Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How do neuroscientists integrate their knowledge of the brain with their religious and spiritual beliefs?

By Kim Lang
Graduate Student, Neuroscience
Emory University 
This post was written as part of the Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics course 

As scientists, we’re generally a skeptical bunch (I’ll leave speculation of whether that is a cause and/or effect of a career in science for the Comments section).  While 95% of the American public believe in a deity or higher power (83% believe in God and 12% believe in a higher power) [1], only 51% of surveyed scientists believe the same (33% believe in God and 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power) (Figure 1). [2]

According to surveys, this discrepancy is nothing new.  In 1914, sociologist James H. Leuba found that 42% of the polled US scientists believed in God while 58% did not. [1,3]  In 1996, Larry Witham and Edward Larson repeated Leuba’s survey and found that 40% of scientists believe in a personal God while 45% do not4.  While the wording of questions can be critiqued [3], the overall trend remains and is fairly constant across different scientific fields.  According the 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 51% of scientists in biological and medical fields believe in God or a higher power, as well as 55% of those in chemistry, 50% of those in geosciences, and 43% of those in physics and astronomy (Figure 2). [2]

As informative as this survey is, those are frustratingly wide categories of science.  With so much research into the neurological mechanisms of religious experiences and discussion about whether the brain is wired to “produce” or “perceive” God5, I’m curious to know how the neuroscience community would respond to this survey (being part of the neuroscience community also biases my curiosity a bit).  I’d also like to know how those neuroscientists that do believe in God or a higher power integrate this belief with their neuroscience knowledge (the atheist view seems pretty self-explanatory).

I’m not aware of any surveys that address this question, so I decided to look into the issue through “case studies” – works by neuroscientists or neurologists describing their beliefs and explanations of how neuroscience and religion are compatible in their lives. There are numerous opinions and varieties of personal belief systems out there and I have listed a few below. This list is far from exhaustive, but I think it shows the range of ways in which neuroscience knowledge and religious or spiritual beliefs can coexist in an individual.  I’d be interested to hear other possibilities in the Comments section.
Mario Beauregard
Associate Research Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Radiology and the Neuroscience Research Center at the University of Montreal, author of The Spiritual Brain. http://drmariobeauregard.com/

Dr. Beauregard disagrees with the materialism view and in his book, he makes the case for the existence of the soul, explaining  why “there is good reason for believing that human beings have a spiritual nature, one that even survives death”. [6]   In an interview, he explains his “non-materialist neuroscience” beliefs, saying that “the mind is real and can change the brain...I have demonstrated, via brain imaging techniques, that women and girls can control sad thoughts, men can control responses to erotic films, and people who suffer from phobias such as spider phobia can reorganize their brains so that they lose the fear.” Of spiritual experiences he says, the “brain mediates all experiences of living human beings. That does not mean that the brain creates the experiences”. [7]    

Of the four possible modes of interaction between scientific and religious belief (Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, Integration, as outlined by physicist Ian Barbour [8]), Beauregard appears to subscribe to Integration, in which a person is both a “biological organism” and a “responsible self.” The “self” (perhaps another term for mind in this analysis) has causal efficacy as it interacts with the brain.[8] For Beauregard, the brain mediates perception, but is itself mediated by the mind.      

Michael Graziano
Professor of Neuroscience at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute; author of God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist's Reflections on the Spirit World.

Dr. Graziano says that “evidence is now overwhelming that every aspect of the mind is produced by the brain,” and “I draw two personal lessons from the neuroscience of mind.  First, far from dismissing mind, or spirit, or soul as nonsense, I see these quantities as far more precious precisely because they are vulnerable and finite. In a sense I've become more spiritual as my scientific understanding deepens and I realize that spirit is a passing conjunction of information.  Second, the neuroscience of the mind gives me a wonderful opportunity to work on a scientific problem that is truly meaningful. About 25 years ago Francis Crick, famous for his role in understanding DNA, posed a question. Is it possible for brain science to address consciousness, a topic traditionally studied by philosophers and theologians? The answer is a definite yes. Many neuroscientists including myself have joined that effort.” [9] [For those who are interested, Crick explored consciousness in his book titled “The Astonishing Hypothesis”, http://www.amazon.com/Astonishing-Hypothesis-Scientific-Search-Soul/dp/0684801582]

In Graziano’s beliefs, the physical brain gives rise to the mind, which is interchangeable with spirit, soul, and a temporary confluence of information.  It seems his neuroscientific knowledge has actually deepened his spirituality. Like Beauregard, Graziano fits Barbour’s Integration model, in which there is little conflict between science and spirituality because brain and mind are not considered separate entities.  Instead, they are seen as two different aspects of one process.    

