We continue the series on the book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience . Today Part 9, Chapters 15-19, the rest of the book:
- Does Neuropsychology Have Anything to Offer Pyschotherapy and Counseling?
- Are Religious Beliefs the Twenty First Century Opium of the People? What About Placebo Effects?
- What About Spirituality? Is It a Separate “Religious” Part of Me?
- Can Science “Explain Away” Religion?
- Where Next?
We’ll wrap up our discussion of this book this week.
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In Chapter 15 Malcolm reveals he was trained as a natural scientist and so the whole idea that there is such a thing as “Christian psychology” seems bizarre to him. There is no such thing as “Christian physics” or “Christian chemistry”. Even accepting the Bible is replete with profound insights into human nature doesn’t mean you can construct a “Christian psychology” any more than the fact the Bible is replete with references to the sun rising and setting means you can construct a “Christian astronomy”. It should be obvious that astronomical science is a totally different venture from astronomical references in the Bible. What part of the firmament does NASA fire its rocket into?
Malcolm then makes the point that where modern psychology is based on sound science (not always a given) that it can offer useful insights to the pastoral ministry in their business of “soul care”. The dawning realization by evangelical ministers that mental health issues such as bipolar disorder and clinical depression have a physiological basis and that their congregants can benefit from medicinal treatment as much as their diabetic congregants benefit from their insulin treatment is real progress.
In Chapter 16, Malcolm has a good review of studies of the placebo effect in neurology. His student raises the question that if religious belief is nothing more than a kind of placebo effect, and that causes the reported better health among religious people, what does this do to our understanding that there’s something special about religious belief, about being grounded in a relationship with a God who really exists? Malcolm notes:
From the standpoint of neuroscience, beliefs are complex cognitive patterns that have both genetic and environmental causes. So, to the extent that the neural underpinnings of belief can, for example, be plausibly linked to the neural antecedents of healing, a biological connection between faith and healing becomes a scientifically testable issue. In the case of the placebo effect this is sometimes used to demonstrate, for example, how beliefs may help to relieve pain.
Malcolm’s student then asks, “Do demonstrated effects of beliefs, including belief that our prayers have an effect, serve as evidence that our beliefs are true and that therefore God must exist?” Malcolm answers:
It’s one thing to demonstrate, in some instances, the beneficial nature of religious faith, but whether or not that, in any sense, constitutes a proof of the existence of God is another matter. You cannot move from the description of what is the case, scientifically, to claiming it as a support for metaphysical explanations…
One thing is clear, however, there a great danger in public pronouncements, of oversimplifying an extremely complex research topic, perhaps motivated by wish for dramatic media headlines. As Christians we should have no part in this. I think it’s also clear that there is the constant temptation, perhaps especially for those not closely involved in the field, to feel threatened by such research either when it is presented as “explaining away” their religious beliefs or, equally mistakenly, when it is used by some to seek to bolster religious belief by putting it forward as some sort or proof that there must be a God who is acting through these beliefs. I do hope we can heed these warnings.
In Chapter 17, What About Spirituality, Ben and Malcolm contemplate Ben’s grandmother as she experiences Alzheimer. The progression of the disease has left her no longer able to pray or read the Bible. Malcolm brings us the case of Robert Davis, the Christian pastor who, at the height of his ministry at 53 began to suffer with Alzheimer’s dementia. With the help of his wife he wrote a remarkable account of his spiritual experiences well into the middle stages of the disease. It documents how his progressive brain disease affected his spirituality. He wrote:
My spiritual life was still most miserable. I could not read the Bible. I could not pray as I wanted because my emotions were dead and cut off. There was no feedback from God the Holy Spirit… My mind could not rest and grow calm but instead raced relentlessly, thinking dreadful thoughts of despair.
My mind also raced about, grasping for the comfort of the Saviour whom I knew and loved and for the emotional peace that he could give me, but finding nothing. I concluded that the only reason for such darkness must be spiritual. Unnamed guilt filled me. Yet the only guilt I could put a name to was failure to read my Bible. But I could not read, and would God condemn me for this? I could only lie there and cry, “Oh God, why? Why?
