The neuroscience of religion, also known as neurotheology and as spiritual neuroscience, attempts to explain religious experience and behaviour in neuroscientific terms. It is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena. This contrasts with the psychology of religion which studies mental, rather than neural, states.
Proponents of the neuroscience of religion say there is a neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally categorized as spiritual or religious. The field has formed the basis of several popular science books, but has received criticism from psychologists.
"Neurotheology" is a neologism that describes the scientific study of the neural correlates of religious or spiritual beliefs, experiences and practices. Other researchers prefer to use terms like "spiritual neuroscience" or "neuroscience of religion". Researchers in the field attempt to explain the neurological basis for religious experiences, such as:
Aldous Huxley used the term neurotheology for the first time in the utopian novel Island. The discipline studies the cognitive neuroscience of religious experience and spirituality. The term is also sometimes used in a less scientific context or a philosophical context. Some of these uses, according to the mainstream scientific community, qualify as pseudoscience. Huxley used it mainly in a philosophical context.
The use of the term neurotheology in published scientific work is currently uncommon. A search on the citation indexing service provided by Institute for Scientific Information returns five articles. Three of these are published in the journal Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, while two are published in American Behavioral Scientist. Work on the neural basis of spirituality has, however, occurred sporadically throughout the 20th century.
In an attempt to focus and clarify what was a growing interest in this field, in 1994 educator and businessman Laurence O. McKinney published the first book on the subject, titled "Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century", written for a popular audience but also promoted in the theological journal Zygon. According to McKinney, neurotheology sources the basis of religious inquiry in relatively recent developmental neurophysiology. According to McKinney's theory, pre-frontal development, in humans, creates an illusion of chronological time as a fundamental part of normal adult cognition past the age of three. The inability of the adult brain to retrieve earlier images experienced by an infantile brain creates questions such as "where did I come from" and "where does it all go", which McKinney suggests led to the creation of various religious explanations. The experience of death as a peaceful regression into timelessness as the brain dies won praise from readers as varied as author Arthur C. Clarke, eminent theologian Harvey Cox, and the Dalai Lama and sparked a new interest in the field.
What Andrew B. Newberg and others "discovered is that intensely focused spiritual contemplation triggers an alteration in the activity of the brain that leads one to perceive transcendent religious experiences as solid, tangible reality. In other words, the sensation that Buddhists call oneness with the universe." The orientation area requires sensory input to do its calculus. "If you block sensory inputs to this region, as you do during the intense concentration of meditation, you prevent the brain from forming the distinction between self and not-self," says Newberg. With no information from the senses arriving, the left orientation area cannot find any boundary between the self and the world. As a result, the brain seems to have no choice but "to perceive the self as endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything." "The right orientation area, equally bereft of sensory data, defaults to a feeling of infinite space. The meditators feel that they have touched infinity."
The radical Catholic theologian Eugen Drewermann developed a two-volume critique of traditional conceptions of God and the soul and a reinterpretation of religion (Modern Neurology and the Question of God) based on current neuroscientific research.
However, it has also been argued "that neurotheology should be conceived and practiced within a theological framework." Furthermore, it has been suggested that creating a separate category for this kind of research is moot since conventional Behavioural and Social Neurosciences disciplines can handle any empirical investigation of this nature.
In 1969, British biologist Alister Hardy founded a Religious Experience Research Centre at Oxford after retiring from his post as Linacre Professor of Zoology. Citing William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he set out to collect first-hand accounts of numinous experiences. He was awarded the Templeton Prize before his death in 1985. His successor David Hay suggested in God’s Biologist: A life of Alister Hardy (2011) that the RERC later dispersed as investigators turned to newer techniques of scientific investigation.
During the 1980s Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of human subjects with a weak magnetic field using an apparatus that popularly became known as the "God helmet" and reported that many of his subjects claimed to experience a "sensed presence" during stimulation. This work has been criticised, though some researchers  have published a replication of one God Helmet experiment.