Eben Alexander III
Neurosurgeon, Lynchburg General Hospital; author of Proof of Heaven

Dr. Alexander did not put much stock in “near-death revelations of God and heaven” until bacterial meningitis put him into a coma. During that time, he had vivid experiences of “an ‘orb’ that interprets for an all-loving God.” Despite the professional risk, he shared his experiences, eventually writing a book about them. He sums up his new beliefs by saying, “our spirit is not dependent on the brain or body. It is eternal, and no one has one sentence worth of hard evidence that it isn't.” [10]

Alexander takes a more traditional view of religion, discussing God instead of spirituality and asserting that our spirit is independent of our physical selves (his religious experiences occurred when his physical brain was “not working at all” and not simply “working improperly.”) [10] This idea of soul-body dualism can be categorized as Barbour’s Independence model, in which “there can be no conflict between scientific and religious assertions …if they are independent and unrelated to each other.” [8] While most scientists disagree with this idea, the science-religion conflict may be averted another way – by understanding that “there is a conflict in metaphysics but not in ethics.” [11] In this light, the discrepancies between the scientific and religious details are immaterial to one’s daily conduct.     

Andrew Newberg
Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College, author of How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist and Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

On his website, Dr. Newberg states that, “Our research indicates that our only way of comprehending God, asking questions about God, and experiencing God is through the brain. But whether or not God exists ‘out there’ is something that neuroscience cannot answer.” [12] He also explains his own beliefs by saying, “My initial attempts to find answers arose from the Western traditions, with an emphasis on science and philosophy. Over the years, my personal search evolved into a more meditative approach, which appeared similar to some of the Eastern traditions. However, although my approach is in many ways is a form of meditation, I have never practiced a specific religious or meditative technique for any period of time. In order to continue my search, I have had to learn about many disciplines and traditions. This typically was to enhance my own approach, which I do consider a spiritual journey.” [12]

Newberg talks about both God and spirituality and even the role of science in the development of his personal beliefs.  He might be best characterized not by one of Barbour’s models but by Elaine Howard Ecklund (author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think) and her term “spiritual entrepreneur,” which describes people who pursue an individual spirituality that meshes easily with science. [13]   

Concluding Thoughts
As the surveys reveal, there are a large percentage of religious or spiritual scientists and
(estimating from the fairly consistent ratios of beliefs across different scientific disciplines, Figure 2), there are likely a sizeable percentage of neuroscientists with religious or spiritual beliefs. Within this group, individuals use a range of conceptualizations to combine their neuroscientific and religious/spiritual understandings.  Some, such as Beauregard and Graziano, seem to have integrated the two.  Others, such as Alexander, take the exact opposite approach and view the two domains as independent.  Still others, such as Newberg, seem to forge a new path of “spiritual entrepreneurship,” crafting a spirituality that meshes well with scientific understandings. 

Though demonstrated above only briefly (Alexander), I posit that compartmentalization is another way in which scientists avoid conflict between religion and science.  As noted physicist Richard Feynman observed, “there is a conflict in metaphysics but not in ethics.” [11]  That truth, coupled with the infrequency of religious discussions in labs and other scientific realms, makes it is rather easy to defer indefinitely the challenge of thoroughly reconciling one’s religious and scientific beliefs.  

But perhaps rising to that challenge (or at least discussing it) might benefit the scientific community.  A clearer understanding of how scientists relate science and religion in their own lives could improve communication with the more religious public (who may be unaware that scientists share some of their views).  Additionally, understanding the factors that inform our sense of morality and ethics and our research decisions (What topic will I pursue?  What animal models am I comfortable using?) would make us more thoughtful investigators.  In light of the (perhaps unexpected) fact that nearly half of scientists are religious or spiritual, this discussion may be more relevant than we previously thought.  However, this conversation seems practically nonexistent, especially within neuroscience.  None of the polls I found presented neuroscientists as an independent group and I found only a few outspoken neuroscientists who share their beliefs publicly.  I suspect this may be due to a stereotype of religion as irrational and thus incompatible with science (a stigma that’s certainly not helped by media coverage of creationism curriculum, the Westboro Baptist Church protests, etc.).  But is this the case?  The polls suggest that about half of scientists think not (though few seem comfortable publicly expressing this view).  While I certainly agree that scientific efforts should exist apart from the direct influence of religion, it may be a good idea for us to consider and be more willing to discuss some of the human factors (i.e., religion and spirituality) that influence the conduct of science and the lives of scientists.


