Religion and the brain: Can science explain experience?

Scientists study the brains of nuns, monks and lesser spiritual beings to find out what happens during intense religious experiences. Some theologians and religion scholars say scientists have simply recorded emotions without shedding light on the spiritual realm. But others think the researchers have raised profound questions about the nature of God and the human soul and bridging the gap between science and religion.

Critics of such research and its conclusions believe that some neuroscientists lack a sophisticated understanding of religion and mistake their cataloging of emotion with spirituality. Proponents say such scientists bring an appreciation of religion to the scientific endeavor.

In the future, new scientific studies in genetics and new imaging techniques, enabling more precise measurement necessary for studying religious phenomena, are expected to allow even more sophisticated scientific endeavors. Theologians and religious scholars will continue to ask whether such research destroys the notion of a soul and debate whether there is one core of religious experience or many different ways of being religious.

Why it matters

Increasingly sophisticated information about brain activity during religious experience leads to debate about the nature – and existence – of God and how God acts in the world and communicates with human beings. The very notion of the soul is called into question. Research on religion and the brain, then, raises some of the most fundamental theological questions of our time.

Questions for reporters

  • What are the most important new developments in the field of neuroscience and religion?
  • What are the key areas of disagreement between scientists and theologians?
  • Is there a biological basis for human perception of the spiritual realm?
  • Can a biological basis for the experience of God be equated with God?
  • Does brain research destroy the notion of a soul?
  • Do many scientists in brain research have a naïve view of religion?Some of the most comprehensive and thoughtful stories on religion and the brain were published in 2001, when leading scientists were in the early stages of their experimentation, and provide excellent background for reporters new to the field. It’s time for a new generation of stories reflecting advances in science and theological thinking.
  • Who is combining rigorous scientific study with a sophisticated analysis of religion?
  • What do theologians think of specific research projects, such as ones that seek to stimulate a “God experience”?
  • What’s in store for the future of such research?
  • What are the theological questions that need to be addressed in this area?

National sources

  • Andrew Newberg

    Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College, is a co-author of Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Random House, 2002). Newberg and his colleagues used high-tech imaging techniques to examine the brains of meditating Buddhists and Franciscan nuns at prayer. The scientists concluded that intense spiritual contemplation triggers an alteration in brain activity. Newberg says that neuroscience can elucidate the nature of mystical experiences and why the need for a concept of God is important to the survival of the species. He can be emailed here.

    Contact: 215-503-3422.
  • Vilayanur S. Ramachandran

    Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, is a pioneer in experimental neurology who found that patients who suffer seizures from temporal lobe epilepsy display an unusual obsession with religious matters. Among his research interests is the neural basis of empathy.

  • Michael Persinger

    Michael Persinger, psychology professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has conducted experiments with a helmet that pulses bursts of electrical activity to the brain, stimulating what he calls a “God experience.” The experience of God, he says, is definitely produced in the brain.

    Contact: 705-675-1151.
  • Mario Beauregard

    Mario Beauregard, University of Montreal neuroscientist, has studied when religious feelings are experienced by using sophisticated brain scans to see inside the brains of Carmelite nuns as they recall a spiritual experience.

  • Robert John Russell

    Robert John Russell is the founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and a professor of theology and science at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. He’s a leading researcher committed to a positive interaction between the fields of theology and science.


Some of the most comprehensive and thoughtful stories on religion and the brain were published in 2001, when leading scientists were in the early stages of their experimentation, and provide excellent background for reporters new to the field. It’s time for a new generation of stories reflecting advances in science and theological thinking.

  • “Religion and the Brain”

    For an overview, read a May 7, 2001, Newsweek story, “Religion and the Brain” by Sharon Begley, posted on the website.

  • Newsweekly: “Religion and the Brain”

    For an interview with leading researchers, read a Nov. 9, 2001, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly story, “Religion and the Brain.”

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Steven Pinker

    Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard University, formerly with the department of brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin, 2002). He says seeing morality as a product of the brain is less dangerous than the idea that morality is invested in the commands of religious authority. Sept. 11, he says, is only an example of where morality derived from religion leads. He is a noted atheist and won the Atheist Alliance of America’s Richard Dawkins Award in 2013.