Granqvist et al. claimed that Persinger's work was not "double-blind." Participants were often graduate students who knew what sort of results to expect, and there was the risk that the experimenters' expectations would be transmitted to subjects by unconscious cues. The participants were frequently given an idea of the purpose of the study by being asked to fill in questionnaires designed to test their suggestibility to paranormal experiences before the trials were conducted. Granqvist et al. failed to replicate Persinger's experiments double-blinded, and concluded that the presence or absence of the magnetic field had no relationship with any religious or spiritual experience reported by the participants, but was predicted entirely by their suggestibility and personality traits. Following the publication of this study, Persinger et al. dispute this. One published attempt to create a "haunted room" using environmental "complex" electromagnetic fields based on Persinger's theoretical and experimental work did not produce the sensation of a "sensed presence" and found that reports of unusual experiences were uncorrelated with the presence or absence of these fields. As in the study by Granqvist et al., reports of unusual experiences were instead predicted by the personality characteristics and suggestibility of participants. One experiment with a commercial version of the God helmet found no difference in response to graphic images whether the device was on or off.
The first researcher to note and catalog the abnormal experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) was neurologist Norman Geschwind, who noted a set of religious behavioral traits associated with TLE seizures. These include hypergraphia, hyperreligiosity, reduced sexual interest, fainting spells, and pedantism, often collectively ascribed to a condition known as Geschwind syndrome.
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran explored the neural basis of the hyperreligiosity seen in TLE using the galvanic skin response (GSR), which correlates with emotional arousal, to determine whether the hyperreligiosity seen in TLE was due to an overall heightened emotional state or was specific to religious stimuli. Ramachandran presented two subjects with neutral, sexually arousing and religious words while measuring GSR. Ramachandran was able to show that patients with TLE showed enhanced emotional responses to the religious words, diminished responses to the sexually charged words, and normal responses to the neutral words. This study was presented as an abstract at a neuroscience conference and referenced in Ramachandran's book, Phantoms in the Brain, but it has never been published in the peer-reviewed scientific press.
Research by Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal, using fMRI on Carmelite nuns, has purported to show that religious and spiritual experiences include several brain regions and not a single 'God spot'. As Beauregard has said, "There is no God spot in the brain. Spiritual experiences are complex, like intense experiences with other human beings." The neuroimaging was conducted when the nuns were asked to recall past mystical states, not while actually undergoing them; "subjects were asked to remember and relive (eyes closed) the most intense mystical experience ever felt in their lives as a member of the Carmelite Order." A 2011 study by researchers at the Duke University Medical Center found hippocampal atrophy is associated with older adults who report life-changing religious experiences, as well as those who are "born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation".
A 2016 study using fMRI found "a recognizable feeling central to ... (Mormon)... devotional practice was reproducibly associated with activation in nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and frontal attentional regions. Nucleus accumbens activation preceded peak spiritual feelings by 1–3 s and was replicated in four separate tasks. ... The association of abstract ideas and brain reward circuitry may interact with frontal attentional and emotive salience processing, suggesting a mechanism whereby doctrinal concepts may come to be intrinsically rewarding and motivate behavior in religious individuals."
Some scientists working in the field hypothesize that the basis of spiritual experience arises in neurological physiology. Speculative suggestions have been made that an increase of N,N-dimethyltryptamine levels in the pineal gland contribute to spiritual experiences. Scientific studies confirming this have yet to be published. It has also been suggested that stimulation of the temporal lobe by psychoactive ingredients of 'Magic Mushrooms' mimics religious experiences. This hypothesis has found laboratory validation with respect to psilocybin.
Murphy claims his devices are able to modulate emotional states in addition to enhancing meditation and generating altered states. In flat contradiction of this claim, Gendle & McGrath (2012) found no significant difference in emotional state whether the device was on or off.
