Is Religion Beyond the Brain?

gears and headThe field of neuroscience is booming.  New discoveries emerge daily, and given the overwhelming complexity of the brain, many profound and important discoveries surely await.  This creates a furor of research, but it also encourages over-reaching generalizations.  People are quick to offer up interpretations about what all these new discoveries mean for our daily lives, for our religiosity, our relationships, our work, our health…  The brain and the mind are so intrinsic to who we are, and the research is so fascinating, that it’s hard to resist making these leaps of interpretation.  As a result, we see a slew of books and articles describing religion in terms of the brain, or vice-versa.  But, all too often, these works are philosophical speculation with a scientific façade.

Last week the New York Times columnist David Brooks critiqued the tendency to overextend these discoveries, by describing the difficulties faced in exploring the brain.  But in the end, he just returned to his philosophical camp by proclaiming, in opposition to most neuroscientists, that “The brain is not the mind.”  Okay, that’s fine to say and true to what most of us feel, but it does little to unearth the real richness of the problem: if the brain is not the mind, then how are the two interacting?  For a deep and quick overview of the mind-brain problem, see this lecture (if you’re worried about time, the relevant section is only six minutes long, starting at 9:27).

The point is, while David Brooks is right in his wariness, the speculators are right in their enthusiasm.  Discoveries in neuroscience do impact our understanding of religiosity and ourselves.  And while we need to be careful about how much we can infer from neuroscience research, we also need to be careful about the complexity of the things we’re trying to describe.  As a cultural and individual phenomenon, religion is incredibly complex.  We’re seeking to better understand it through research, surveys, and analysis, but religiosity remains as mysterious as the brain itself.  The sheer complexity on both sides demands carefulness when talking about the brain and religion.  But this carefulness, and wariness, shouldn’t prevent our expectant excitement that new discoveries will help unravel and deepen the mystery of both.

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