“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious.” Einstein once said this of his spirituality in a 1954 essay for NPR. While most consider science and religion to be mutually exclusive entities perpetually at odds, over 51% of scientists believe in a higher power. In fact, some scientists find science to be the basis of their conversion from atheism to religion. One such example is Francis Collins, the director of the National Health Institute, who converted to Christianity and argues that the idea of a Christian God is compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Historically, early scientists were first members of the religious community. During the Golden Age of Islam, there was a scientific revolution and many Islamic cities became centers of knowledge and learning. Mathematics, medicine, and astronomy were all fields that were contributed to by Islamic scholars such as Abu Ja’far. Later, during the Middle Ages in Europe, Christian clergy were pioneers of science. The Christian churches were in charge of nearly all education in Europe, and primarily clergy had the time and resources available to focus on science. Newton, known as a father of science, was also a religious zealot.
It was the 18th century before the separation of science and religion was truly apparent. During the Enlightenment, philosophers such as Kant championed the divide of what they considered to be spiritualism and rationalism. Today, religious organizations have a reputation for being anti-science and anti-reason. Yet some members of religious communities have embraced the scientific research on the basis of religion. To these people, the research further reinforces their belief that God has enabled humans with the unique ability to believe in God.
What is this unique ability that believers claim differentiates humans from apes? According to Dr. Dean Hamer of the NIH, the ability to believe in God is genetic, caused by a gene affectionately referred to as the “God gene.” This gene, VMAT2, regulates monoamines, a mood-controlling chemical. Hamer conducted an experiment that showed subjects that had this gene were more susceptible to spiritual experiences. Other researchers agree that religious affiliations are caused by genes that regulate dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters.
A perhaps unexpected group to be predisposed to religion are people with epilepsy. A study revealed that those with epilepsy reacted most strongly to words associated with religion, when compared with neutral and erotic words. Those without epilepsy reacted most strongly to erotic words. This is perhaps because epilepsy is often resulting from activity in the temporal lobe, the same area of the brain that religious activity is believed to occur.
Another more abstract cause of religious belief is something called the God Helmet. Stanley Koren and Dr. Michael Persinger of Laurentian University created this apparatus, which when worn, induces a spiritual experience. About 80% of wearers have experienced this spiritual sensation. The God Helmet utilizes electrodes to alter the electromagnetic field at the temporal lobes, thereby convincing the left temporal lobe to believe that a presence is causing the activity in the right side of the brain. Due to this, Persinger believes religion is nothing more than the effects of the electromagnetic field.
Regardless of whether religion is divinely or scientifically inspired--or perhaps both, the effects of religion and spirituality on the brain are undeniable to theists and atheists alike. There’s been an exorbitant number of studies claiming religion acts in a similar manner to many recreational drugs. In a few ways, this is true. Religion does trigger the reward system of the brain and can have long-lasting impact on brain structure and function.
Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania is at the forefront of a field of research focusing on religion and the brain. This field is commonly referred to as neurotheology and has gained much attention over the past few years. Newberg conducted a study where he used Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) to image the brains of Tibetan monks and Christian nuns while they engaged in meditation and prayer, respectively. He found that the frontal lobe, responsible for focus, and the limbic system, which regulates emotion, showed increased activity whereas the parietal lobe, responsible for helping orientate oneself in space and time, showed decreased activity. This loss of orientation ability is fascinating. It indicates that the participants were no longer able to differentiate themselves from the universe‒ they were truly experiencing a state of transcendence.
Newberg studied one final group, one whose results differed wildly from the monks and nuns. Newberg observed Pentecostal Christians while they were ‘speaking in tongues.’ Unlike the monks and nuns who experienced an increase in frontal lobe activity during periods of religious engagement, the Pentecostal Christians experienced a decrease. Furthermore, the language center of the brain showed almost no activity, which some claim proves that God speaks through people. Others claim it proves that the Pentecostal Christians are simply working themselves into a state‒and not a divine one.
The varieties of religion do have neurological differences, although not in the way one might assume. Newberg found differences along sects of religion were negligible. However, people who believe a high power is present in their everyday lives activate neural pathways associated with fear when thinking about their religious beliefs. Furthermore, those who are guided by religious doctrine associate their religious beliefs with language. Meanwhile, atheists connect their beliefs with pathways associated with images.
It is interesting to note that atheists are similar to theists in some neurological ways. Like the nuns and Tibetan monks, there’s a marked increase in activity in the prefrontal cortex, which controls emotions and attention. In atheists, this may present itself as an analytical mindset. Yet, what causes atheism? It’s largely uncertain, but there is an increasing amount of research being done on atheism. Dr. Patrick McNamara of Boston University conducted a study where he performed MRI scans on those with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s notably causes a lack of dopamine, which is linked to religious belief. As individuals with Parkinson’s lose dopamine, they often lose their religiosity.
Apart from differences in brain activity, various religious practices also cause structural changes. In addition to the effects observed by Newberg, other negative effects have been found. Born-again Christians in particular experience notable declines in brain function over the course of their lifetimes. This type of Christianity is often accompanied with hippocampal atrophy which is associated with depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Many people in the scientific community believe that this is due to the fact that born-again Christians must overcome their old ways of thinking after their ‘rebirth.’ The act of ‘rebirth’ causes cognitive dissonance, which puts excess stress on the brain.
Evolutionarily speaking, religion has advantages. Religion is able to bind together a community, increasing chances of survival. Those in religious communities are more likely to make choices for the good of the group rather than make selfish decisions. Among early American communes, those that were secular were four times more likely to fail than religious communes.
While the relationship between science and religion is fraught and overwhelmed with conflict, there is an undeniable link between the two. This link has been explored since the dawn of science and has been the subject of heated debate, from early Christian and Muslim scholars to modern day theologists. However, as Carl Sagan once said, “science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”