Cognitive science of religion is the study of religious thought and behavior from the perspective of the cognitive and evolutionary sciences. The field employs methods and theories from a very broad range of disciplines, including: cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive anthropology, artificial intelligence, neurotheology, developmental psychology, and archaeology. Scholars in this field seek to explain how human minds acquire, generate, and transmit religious thoughts, practices, and schemas by means of ordinary cognitive capacities.Divine illumination
According to divine illumination, the process of human thought needs to be aided by divine grace. It is the oldest and most influential alternative to naturalism in the theory of mind and epistemology. It was an important feature of ancient Greek philosophy, Neoplatonism, medieval philosophy, and the Illuminationist school of Islamic philosophy.Esoteric Christianity
Esoteric Christianity (linked with the Hermetic Corpus since the Renaissance) is an ensemble of Christian theology which proposes that some spiritual doctrines of Christianity can only be understood by those who have undergone certain rites (such as baptism) within the religion. In mainstream Christianity, there is a similar idea that faith is the only means by which a true understanding of God can be gained. The term esoteric was coined in the 17th century and derives from the Greek ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos, "inner").These spiritual currents share some common denominators, such as heterodox or heretical Christian theology; the canonical gospels, various apocalyptic literature, and some New Testament apocrypha as sacred texts; and disciplina arcani, a supposed oral tradition from the Twelve Apostles containing esoteric teachings of Jesus the Christ.Evolutionary psychology of religion
The evolutionary psychology of religion is the study of religious belief using evolutionary psychology principles. It is one approach to the psychology of religion. As with all other organs and organ functions, the brain's functional structure is argued to have a genetic basis, and is therefore subject to the effects of natural selection and evolution. Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand cognitive processes, religion in this case, by understanding the survival and reproductive functions they might serve.German idealism
German idealism (also known as post-Kantian idealism, post-Kantian philosophy, or simply post-Kantianism) was a philosophical movement that emerged in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It began as a reaction to Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. German idealism was closely linked with both Romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment.
The most notable thinkers in the movement were Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the proponents of Jena Romanticism (Friedrich Hölderlin, Novalis, and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel). Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, Salomon Maimon and Friedrich Schleiermacher also made major contributions.Hermeticism
Hermeticism, also called Hermetism, is a religious, philosophical, and esoteric tradition based primarily upon writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus ("thrice-greatest Hermes"). These writings have greatly influenced the Western esoteric tradition and were considered to be of great importance during both the Renaissance and the Reformation. The tradition traces its origin to a prisca theologia, a doctrine that affirms the existence of a single, true theology that is present in all religions and that was given by God to man in antiquity.Many writers, including Lactantius, Cyprian of Carthage, Augustine of Hippo, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella, Sir Thomas Browne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, considered Hermes Trismegistus to be a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christianity.Much of the importance of Hermeticism arises from its connection with the development of science during the time from 1300 to 1600 AD. The prominence that it gave to the idea of influencing or controlling nature led many scientists to look to magic and its allied arts (e.g., alchemy, astrology) which, it was thought, could put nature to the test by means of experiments. Consequently, it was the practical aspects of Hermetic writings that attracted the attention of scientists. Isaac Newton placed great faith in the concept of an unadulterated, pure, ancient doctrine, which he studied vigorously to aid his understanding of the physical world.Mystical psychosis
Mystical psychosis is a term coined by Arthur J. Deikman in the early 1970s to characterize first-person accounts of psychotic experiences that are strikingly similar to reports of mystical experiences. According to Deikman, and authors from a number of disciplines, psychotic experience need not be considered pathological, especially if consideration is given to the values and beliefs of the individual concerned. Deikman thought the mystical experience was brought about through a "deautomatization" or undoing of habitual psychological structures that organize, limit, select, and interpret perceptual stimuli. There may be several causes of deautomatization—exposure to severe stress, substance abuse or withdrawal, and mood disorders.A first episode of mystical psychosis is often very frightening, confusing and distressing, particularly because it is an unfamiliar experience. For example, researchers have found that people experiencing paranormal and mystical phenomena report many of the symptoms of panic attacks.On the basis of comparison of mystical experience and psychotic experience Deikman came to a conclusion that mystical experience can be caused by "deautomatization" or transformation of habitual psychological structures which organize, limit, select and interpret perceptional incentives that is interfaced to heavy stresses and emotional shocks. He described usual symptoms of mystical psychosis which consist in strengthening of a receptive mode and weakening of a mode of action.
