Religion on Demand

god helmet

“Given that the neurological roots of religious experiences can be traced so accurately with the help of the latest neuroscientific technologies, does this mean that we could — in principle — ‘create’ these experiences on demand?”[1]

It’s a good question. And so is the obvious follow up: if technology can create religious experience on demand, how does that affect religion’s claims to authenticity and its status as a cultural institution?

Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the “”God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article) for use in neuro-religious research.

This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. “If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,” [says Dr. Persinger]. [3]

The experiences created are not doctrinally specific, but are of a kind widely shared among different religions — for example, sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. All of these states have been measured or induced in the laboratory[4]:

Some recent advances in neuroimaging techniques allow us to understand how our brains ‘create’ a spiritual or mystical experience. What causes the feeling that someone else is present in the room, or that we’ve stepped outside of our bodies and into another dimension?

“In the last few years,” says [Dr. Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City], “brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”

Prof. James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., [says that] “We are able to even understand when a person gets into ‘ecstasy mode’ … and to identify specific brain areas that participate in this process.”

“If ‘beings’ join the mystical experience,” Prof. Giordano goes on, “we can say that the activity of the left and right temporal lobe network (found at the bottom middle part of the cortex) has changed.”

 “When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [which is a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe] or our prefrontal cortex increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change,” Prof. Giordano explains in an interview for Medium. “These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to.”

The parietal lobes are also the areas that [Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of neurotheology, has] found to have lower brain activity during prayer.

And much more. In addition, research has also helped to explain such things as why people with chronic neurodegenerative diseases often lose their religion:

“We discovered a subgroup who were quite religious but, as the disease progressed, lost some aspects of their religiosity,” [says Patrick McNamara, professor of neurology at Boston University and author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (2009)]. Sufferers’ brains lack the neurotransmitter dopamine, making McNamara suspect that religiosity is linked to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. “These areas of the brain handle complexity best, so it may be that people with Parkinson’s find it harder to access complex religious experiences.”

Does this research signal the end of religion any time soon? Probably not, says Dr. Newberg:

Until we gain such answers, however, religion is unlikely to go anywhere. The architecture of our brains won’t allow it, says Dr. Newberg, and religion fulfills needs that our brains are designed to have.[5]

Tim Crane, author of The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), agrees:  religion, he says, is simply “too ingrained as a human instinct.” See also this article[6]’s analysis of the current state of the science vs. religion contention, which concludes that the scale seems to be tipping more to the latter:

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy.

There are plenty of contrary opinions, of course, and all the technology and research in the world is unlikely to change anybody’s mind. pro or con. We’ll look at why not next time.

[1] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

[4] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[5] Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Vince Rause (2001).

[6] “Why Religion Is Not Going Away And Science Will Not Destroy It,” Aeon Magazine (Sept. 7, 2017).