December 15, 2010
In recent years, neurotheology — the study of the relationship between the brain and religious experience — has garnered a good amount of attention among academics and in pop culture. Researchers say parts of the brain act differently under meditation and prayer, and science and religious communities have been looking to find more information on how to approach the topic without compromising their beliefs.
In a new book, Principles of Neurotheology, researcher Andrew Newberg explores the world of neurotheology and lays the groundwork for a new scientific and theological dialogue. He argues that while “neurotheology” is potentially polemical, it can be highly useful to the greater study of how religion intersects with science.
Andrew Newberg is a doctor and director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia. He joins NPR’s Neal Conan for a discussion about the future of the relationship between science and religion.
Excerpt: ‘Principles Of Neurotheology’
by ANDREW B. NEWBERG
Principles of Neurotheology
By Andrew B. Newberg
Paperback, 284 pages
List price: $29.95
“Neurotheology” is a unique field of scholarship and investigation that seeks to understand the relationship specifically between the brain and theology, and more broadly between the mind and religion. As a topic, neurotheology has garnered substantial attention in the academic and lay communities in recent years. Several books have been written addressing the relationship between the brain and religious experience and numerous scholarly articles have been published on the topic. The scientific and religious communities have been very interested in obtaining more information regarding neurotheology, how to approach this topic, and whether science and religion can be integrated in some manner that preserves, and perhaps enhances, both.
If neurotheology is to be considered a viable field going forward, it requires a set of clear principles that can be generally agreed upon and supported by both the theological or religious perspective and the scientific one as well. The overall purpose of this book is to set forth the necessary principles of neurotheology which can be used as a foundation for future neurotheological discourse and scholarship.
It is important to infuse throughout the principles of neurotheology the notion that neurotheology requires an openness to both the scientific as well as the spiritual perspectives. It is also important to preserve the essential elements of both perspectives. The scientific side must progress utilizing adequate definitions, measures, methodology and interpretations of data. The religious side must maintain a subjective sense of spirituality, a phenomenological assessment of the sense of ultimate reality that may or may not include a Divine presence, a notion of the meaning and purpose in life, an adherence to various doctrinal processes, and a careful analysis of religion from the theological perspective.
In short, for neurotheology to be successful, science must be kept rigorous and religion must be kept religious. This book will also have the purpose of facilitating a sharing of ideas and concepts across the boundary between science and religion. Such a dialogue can be considered a constructive approach that informs both perspectives by enriching the understanding of both science and religion.
It is at the neurotheological juncture that the science and religion interaction may be most valuable and help establish a more fundamental link between the spiritual and biological dimensions of the human being. Therefore, neurotheology, which should provide an openness to a number of different perspectives, might also be viewed as a nexus in which those from the religious as well as scientific side can come together to explore deep issues about humanity in a constructive and complementary manner. There, no doubt, will be differing view points that will be raised throughout this process, some of which may be more exclusive of one perspective or the other. However, it should be stressed that for neurotheology to grow as a field, it is imperative that one remains open, at least somewhat, to all of the different perspectives including those that are religious or spiritual, cultural, or scientific.
In addition to the complex interrelationship between science and religion over the years, neurotheological research must draw upon the current state of modern scientific methods and existing theological debates. Science has advanced significantly in the past several decades with regard to the study of the human brain. Neurotheology should be prepared to take full advantage of the advances in fields of science such as functional brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and genetics. On the other hand, neurotheological scholarship should also be prepared to engage the full range of theological issues. That theology continues to evolve and change from the more dogmatic perspectives of the past, through natural theology and systematic theology, neurotheology must acknowledge that there are many fascinating theological issues that face each religious tradition.
When considering the primary reasons for developing neurotheology as a field, we can consider four foundational goals for scholarship in this area. These are:
1. To improve our understanding of the human mind and brain.
2. To improve our understanding of religion and theology.
3. To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of health and well being.
4. To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of religion and spirituality.
These four goals are reciprocal in that they suggest that both religious and scientific pursuits might benefit from neurotheological research. The first two are meant to be both esoteric as well as pragmatic regarding scientific and theological disciplines. The second two goals refer to the importance of providing practical applications of neurotheological findings towards improving human life both individually and globally.
Given the enormity of these tasks to help understand ourselves, our relationship to God or the absolute, and the nature of reality itself, neurotheology appears poised to at least make a substantial attempt at addressing such issues. While other theological, philosophical, and scientific approaches have also tried to tackle these “big” questions, it would seem that neurotheology holds a unique perspective. It is one of the only disciplines that necessarily seeks to integrate science and theology, and if defined broadly, many other relevant fields. And this is perhaps the greatest gift of neurotheology, the ability to foster a rich multidisciplinary dialogue in which we help others get it right so that we can advance the human person and human thought as it relates to our mental, biological, and spiritual selves.
Excerpted from Principles of Neurotheology by Andrew B. Newberg. Copyright 2010 by Andrew B. Newberg. Excerpted by permission of Ashgate.