(God helmet: A device that was briefly written up a decade ago that supposedly triggered mystical experiences, covered in the story)
Here (UK Telegraph):
Such “mystical”, self-blurring experiences are central to almost all religions – from the unio mystica experienced by Carmelite nuns during prayer, when they claim their soul has mingled with the godhead, to Buddhists striving for unity with the universe through focusing on sacred objects. But if Newberg and his colleagues are correct, such experiences are not proof of being touched by a supreme being, but mere blips in brain chemistry.
The sheer ignorance of the first sentence is breathtaking. Such experiences are not “central to almost all religions,” and most claims to have heard a divine voice in Western religions are not “self-blurring experiences,” but dialogues or revelations. See, for example, Moses arguing with God at Mount Horeb (Exodus 3, Exodus 4).
“It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” Newberg says. This would explain why some type of religion exists in every culture, arguably making spirituality one of the defining characteristics of our species.
The brain is quite obviously not built in such a way that it “allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily.” Full time contemplatives may have them once or twice in a lifetime.
Depending on your religious views, such discoveries are either deeply fascinating or profoundly disturbing. Throughout history, spirituality has been viewed as something outside science, just as the soul is separate from the body; both ineffable essences, transcending the materialist universe.
Note that only two options are suggested: Either “mystical experiences” are “mere blips in brain chemistry” or they are “outside science.” What they can’t be, in a materialist frame, is authentic experiences of an underlying reality of our universe.
No wonder, then, that neurotheology (or biotheology), with its implications that the brain is merely a “computer of meat”, is hugely contentious in the US, where only 1.6 per cent and 2.4 per cent of the population declare themselves “atheist” or “agnostic”, respectively.
Given that this is a Brit paper, one can hear the disdainful sniff. Claims about unusual religiosity in the United States are the last resort of vanished British intellectual leadership, when evidence or reasoned argument fails.
The interesting thing about this story is that I could have read one pretty much like it ten years ago, including the God helmet. Naturalist inquiry into religious experience does not seem to make progress, just logs more publications.
– O’Leary for News
See also: “Dear Diary: “The God I believe in … ” (The “God I believe in” by definition doesn’t exist for others.)
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.
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