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What is Neurotheology?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Neurotheology is a scientific field that attempts to study the neurological activity of the brain during spiritual experiences. The field immediately runs into controversy by presupposing that all spiritual experiences are the result of neural impulses and brain patterns. The field of neurotheology does not accept that spiritual experiences may be actually causing the neural impulses, but is the other way around. With this tendency, neurotheology is frequently attacked by theologians, spiritual leaders, and by other scientists.

Spiritual experience is specifically defined in neurotheology. Subjects may feel at one with the universe, experience sudden enlightenment, altered states of consciousness, ecstatic trance, or spiritual awe. Evaluations of brain wave patterns were the first investigations in neurotheology, conducted in the late 1950s.

Most recent investigation has used brain imaging to study people undergoing a spiritual experience. However, it was the studies in the 1980s by Dr. Michael Persinger that have mainly defined neurotheology and caused great criticism. Persinger believed that he could cause a spiritual episode with stimulation of the temporal lobes. His research has come under recent attack because his study was not double blind, and those tested had some sense of what to expect.

The device Persinger used to stimulate the temporal lobes is called a God-helmet, which creates a weak magnetic field that causes the temporal lobes to react. Those undergoing the experience often reported that they felt some kind of presence in the room with them. Based on Persinger’s studies, many concluded that a spiritual experience was merely a reaction of the brain, thus discounting the possibility of a spiritual experience actually existing as a real phenomenon.

The 1980s study with the God-helmet enraged many theologians because it significantly discounted their beliefs that spiritual experience came directly from God. According to them, to deny the reality of a spiritual experience is to deny the foundation of many world religions. Theologians have been relieved that the Persinger experiments in neurotheology have been attacked as bad science.

Modern neurotheology with brain mapping techniques is more fascinating in its suggestion that all humans, regardless of religion, may have a common core that makes us open to experiences of a spiritual nature. This innate spirituality may actually do more toward proving that a God exists. Those who believe in intelligent design are apt to point to this as a specific design of man being “made in God’s image,” and the ability for all to find a spiritual way of life.

These recent theories of neurotheology may also however, point to the validity of all religions, rather than a single dominating religion. If all are capable of spiritual experience, and brain imaging of spiritual experiences from people of different religions remain the same, it begs the question as to the validity of asserting one specific religion over another, or one sect of a religion over another sect. Instead, this type of work tends to align with the psychological theories of Carl Jung, and his avid follower Joseph Campbell, who changed the face of comparative mythology by pointing out inherent similarities in all myths and sacred religious texts.

Regardless of the results of further investigations in neurotheology, some critics are simply not interested. Some believe that religion and science are necessarily antithetical. Religion works on faith while science attempts to work with quantifiable facts. It is the very absence of proof that defines faith, and gives the most faithful the most frequent spiritual experiences. These critics want nothing to do with neurotheology in any form, and feel that the marriage of science and religion is an unnecessary evil.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon936109 — On Feb 27, 2014

This sounds like a branch of neuroscience gone haywire. It's essentially assuming that spiritual experiences are the result of functions of the brain, which is, of course, the untestable and unscientific doctrine.

If a different philosophical doctrine had been assumed - that God is the cause of the functions of the brain because he is the Creator of the universe, then you will still be walking on shaky ground, because then you have to justify the God that is the Creator of the universe.

In any case, where this so-called neurotheology is going now is just militant atheism masking as science. Eh. Creationism masking as science could have been just as bad.

People, forget about it. Science is science; religion is religion. They are entirely two different disciplines, and in my opinion, both are valuable to society. Science gives us facts about the universe; religion gives us values, ethics, social roles, and a sense of identity and belonging.

By anon241207 — On Jan 17, 2012

Even if our idea of god comes within our own minds, it does not necessarily follow that God does not exist.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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