People susceptible to mystical psychosis become much more impressible. They feel a unification with society, with the world, God, and also feel washing out the perceptive and conceptual borders. Similarity of mystical psychosis to mystical experience is expressed in sudden, distinct and very strong transition to a receptive mode. It is characterized with easing the subject—object distinction, sensitivity increase and nonverbal, lateral, intuitive thought processes.Deikman's opinion that experience of mystical experience in itself can't be a sign to psychopathology, even in case of this experience at the persons susceptible to neurophysiological and psychiatric frustration, in many respects defined the relation to mystical experiences in modern psychology and psychiatry.
Deikman considered that all-encompassing unity opened in mysticism can be all-encompassing unity of reality.New Thought
The New Thought movement (also Higher Thought) is a movement which developed in the United States in the 19th century, considered by many to have been derived from the unpublished writings of Phineas Quimby. There are numerous smaller groups, most of which are incorporated in the International New Thought Alliance. The contemporary New Thought movement is a loosely allied group of religious denominations, authors, philosophers, and individuals who share a set of beliefs concerning metaphysics, positive thinking, the law of attraction, healing, life force, creative visualization, and personal power.New Thought holds that Infinite Intelligence, or God, is everywhere, spirit is the totality of real things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and "right thinking" has a healing effect. Although New Thought is neither monolithic nor doctrinaire, in general, modern-day adherents of New Thought share some core beliefs:
God or Infinite Intelligence is "supreme, universal, and everlasting";
divinity dwells within each person, that all people are spiritual beings;
"the highest spiritual principle [is] loving one another unconditionally... and teaching and healing one another"; and
"our mental states are carried forward into manifestation and become our experience in daily living".William James used the term “New Thought” as synonymous with the “Mind cure movement,” in which he included many sects with diverse origins, such as idealism and Hinduism. The teachings of Christian Science are in some ways similar to Quimby's teachings. Its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, was a student and patient of Quimby's but she later disavowed his influence on her Christian Science.Oceanic feeling
In a 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud, Romain Rolland coined the phrase "oceanic feeling" to refer to the sensation of being one with the universe. According to Rolland, this feeling is the source of all the religious energy that permeates in various religious systems, and one may justifiably call oneself religious on the basis of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one renounces every belief and every illusion. Freud discusses the feeling in his Future of an Illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). There he deems it a fragmentary vestige of a kind of consciousness possessed by an infant who has not yet differentiated himself or herself from other people and things.Orientalism
In art history, literature and cultural studies, Orientalism is the imitation or depiction of aspects in the Eastern world. These depictions are usually done by writers, designers, and artists from the West. In particular, Orientalist painting, depicting more specifically "the Middle East", was one of the many specialisms of 19th-century academic art, and the literature of Western countries took a similar interest in Oriental themes.
Since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism in 1978, much academic discourse has begun to use the term "Orientalism" to refer to a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies. In Said's analysis, the West essentializes these societies as static and undeveloped—thereby fabricating a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. Implicit in this fabrication, writes Said, is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior.Outline of spirituality
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to spirituality:
Spirituality may refer to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality, an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being, or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life; spiritual experience includes that of connectedness with a larger reality, yielding a more comprehensive self; with other individuals or the human community; with nature or the cosmos; or with the divine realm.Religion
Religion is a cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements. However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.Different religions may or may not contain various elements ranging from the divine, sacred things, faith, a supernatural being or supernatural beings or "some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life". Religious practices may include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration (of deities), sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trances, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, prayer, music, art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture. Religions have sacred histories and narratives, which may be preserved in sacred scriptures, and symbols and holy places, that aim mostly to give a meaning to life. Religions may contain symbolic stories, which are sometimes said by followers to be true, that have the side purpose of explaining the origin of life, the universe, and other things. Traditionally, faith, in addition to reason, has been considered a source of religious beliefs.There are an estimated 10,000 distinct religions worldwide, but about 84% of the world's population is affiliated with one of the five largest religion groups, namely Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or forms of folk religion. The religiously unaffiliated demographic includes those who do not identify with any particular religion, atheists, and agnostics. While the religiously unaffiliated have grown globally, many of the religiously unaffiliated still have various religious beliefs.The study of religion encompasses a wide variety of academic disciplines, including theology, comparative religion and social scientific studies. Theories of religion offer various explanations for the origins and workings of religion, including the ontological foundations of religious being and belief.Religious experience