  • Nihal C. deLanerolle

    The Rev. Nihal C. deLanerolle is a professor of neurosurgery and neurobiology at Yale University School of Medicine and chaplain-in-residence of the Episcopal Church at Yale in New Haven, Conn. A specialist in the analysis of human seizure foci, he believes that the dialogue between science and religion informs and clarifies assumptions of both endeavors.

  • Rebecca Sachs Norris

    Rebecca Sachs Norris, religion professor at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., argues that religious states are transmitted and learned through the body, that particular qualities of perception and memory are necessary for this process and that neurobiology and cognitive science provide material to support this claim. Scientific and experiential perspectives, she says, can coexist. She co-edited  Religion and the Body: Modern Science and the Construction of Religious Meaning (Brill, 2012).

  • John Haught

    John Haught, an emeritus professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., believes that spiritual experiences are connected to the brain processes and dependent on them but not reducible to them. He says it is possible to distinguish between the chemical basis of experiences and the experiences themselves. Life and mind cannot be reduced to chemistry any more than the content of a written page can be reduced to the chemistry of ink and paper, he says. He has written extensively on the relationship between scientific and religious belief as well as on atheism.

    Contact: 202-687-6119.
  • Matthew Alper

    Matthew Alper, New York-based author of The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God (Rogue Press, 2001), proposes a biological basis for human perception and the spiritual realm. He believes that evolutionary adaptations account for the existence of regions in the brain that generate spiritual consciousness. These regions, he says, emerged through natural selection.

In the South

  • George Graham

    George Graham, philosophy professor at Georgia State University, says it can be difficult to distinguish between signs of illness and religious insight, particularly when the purported insight raises doubts about the emotional health of the religious person.

  • Charles L. Raison

    Charles L. Raison, psychiatry professor at Emory University in Atlanta, has studied Tibetan Buddhism’s effects on the brain.

  • Matt Rossano

    Matt Rossano, Southeastern Louisiana University psychology professor, studies consciousness, the evolution of the brain and religion and science. He teaches a seminar on religion and science.

  • Sohee Park

    Sohee Park, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, has studied shamanism and the brain.

  • Samuel Brinkman

    Samuel Brinkman, neuropsychologist and adjunct psychology professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas, has lectured on how studying the brain can lead to insights about morality, spirituality and personal responsibility.

    Contact: 325-676-7222.

In the Midwest

  • Carol Rausch Albright

    Carol Rausch Albright is a visiting professor of religion and science at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and is co-author or contributor to several books on science and religion, including The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet and NeuroTheology: Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience. Albright believes that human beings’ experience of God involves virtually every part of the brain. She has written about the interface of neuroscience, spiritual growth and complexity studies. She can be contacted here.

  • Antonio R. Damasio

    Antonio R. Damasio, University of Iowa neurology professor, studies fundamental mechanisms of cognition. He is the author of The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (Harcourt, 2000).

  • Gregory Peterson

    Gregory Peterson, philosophy and religion professor at South Dakota State University, is the author of Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences (2002) His primary area of research is the dialogue of science and religion.

In the West

  • Warren Brown

    Warren Brown is a psychology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., where he studies neuroscience and its relationship to religion. He has written and lectured on the integration of neuroscience and Christian faith, and was principal editor and contributor to Whatever Happened to the Soul?: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature. He has been critical of studies of neuroscience and religiousness, calling them simplistic and naive.

  • Kelly Bulkeley

    Kelly Bulkeley, a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., is the author of The Wondering Brain: Thinking About Religion With and Beyond Cognitive Neuroscience (Routledge, 2004). He says there is great concern among theologians and scholars of religious studies about whether brain research destroys the notion of the soul. They also debate whether there is one core of religious experience or many different ways of being religious. Contact him via his website.

  • Michael Arbib

    Michael Arbib is professor of computer science, biological sciences, biomedical engineering, electrical engineering neuroscience and psychology at the University of Southern California. He believes that findings about brain function may challenge cherished religious assumptions.

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