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The Brain Prosperity Gospel: Can “Neurotheology” Be Real Science?

Michael Egnor
Photo credit: ian kelsall via Unsplash.

Neurotheology is the study of the neuroscience associated with spiritual experience. It is a growing field. In a recent essay, Andrew Newberg, a prominent researcher, discusses recent advances:

The field of neurotheology continues to expand from its early origins several decades ago to the present day. In its simplest definition, neurotheology refers to the field of scholarship that seeks to understand the relationship between the brain and our religious and spiritual selves. As I always like to say, it is important to consider both sides of neurotheology very broadly. Thus, the “neuro” side includes brain imaging, psychology, neurology, medicine, and even anthropology. And the “theology” side includes theology itself, but also various aspects related to religious beliefs, attitudes, practices, and experiences.


Newberg highlights three key tenets of the field:

● Neurotheology is a field that unites brain science and psychology with religious belief and practices.
● There are several indirect and direct mechanisms that link spirituality with improved mental health.
● Compassion and love are positive emotions that will make your brain healthier.

Huge Obstacles for Neurotheology

The study of the neuroscience of various mental states, including religious belief, is a reasonable pursuit. But I believe that neurotheology, as a science, faces huge obstacles, including these:

1. How reliable is the technology on which neurotheology depends? The use of fMRI brain imaging, which slows activated regions of the brain during thought, is fraught with technical and interpretative pitfalls. The signal-to-noise ratio of fMRI imaging can be quite low, and there are devilish problems with interpretation. To cite a famous example, in 2010, researchers published a paper in which they successfully used fMRI to measure brain activity in a dead salmon when it was put into a variety of social situations. The results were, of course, false positives but, in fMRI imaging, false positives are a plague and call into question many studies. So the science of fMRI brain imaging, which is the cornerstone of neurotheology, is sketchy to say the least.

2. The quest is plagued by materialist bias. Researchers either assume or find it easy to conclude that spiritual experience is caused by brain states. This is, of course, not true: spiritual experience is abstract and mediated by the immaterial intellect and will.

There are undoubtedly correlates between genuine spiritual experiences (prayer, infused contemplation, mystical union, etc.) and imaging. But correlation is too easily mistaken for causation and, given the mindset of current neuroscience, neurotheology is likely to become just another materialist fad in which the human rational and spiritual soul is reduced to evolved meat. The potential for abuse of neurotheology far outweighs its modest scientific or theological value.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.