Religion and Science Roundtable seating still available
Laurinburg, N.C. – “When Dr. Case taught a course at Scotia Village, I did what a lot of my students have done and didn’t read all of the assignments in the hopes that I would get a lot from the lectures. As most of us here haven’t done any of the reading for this event, I can assure you that we will all get a lot from this lecture.”
With this introduction by facilitator Dr. Allen Dotson, Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Andrews Presbyterian College Pamela Case began the April Religion and Science Roundtable lecture on “Neurotheology: Brains, Boundaries, and Beliefs” in the Belk Main Room Tuesday evening at St. Andrews.
“Neurotheology is a new field,” she said. “It was 10 years ago when I came into my office to find a copy of the May 7, 2001 issue of Newsweek with the headline ‘God & the Brain: How We’re Wired for Spirituality’ with a note saying ‘this looks right up your alley.’ I put the magazine to the side, but later that day I found a copy in my faculty mailbox with a similar note, at which point I decided it was a sign and sat down to read the article. It was there that I came across the word neurotheology for the first time.”
After reading the article, Case did what she tells her students to do when they read a news article on an area of science. She went to the original papers to explore the research at a deeper level. That led her to the works on the subject by neurologist V.S. Ramachandran, radiologist Andrew Newberg and neuroscience researcher Michael Persinger.
“We have reached a point with technology where we can look at what’s happening inside the brain while it is happening,” said Case. “Newberg wanted to see what was happening in the brain while people were engaged in religious practices. He just so happened to have a friend who was practiced in Buddhist meditation. This friend would describe his practices as a loss of self.”
Using a Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scan, Newberg brought his friend to the lab to see what changes occurred in frontal lobe and parietal lobe.
“What he found was that there was less blood flow in the baseline frontal lobe than in the meditation state,” Case said. “And Newberg was ecstatic as he had predicted it would happen because when you pay attention to things the frontal lobe lights up. He also found that there was less blood flow to the left parietal lobe, which is the region of the brain where we construct boundaries between us and everyone else.”
Newberg repeated this experiment with Franciscan Nuns, where he found the same pattern.
“Does this mean God is a figment of the imagination?” Case asked the crowd of more than 70. “Newberg answers this question with apple pie. A neuroscientist with time on his hands could get a picture of apple pie and tell you what is happening in your brain as you look at that picture. But that will not tell you one thing at all about apple pie. His research is correlational and not causational.”
Case then turned to the work of Ramachandran related to his patients with temporal lobe epilepsy.
“He had noticed in his practice that for about 10 percent of his patients with temporal lobe epilepsy everything revolved around their relationship with God,” Case said. “So he conducted an experiment involving galvanic skin response, as is used in lie detector testing. He would display neutral words on the screen and get little to no response. Normal people would, unfortunately, show no real response to God charged words. But if we were exposed to sexually charged words, we would sweat. But for those with temporal lobe epilepsy, the reverse was true. There was no response to the sexually charged words but there was a strong response to God charged words.
“So the question is raised if it is possible that the temporal lobe circuitry is like the antennae for God?” she continued. “Ramachandran charges that we will never know through science.”
This was where the work of Persinger, an avowed atheist came into play. As Case shared, after Persinger stimulated the temporal lobe, he had a God experience and promoted the concept of a “God spot” in the brain.
“Persinger created the God Helmet, which contains transcranial magnetic stimulators at various spots in the helmet in order to activate different parts of the brain,” Case said. “He brought in people who thought they were in for a relaxed experience. Of those tested, 80 percent experienced a sensed presence.”
While this initial research strengthened the case for a “God spot,” the challenge was placed by Ramachandran to see what would happen when an avowed atheist was placed in the chair. While Francis Crick, one of the scientists credited with the discovery of DNA, was the initial candidate, his death occurred before arrangements could be made. In his place, Richard Dawkins, noted British zoologist and the man behind the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, was tapped.
“Dawkins knew what he was going in for,” Case said, highlighting a problem with the scenario due to expectation’s role in experience. “He experienced nothing. Persinger was disappointed because he really did think that the activity creates God but even he now admits that there probably isn’t a God spot.
“The field of neurology is based on which comes first, God or the brain?” Case said. “But the science doesn’t tell us whether God exists.”
The Religion and Science Roundtables are associated with the annual John Calvin McNair Lecture on Science and Theology hosted each fall by St. Andrews. The McNair Lecture was established by the 1857 will of John Calvin McNair who asked that "the object of which lecture(s) shall be to show the mutual bearing of Science and Theology upon each other...."
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