A religious experience (sometimes known as a spiritual experience, sacred experience, or mystical experience) is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework. The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of Western society. William James popularised the concept.Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly that knowledge which comes with them) as revelations caused by divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes. They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware.Skeptics may hold that religious experience is an evolved feature of the human brain amenable to normal scientific study. The commonalities and differences between religious experiences across different cultures have enabled scholars to categorize them for academic study.Spiritual but not religious
"Spiritual but not religious" (SBNR), also known as "Spiritual but not affiliated" (SBNA), is a popular phrase and initialism used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that takes issue with organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion, but in contemporary usage spirituality has often become associated with the interior life of the individual, placing an emphasis upon the well-being of the "mind-body-spirit",
while religion refers to organizational or communal dimensions.Spiritual crisis
Spiritual crisis (also called "spiritual emergency") is a form of identity crisis where an individual experiences drastic changes to their meaning system (i.e., their unique purposes, goals, values, attitude and beliefs, identity, and focus) typically because of a spontaneous spiritual experience. A spiritual crisis may cause significant disruption in psychological, social, and occupational functioning. Among the spiritual experiences thought to lead to episodes of spiritual crisis or spiritual emergency are psychiatric complications related to existential crisis, mystical experience, near-death experiences, Kundalini syndrome, paranormal experiences, religious ecstasy, or other spiritual practices.Spiritual practice
A spiritual practice or spiritual discipline (often including spiritual exercises) is the regular or full-time performance of actions and activities undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development. A common metaphor used in the spiritual traditions of the world's great religions is that of walking a path. Therefore, a spiritual practice moves a person along a path towards a goal. The goal is variously referred to as salvation, liberation or union (with God). A person who walks such a path is sometimes referred to as a wayfarer or a pilgrim.Spiritualism
Spiritualism is a religious movement based on the belief that the spirits of the dead exist and have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living. The afterlife, or the "spirit world", is seen by spiritualists, not as a static place, but as one in which spirits continue to evolve. These two beliefs—that contact with spirits is possible, and that spirits are more advanced than humans—lead spiritualists to a third belief: that spirits are capable of providing useful knowledge about moral and ethical issues, as well as about the nature of God. Some spiritualists will speak of a concept which they refer to as "spirit guides"—specific spirits, often contacted, who are relied upon for spiritual guidance. Spiritism, a branch of spiritualism developed by Allan Kardec and today practiced mostly in Continental Europe and Latin America, especially in Brazil, emphasizes reincarnation.Spiritualism developed and reached its peak growth in membership from the 1840s to the 1920s, especially in English-speaking countries. By 1897, spiritualism was said to have more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe, mostly drawn from the middle and upper classes.
Spiritualism flourished for a half century without canonical texts or formal organization, attaining cohesion through periodicals, tours by trance lecturers, camp meetings, and the missionary activities of accomplished mediums. Many prominent spiritualists were women, and like most spiritualists, supported causes such as the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage. By the late 1880s the credibility of the informal movement had weakened due to accusations of fraud perpetrated by mediums, and formal spiritualist organizations began to appear. Spiritualism is currently practiced primarily through various denominational spiritualist churches in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.Theosophical Society
The Theosophical Society was an organization formed in the United States in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky to advance Theosophy. The original organization, after splits and realignments, currently has several successors. Following the death of Blavatsky, competition within the Society between factions emerged, particularly among founding members and the organisation split between the Theosophical Society Adyar (Olcott-Besant) and the Theosophical Society Pasadena (Judge). The former group, headquartered in India, is the most widespread international group holding the name "Theosophical Society" today.Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern United States. It arose as a reaction, to protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality at the time. The doctrine of the Unitarian church as taught at Harvard Divinity School was of particular interest.
Transcendentalism emerged from "English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher, the skepticism of David Hume", and the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant and German Idealism. Miller and Versluis regard Emanuel Swedenborg as a pervasive influence on transcendentalism. It was also strongly influenced by Hindu texts on philosophy of the mind and spirituality, especially the Upanishads.
A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Adherents believe that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and they have faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent.
Transcendentalism emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism. Adherents believe that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention and deference to past masters.