1.  Masci, D. Scientists and Belief: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; 2009 [4-2-2013]. Available from: http://www.pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Scientists-and-Belief.aspx.

3.  Scott E.C. Do Scientists Really Reject God?: New Poll Contradicts Earlier Ones. Reports of the National Center for Science Education. 1997;18(2):24-5.

4.  Larson E.J. WL. Scientists are still keeping the faith [Commentary]. Nature. 1997;386:435-6. doi: 10.1038/386435a0.

5.  Fingelkurts, A.A., Fingelkurts A.A. Is our brain hardwired to produce God, or is our brain hardwired to perceive God? A systematic review on the role of the brain in mediating religious experience. Cognitive processing. 2009;10(4):293-326. Epub 2009/05/28. doi: 10.1007/s10339-009-0261-3. PubMedPMID: 19471985.

6.  Beauregard, M., O'Leary D. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2007.

7.  Beauregard, M. Author Interview: Harper Collins Publishers;  [cited 2013]. Available from: http://www.harpercollins.com/author/AuthorExtra.aspx?displayType=interview&authorID=30251.

8.  Barbour, I.G. When Science Meets Religion. New York, NY.: HarperCollins; 2000.

9.  Graziano, M. The Spirit Ends When The Brain Dies: Huffington Post; 2011 [cited 2013 April 14]. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-graziano/the-spirit-dies-when-the-brain-dies_b_983852.html.

10.  Kaufman, L. Readers Join Doctor’s Journey to the Afterworld’s Gates: New York Times; 2012 [cited 2013 April 14]. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/26/books/dr-eben-alexanders-tells-of-near-death-in-proof-of-heaven.html?pagewanted=1&_r=4&adxnnlx=1364410868-fOn/vk0ZyryfyttwF7ih1g.

11.  Feynman, R. Where the Two Worlds Tangle.  There is a Conflict in Metaphysics - but Not in Ethics. In: Kurtz P, editor. Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? New York, NY: Prometheus Books; 2003.

12.  Newberg, A. Questions & Answers  [cited 2013 April 14]. Available from: http://www.andrewnewberg.com/qna.asp.

13.  Ecklund, E.H. Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010.

Want to cite this post?
Lang, K. (2013). How do neuroscientists integrate their knowledge of the brain with their religious/spiritual beliefs? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2013/04/how-do-neuroscientists-integrate-their.html


Dr. William M. Struthers said...

Interesting post. Not an area many neuroscientists are ready (or equipped) to go, and I am eager to see what additional scholarship in this area is on the horizon.

BubbaRich said...

Mario Beauregard is, to put it nicely, a dishonest twit. I listen to the Intelligent Design podcast to keep an eye on them, and he and his writings are frequent guests. I put together some notes on his "neuroscience" a couple of years ago after listening to him, I'll see if I can dig them up this evening.

James Burkett said...

Interesting that, in the cited Pew studies, agnostics/skeptics are lumped in with those who refused to answer.

James Burkett said...

I would not describe Beauregard as Integrative. Though he holds a view that includes both mind and body, he clearly upholds a mind-brain dualism, and seems to espouse the view that the brain is little more than a sensing organ that can also mediate relatively automatic emotional responses such as sadness, arousal and fear. While he certainly gives jobs to both mind and brain, he is plainly ascribing every "conscious" task to the mind. While seeming integrative, I think a deeper look reveals the inner Independence of the two in his model.

(It is interesting to note that everything Beauregard explicitly assigns to the "mind" in this article involves tasks mediated by the prefrontal cortex, including emotional regulation and reversal learning.)

With regard to the issue of whether we "produce" or "perceive" God, this is not a new problem in structure. Philosophers at least since John Locke have been dealing with the question of whether we "produce" or "perceive" colors, tastes, and sounds; here we're just adding God to the list. What we know is that our brains appear to be structured such that religious experience is possible, but whether that is a faithful representation of an externality, or a manufacture, is inherently unknowable.