Sunday, April 29, 2007

Neurobiologists "Find" Religion (and then lose it)

When I saw the stupid headline - "This Is Your Brain on God" - at Slate.com, I thought here we go again. Another ridiculous article purporting to "explain" religion as the by-product of Darwinian evolution or neurobiology. We've been here before (both Slate and the NYTimes seem to have soft-spots for such articles - just recall "Darwin's God"**). But George Johnson's article on the emerging field of "neurotheology" is a refreshing rarity: an article in the popular press that actually expresses skepticism about the ability of science (in this case, neurobiology) to explain every facet of human existence. Thank heavens!!

Johnson makes it clear that the findings of neurotheology will never satisfy either believers or atheists - in the end, the results will always conform to one's metaphysical presuppositions:
In the neurological search for the spiritual, there is no shortage of data. But pile it as high as you like, and you're left staring across the same divide. Depending on your predisposition, you can interpret all these experiments in two different ways. The believers take them as scientific evidence for the reality of their visions, while the atheists claim more proof that God is all in your head.
Johnson isn't afraid to say that many of the neurotheological findings - which are often hyped by the popular scientific media - are actually rather banal and "reductive". This isn't surprising, since much of modern neurobiology simply involves hooking patients up to brain-scanning devices and then observing which parts of their brains "light up" when they do something unusual or interesting (like play ping-pong, pray, look at naked women, etc.). As Johnson remarks, such "high-tech imagery has a way of stating the obvious." For instance, a study at UPenn "found that praying Franciscan nuns and meditating Buddhist monks generate similar brain scans: The frontal lobe, associated with focus and concentration, lights up. At the same time, the parietal lobe, which integrates sensory information, goes dim... As you fix your thoughts on the otherworldly, you lose contact with your immediate surroundings." Surprise, surprise!!

A major limitation of neurotheology, which Johnson doesn't really address, is that it's forced to study religious behaviors (like deep praying, mediation, or ecstatic visions) since it can't really probe religious thought or belief as such. But such behaviors are merely one aspect of the religious life, and are in no way determinative of religious practice as a whole. I, for one, have never experienced an ecstatic vision, and while I do pray, I doubt that it moves my brain into a dramatically altered mental state. For me, praying is not that different than ordinary thinking. So why do I still believe? The emphasis on religious ecstasy also ignores the fact that such experiences have historically been regarded with suspicion by religious authorities themselves. Even in biblical times, it was widely understood that not every vision or prophecy was legitimate; such experiences had to be verified with other criteria. Thus, the basis for religious faith does not lie in such altered mental states, although these can complement previously held beliefs.

So it matters not one bit that "Michael Persinger of Laurentian University can induce [mystical experiences] by scrambling the brain with magnetic fields." Humans have known since prehistoric times that various substances and foods can cause visions. So who cares that they can also be caused by magnetic fields? Regardless, Persinger's device serves as the occasion for my favorite paragraph in the article:
After donning [Persinger's] helmet wired with electromagnets, some subjects reported experiences they described as mystical, or at least misty. When Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, put on the hood, it only made him a little dizzy. Persinger was quick to note that Dawkins had scored way below average on a psychological questionnaire measuring temporal lobe sensitivity—hints of a neurobiological correlate for atheism.
Johnson's last line here is brilliant. After all, if theism is simply a product of neurochemistry, then so is atheism - something that the "explainers of religion" all too often forget. Perhaps, in the end, the neurotheologians will show that it is atheism, not theism, which is caused by a mental defect (this would be the logical conclusion, of course, since the vast majority of the world's current and past inhabitants have been theists). If so, will Slate.com then treat us to articles that attempt to explain the "atheism meme" and the "agnostic delusion"?

** Remember that silly "Darwin's God" article? Hopefully not. But if you're still interested, and still annoyed, the blog Adventus has a brilliant response.

Kierkegaard on the Imago Dei

The perfect passage for a beautiful Sunday in Spring:

"How glorious it is to be a Human Being!... Now how should we speak about this glory? We could go on speaking for a long time without ever finishing, but this is not the place for that. Let us therefore speak briefly instead and concentrate everything on that one single verse that Scripture itself uses with authority: God created the human being in his image, but again for the sake of brevity let us understand this verse with regard to only one thing.

God created the human being in his image. Must it not be glorious to be clothed in this way! In praise of the lily, the Gospel declares that it surpasses Solomon in glory. Must it not be infinitely more glorious to resemble God! The lily does not resemble God - no, it does not do that. It bears a little mark by which it reminds one of God; it has a witness, since God has not let himself be without witness in anything created, although the lily does not resemble him...

