individual has a conflicted perspective of religion or perceives God as punishing them, there can be negative outcomes. Furthermore there are many examples of religious-type behaviors associated with cults and other groups in which there is a negative worldview often ending in mass suicides. While many more clinical studies need to be performed, an understanding of the associated physiological and neurophysiological effects of religiousness and religious experience may help provide a clearer link to health. This area of neurotheology can help clarify why religion is sometimes a positive force and sometimes a negative force in an individual or community’s life.

The Scope of Neurotheology

One of the criticisms of neurotheology is that the field focuses too much on individual religious experiences, particularly the mystical ones, people have and that it does not take into account the other aspects of religions. For neurotheology to achieve its full potential as a field of study, it is important for any investigator to understand the complexity and diversity of experiences that are religious or spiritual. In other words, religion is much more than just the experiences that individuals can have, especially the strong mystical experiences that are not common. Religions typically have many different rituals, holidays, and cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components that all can be evaluated from a neuropsychological perspective. Even issues such as forgiveness, love, or altruism can be considered from a neuropsychological perspective to gain better insight into how and when such feelings and behaviors take place. It is this ability to explore the neuropsychological basis of such concepts that can ultimately be a strength of neurotheology.

Finally, neurotheology must be able to address theological concepts. The cognitive operators mentioned above, as well as other aspects of brain function, can be utilized to consider a wide variety of theological concepts (d’Aquili and Newberg, 1999). In neurotheology this analysis is based somewhat on an interpretation of religious myth and ritual and how these elements affect or are affected by the human brain. For example, the causal operator described above may play a prominent role in the conception of God as the fundamental cause of all things. The binary operator is crucial to developing concepts such as good and evil, justice and injustice, and even humankind and God. These opposites are a focal point of many myth structures and are of fundamental importance in religion and theology. The quantitative abilities of the brain may help explain why numbers have had such important meaning in the human understanding of most religions, with specific numbers having a special status. Thus certain quantities and numbers have special religious meaning depending on the particular tradition. The holistic operator is likely to be deeply tied to the notion of God as infinite and inclusive of all things. Furthermore, the holistic functions of the brain appear particularly tied to the mystical experiences in which an individual perceives a union with God or ultimate reality.

It is important to state that these brain functions do not necessarily constrain the reality of a particular concept but may have an important impact on the human understanding of these issues. As an example, one might consider the notion of God as the fundamental cause of all things. It can be asked whether or not such a conception is related to the human brain’s ability to perceive causality. If an individual had damage to the areas of the brain responsible for perceiving causality, he or she may no longer perceive God from a causal perspective. God might be perceived as the fundamental love in the universe rather than the cause. Again, such a perception would not alter what God’s actual nature is, only the human perception of this nature.

The emotional elements of religion are also an important aspect of neurotheological analysis because a variety of emotions are fundamental to religions and religious experience. The autonomic nervous system (in conjunction with the hypothalamus) that regulates basic body functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and hormones, and the limbic system that regulates basic emotional responses can produce a wide variety of complex feelings. Religious concepts pertaining to love, joy, envy, or awe are likely associated with concomitant changes in these components of the nervous system. Neurotheology seeks to study the relationship between the nervous-system structures and such elements of religions and religious experiences.

Neurotheology may also have a special status because neurology is universal in the sense that all human beings have brains that function in a similar manner. The challenge for future neurotheological development is to evaluate the similarities and differences among individual brain functions, as well as the phenomenological differences both within and across religious traditions. Neurotheology has the opportunity to explore religion and theology on a broad scale and on an individual level. It has also been argued that neurotheology may provide a basis for a metatheology and even a megatheology. A metatheology comprises both the general principles describing, and implicitly the rules for constructing, any concrete theological system. In and of itself, a metatheology is devoid of theological content, because it consists of rules and descriptions about how any and all specific theologies are structured. A metatheology must evaluate how and why foundational, creation, and soteriological myths are formed; how and why such myths are elaborated into complex theological systems; and how and why the basic myths and certain aspects of their theological elaborations are objectified in the motor behavior of ceremonial ritual. A megatheology, on the other hand, should contain content of such a universal nature that it could be adopted by most, if not all, of the world’s great religions as a basic element without any serious violation of their essential doctrines. Since brain function is universal and necessarily has an impact on how human beings understand and practice religion, a fully developed neurotheology may provide a basis for a megatheology.

Overall, neurotheology seeks to facilitate a dialogue between religion and science with the eventual goal of helping to integrate these perspectives around the nexus of neuropsychology. That neuropsychology provides some universal perspective on human behavior and thought that can also be utilized in an approach to the study of religions and theology lies at the heart of neurotheology. Furthermore neurotheology seeks to integrate theoretical development, empirical studies, and philosophical and theological interpretation. Neurotheology as a field of study thus holds many opportunities for expansion and may play a critical role in future theological and religious study.


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