Religion in the Brain-Scanner

Jonathan Morgan

MRI,brainLast week I wrote about the dangers of reducing experience down to the chemical reactions and physics of our bodies.  For a great look at the depths of this problem, check out my colleague David Rohr’s essay at Patheos.com.  But all this may leave you wondering whether this is really a danger.  Am I just arguing against a straw man or fighting windmills?  Don’t get me wrong, I think Don Quixote’s great, but here’s why I don’t think this is an imaginary debate.

Check out this paper from a group of neuroscientists and scholars in Maryland- “Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief.”  I get super excited when I see titles like this.  Understanding the brain mechanisms beneath belief would help us understand how religion might have emerged in early human communities.  I’d likely regret it, but I wish I could time travel just to see those early communities begin to use language and form early rituals.  That’d be amazing!  Good academic papers are kind of like imaginary time machines that give us a glimpse into our past.  At least the good ones do.

That’s not to say that this paper is poor.  It has some really interesting theory and findings.  The team begins with a three-part theory of what religious belief is about– think about it like a taxonomy of belief.

First religious belief, they say, involves a perception of God’s involvement in the world.  Is God really active or withdrawn?  Second there’s a dimension to belief that involves God’s emotional state.  Specifically they’re concerned about whether God is angry or loving, which seems like a pretty limited view of God’s emotional life.  I think my cat had more emotions than that, but that’s an argument for another time.  Finally they argue that religious beliefs will fall somewhere on a spectrum between stuff that’s learned as abstract doctrine and stuff that’s learned through experience.  These three elements make up the psychological structure of religious belief.

At least that’s the theory.  And it’s not an entirely unfounded theory.  They had 26 participants rank beliefs (for example- “God protects all people”) on each of these dimensions: God’s involvement, God’s emotion, and whether the belief is doctrinal or experiential.  The people seemed to agree in their assessment of each belief.  Which isn’t all that surprising- “protecting all people” is definitely more loving than angry and more involved than not.  Frankly I’m not so sure whether it’s doctrinal or experiential, so maybe that agreement is actually surprising.

The bulk of the experiment, however, is to see what parts of people’s brains light up when they are asked to agree or disagree with the various beliefs.  So, do you agree – does God protect all people?  While you’re thinking about it in the fMRI, your brain is being scanned.  Since that belief has to do with a loving and involved God, then we learn something by seeing which parts of the brain light up.  That’s neat.

In case you’re interested, statements about God’s love lit up the right middle frontal gyrus, while statements about God’s anger seemed to modulate activity in the left middle temporal gyrus.  God’s involvement had a pretty diverse effect.  In the statements where God wasn’t involved a whole variety of networks were involved.  But statements with God being more involved didn’t provide any reliable pattern.

These findings are interesting because the networks that lit up for God’s lack of involvement are also networks that deal with understanding people’s actions.  The areas that involved perceiving God’s emotion happen to be the areas involved with what cognitive scientists call the Theory of Mind.  That’s just a fancy name for our ability to understand that other people have minds, with intentions and feelings and all that good stuff.  All these associations are quite exciting.  Doesn’t it feel like they’re starting to get at some of the heart of what’s going on in religion?

Now we can understand that religious belief must come from our tendency to give meaning to actions or to assume that a mind lies behind things that happen out there in nature.  At least, that’s how many people are using this data.  And who can blame them; neural evidence has such an aura of authority that associations seem to shine with an unquestionable truth.

But they need to slow down, because all that neural evidence depends entirely on how the experiment is designed.  And making such extreme extrapolations about what belief is “really about” requires some pretty weighty philosophical arguments.

Let’s consider the experiment’s design.  The beliefs people were asked to assess were all steeped in Christian language and ideas.  That’s fine, since most of their participants were Christian, or at least familiar with Christian language and ideas.  But it should raise some questions about how applicable these findings about “religious beliefs” should be to the 5 billion other people in this world or to the evolutionary origins of religion, which may predate Christianity by a good 100,000 years.

In the scanner people were asked to agree or disagree with these pre-given statements.  Should we be surprised that when asked whether God is forgiving, people used the parts of their brain that assess emotions and intentions?  More importantly, does this tell us much about the actual content of people’s personal beliefs or how they relate to those personal beliefs?

The safest thing that can be said about this experiment is that when people were asked about the actions of a personal God, they used some of the same parts of their brain that they use when they think about the actions of other people.  But that sure isn’t exciting.  That’s pretty far from the time machine I wanted.

But if you don’t take this safe stance, if you put too much weight on these findings, then you begin to take the neural evidence as proof of their assumptions:  Religious belief must have this psychological framework of involvement, emotion, and the nebulous doctrinal/experiential dimension.  Or even more risky, you might take the brain images as proof that religious beliefs are nothing more than our cognitive tendencies, which are good for getting along with people, misapplied to nature.  To borrow a biblical metaphor- conclusions like this are like mansions built on foundations of sand.

That’s the danger of understanding one level of our experience, religious belief, solely in the terms of another level, neurons.  There is a ton to be understood about religious belief and all the ways it works in our personal lives and communities.  Neuroscience will help shed light on this mystery.  This study helps shed light on some very specific parts of belief.  But when we put too much weight on this type of evidence, we foreclose any further exploring of the true depths and complexity of this important dimension of experience.


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