Everybody has those tingling moments. Suddenly your mind and body are aware of the larger system at work, the vastness of the universe, and the connection between your soul and another. For anywhere from 70-85% of Americans, depending on which news source you trust, this would be God (the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible). For the rest of the population, it could be Allah, an impersonal force that permeates our world in Buddhism, or just an overwhelming sense of smallness in atheisms case. We all have been moved and goose bumps at some time or another. A sign that we are connected in some way to a greater narrative, though some would have trouble describing it. Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’aquill, and Vince Rause, in their book Why God Wont Go Away, set out to study the neurobiology of religious experiences. In doing so they seemed to have created a new field of study they call Neurotheology. This field studies the neurobiological effects of our thoughts about God as well as the evolutionary history of our brains inner workings as they relate to our belief system. Their conclusion, God has wired himself into our brains and it helped us survive.
This book is a compilation of the research conducted by these scientists on the neurological basis for belief. The data was collected by studying those who are reaching a transcendent peak in their religious experience. When they reached a their spiritual “high” radioactive dye is injected and carried to the brain. When the subject ends their meditation, images of their brain are taken with a SPECT camera to show where activity was exercised at the height of spiritual awakening. After collecting data, the scientists found increased activity in a section of gray matter they called the Orientation Association Area. This is the area of the brain that takes note of where we are located in physical space (up/down; judging angles and distances; observing the physical landscape).
Much of this book is written with evolutionary theory in mind. They postulated the “neo-cortex” as the part of our brains and our species that separates us from animals. The neo-cortex is the center of language, art, myth, and culture. In contrast to Schweitzer’s arguments in Beyond Cosmic Dice, the authors of Why God Wont Go Away argue for this distinct area of the brain as the place where mind and body meet as the most recent evolutionary step in the making of humanity. (Schwietzer has argued other places that the line between humanity and animalia aren’t as different as we once thought).
After giving the results of their findings and touring the brain machinery (chap 1-3), they dive into the evolutionary reasons behind it. It is at this point that they really bring nothing new to the table. Their theory on the origin of religion and why humanity makes myths, is nothing that Tylor, Shermer, or Schwietzer have put foreward. As apologists for the evolution of the brain, this book leaves a lot to be desired. Much of their theory is undocumented and sheer speculation.
The issues within this book were numerous beginning with their definition of religion and the idea of spirituality. The authors almost exclusively believed that spirituality was conveyed in mysticism. This if the fundamental difference between meditation in Buddhism and Christianity. In Buddhism, the purpose of meditation was to empty the mind. Where as God desires those who worship Him, to fill their minds during meditation: “Meditate on my words day and night…” Another flaw was, I believe, in their hypothesis. Looking for a spiritual connection to God, as is manifested in the brain, is to look for the non-material. Their chapter on “How the brain makes the mind” calls into question the role of the soul of the individual. The limbic system, the authors state, connects emotions and higher thoughts, which is integral to the spiritual experiences. Science may have felt as though the soul has been completely refuted by science, but our current authors did little to argue their materialistic view of a chemical-reaction made mind, aside from a non-physical soul. This was an interesting read about the evolutionary development of our brain and the place of God/gods in its development. However, the research and the study done in this book brings, in my opinion, little to the conversation.