This type of thing is heart-rending. God’s inscrutable (and cruel?) silence/inaction in the face of the innocent suffering of his lambs is still the best argument for atheism there is. What good shepherd lets the wolves ravage the flock? Jeeves, to his credit, doesn’t try to answer with any triteness and condemns the triumphalist way that implies if you suffer like this you’ve “fallen away” or “gave place to doubt” or committed some undisclosed sin. I once had a good friend and pastor try to tell me that when Job said, “what I have greatly feared has come upon me”, his “negative confession” of fear is what “opened the door” to the disasters that befell him. Sheesh! Never mind the whole point of the book is that Job’s trials are explicitly said NOT to be due to any sin of his. My friend’s name wasn’t Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zophar, but it may as well have been. Jeeves concludes that these changes in our brain occur through no fault of our own, so they don’t affect our “spirituality” whatever that is anyway. Imonk readers should remember Chaplain Mike’s essay on “surd evil” . The Christian’s response can only be empathy, love, and all the practical support we can give.
Chapter 18 is, Can Science “Explain Away” Religion? Answer – NO, now move along, nothing to see here. Oh… you want to discuss it anyway (sigh) very well then. Linking evolutionary psychology with cognitive neuroscience to understand religion is a popular media trope. In 2009 the New Scientist ran an article titled, “Natural Born Believers”, with the sub-heading, “Why Religion Is Part of Human Nature”. Brains, it said, are primed for it. The National Academy of Science in America published a paper with the title, “Cognitive and Neural Foundations of Religious Belief”. At the end of November in the same year the journal Science published, “On the Origin of Religion”. All fascinating stuff.
The thing is, similar approaches could be taken to studying the origins of political beliefs, or ethical beliefs, or moral beliefs, or… or… (wait for it) SCIENTFIC BELIEFS (gasp!). Yes, scientists have pinpointed which areas of our brains are most active when we are undertaking scientific research!!! Researchers have shown that our scientific beliefs have evolved over the centuries from a primitive state to today’s highly sophisticated systems. Other researchers have shown how certain scientific beliefs were culturally conditioned and were social constructs of their time (eugenics, anyone?). Of course the cognitive structures of the brain are involved in religious thinking and an evolutionary path can be discerned or hypothesized. Cognitive structures of the brain and evolutionary development are involved in EVERY FRICKIN’ HUMAN ENDEAVOR! Would that mean that what we write in our scientific journals must be untrue? Of course not. New insights into the neural, evolutionary, psychological, or anthropological origins and underpinnings of beliefs could never tell us whether beliefs are true or false. That can only be decided by studying what is claimed to be the evidential basis for the belief and then carefully evaluating it.
For some devout Christians, any suggestion that their capacity to believe in God and express that belief in sincere faith can be put under the microscope of cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists is a step too far. It threatens the concept of imago Dei and the uniqueness of God’s creation of man. But committed Christian neuroscientists, like Justin Barrett and Matthew Jarvinen don’t believe so. In their book, The Emergence of Personhood: A Quantum Leap? they write:
For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the CSR-type (cognitive science of religion) account is broadly accurate. Does such an account, then, undercut or cast doubt on the theological claim that human personhood is specially marked as being Imago Dei, in the image or likeness of God.” “For example, many things we regard as good, including art and music; many things we believe are truth producing, such as your favorite branch of mathematics or philosophy; and many things we value as useful, such as clothing and fishing tackle, are evolutionary byproducts in a comparable respect.” Indeed they note that Noam Chomsky recognized modern science as a possible evolutionary byproduct. And they point out that philosopher Peter van Invagen has observed that an evolutionary by-product could very well be intentional and not an “accident” at all. Referring to van Invagen’s views, Barrett writes, “That is, God could have selected this universe out of any number of possible ones because it featured in one species a tendency toward theism as one (by) product of evolution.”
I’m down with this. Religious thinking serves adaptive functions. It fosters morality, social cohesion and group survival. That is why it is so widespread across humanity. If you think that explains away God, well you’re entitled to your opinion. My opinion is that God, through evolutionary processes, brought forth a creature able to reflect on Him, ponder His ways, suss out His secondary mechanisms, and ultimately relate to Him in love.
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