To be spirit, that is the human being's invisible glory. Thus when the worried human out in the field stands surrounded by all these witnesses, when every single flower says to him, "Remember God!" he replies, "I will indeed do that, my children - I will worship him, and you poor little ones cannot do that." Consequently the erect, upright one is a worshiper. The upright gait of the human is the sign of distinction, but to be able to prostrate oneself in adoration and worship is even more glorious; and all nature is like the great staff of servants who remind the human, the ruler, about worshiping God. This is what is expected, not that the human being is to come and assume the command, which is also glorious and assigned to him, but that worshiping he shall praise the Creator, something nature cannot do, since it can only remind the human being about doing that. It is glorious to be clothed as the lily, even more glorious to be the erect and upright ruler, but most glorious to be nothing by worshiping!

To worship is not to rule, and yet worship is what makes the human being resemble God, and to be able truly to worship is the excellence of the invisible glory above all creation. The pagan was not aware of God and therefore sought likeness in ruling. But the resemblance is not like that - no, then instead it is taken in vain... The human being and God do not resemble each other directly but inversely; only when God has infinitely become the eternal and omnipotent object of worship and the human being always a worshiper, only then do they resemble each other... The ability to worship is no visible glory, it cannot be seen, and yet nature's visible glory sighs; it pleads with the ruler, it incessantly reminds the human that whatever he does he absolutely must not forget - to worship. Oh, how glorious to be a human being!"

- From Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, "What we learn from the lilies in the field and from the birds of the air", pg. 192-193.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

David Hart: Arrogant or Brilliant?

Due to frequent travel and general busyness, I've haven't had much time to post lately. It's strange, but I often feel guilty when I go for long periods of time without posting, as if I had neglected to call my mom or ignored a letter from a close friend. I wonder if any other bloggers feel the same way....

Regardless, my travels have given me the chance to really dig into David Hart's much-discussed The Beauty of the Infinite. This book has attracted considerable praise from bloggers and real theologians alike, as well as some criticisms. I, for one, am thoroughly impressed. Hart's prose is fantastic, and his theological insights have given me a new appreciation of the importance of Christian aesthetics (something that my reading of Kierkegaard had taught me to distrust). The book has also clarified my understanding of the Trinity, for which I am grateful.

That said, I agree with Patrik that Hart's harsh treatment of modern theologians and philosophers is somewhat at odds with his frequent assertion that the Christian proclamation is one of "peace" (although I wouldn't claim, like Patrik, that his rhetoric is the equivalent of American foreign policy!). There's little doubt that Beauty of the Infinite would have been better without Hart's snarky dismissals of almost every major Protestant theologian from Luther and Calvin up to Tillich and J√ľngel. Indeed, it's hard to disagree with Halden's comment that Hart has an irrational prejudice against anything German and Protestant (he seems to subscribe to the popular notion that there has been a "German captivity of theology").

It's worth noting, though, that there are two German Lutherans that Hart cannot praise highly enough: J.S. Bach and Johann Hamann. He refers to Bach as "the greatest of Christian theologians", saying that "Bach's is the ultimate Christian music; it reflects as no other human artifact ever has or could the Christian vision of creation" (282-3). By comparison, Hart's adoration of Hamann is more restrained, but not by much. He writes that "for [Hamann], to a degree perhaps unparalleled in Christian thought, the true knowledge of God in creation - the true analogy - lay in a childlike rapture before the concrete and poetic creativity of God" (254) Elsewhere, Hart employs all of his rhetorical gifts to hail Hamann as "most amusing philosopher" of all time, possessing "a truly Christian mirthfulness".

The connection between Hart and Hamann in interesting for me, since I have been reading them somewhat in tandem. While I consider Hamann to be superior both aesthetically and theologically, there is undoubtedly a close affinity between the two authors. In fact, it has proven beneficial to read Hart in light of Hamann, since the latter provides a corrective to the excesses and omissions of the former (call it a "Lutheran corrective"). It seems to me that Hamann might serve as useful mediator between Hart and the Protestant theologians he so often criticizes. After all, given that both Hamann and Bach understood themselves as no more than orthodox Lutherans, Hart's praise of these two men may signify a closer affinity to Lutheran theology than he realizes. If nothing else, it gives me hope that Hart's theological insights can be separated from his brash rhetoric and employed for truly evangelical purposes.