Science meets religion meets good writing.
Over a century ago, Nietzsche declared that God was dead, but He just doesn’t seem to go away. Why, ask coauthors Newberg and d’Aquili (The Mystical Mind), do human beings continue to quest for the divine? Not satisfied with the usual sociological arguments, they turn to biology and find an answer in the human brain: Spiritual experiences, like prayer and meditation, are “associated . . . with a series of observable neurological events.” Teaming up with journalist Rause, the doctors examine the issues in prose clear enough so that even the most science-phobic reader will feel at ease. Before laying out their case for the connections between religion and science, the authors walk their audience through some introductory material: what the cerebral cortex is, how neurons work, how human beings turn raw information into perceptions that make sense to us; what the limbic system, hypothalamus, and hippocampus actually do. (Occasionally, those explanations get a little too cutesy, as when the authors call the hippocampus “the diplomat” or label the amygdala “the watchdog.”) Ritual, as cultural history attests, is virtually universal, and when rituals work, they help the brain “adjust its cognitive and emotional perceptions” in a way that religious folks call an encounter between human and divine. The authors use science to try and explain religion, not explain it away. They do not conclude that mystical experiences are baloney simply because the brain has something to do with them. It’s no accident that the human brain is wired to help folks get religion, the authors insist, but an evolutionary advantage: religious people tend to have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure, and better overall health than unbelievers. Nietzsche and other modern prophets predicted the end of religion, but that’s unlikely to happen unless the human brain changes.
An intriguing study for skeptics and believers alike.