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Brains and belief

11 February 2009

A recent article in the New Scientist suggests that our brains create God. Born believers: How your brain creates God – science-in-society – 04 February 2009 – New Scientist:

So if religion is a natural consequence of how our brains work where does that leave god All the researchers involved stress that none of this says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods as Barratt points out whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it. It does however suggests that god isn t going away and that atheism will always be a hard sell. Religious belief is the ‘path of least resistance’ says Boyer while disbelief requires effort.

Hat-tip to Nouslife.

This recalls a book published a few years ago entitled, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, by Andrew Newberg. His thesis is summarised in an article 1 Brain Science & The Biology of Belief :: Andrew Newberg :: Global Spiral:

In its basic form, the holistic operator allows us to view reality as a whole or as a gestalt. In other words, this operator helps to give us the big picture. This ability allows us to experience a given situation in a more global context. A number of experiments involving both animals and human beings have indicated that the parietal lobe (toward to the back, top part of the brain) in the right brain hemisphere is intimately involved in the perception of spatial relations. More specifically, the perceptions generated by this area are of a holistic or gestalt nature. Thus, we have proposed that the holistic operator likely resides in the parietal lobe in the right hemisphere. In religion, the holistic operator might allow us to apprehend the unity of God or the oneness of the universe. Regardless of the particular object or group of objects involved, whenever one considers or perceives the global or unitary perspective of things, one is employing the holistic operator.

A few years ago a Russian colleague told me of his days as an ardent Comsomol leader, when he went to a monastery determined to preach the gospel of atheism to a popular spiritual elder there.

He launched into his spiel, and said that it was ridiculous to believe in an invisible God, and he had never heard God speak. The elder listened, and then said “Did you know that this room is full of voices that you can’t hear?”

The atheist replied that that was impossible.

The elder went on, “Do you know that this room is full of people that you can’t see?”

And he explained that if you got a radio, you could hear the voices, and if you got a TV, you could see the people. The problem with people who could not see or hear God was that they did not have an antenna.

Perhaps this scientific research shows that that is more than just an analogy, and that some people really DO lack the antenna.

And talking of brains and religion, Andries Louw recently posted some comments by Stephen Hawking, who was asked by Pik Botha of all people what he thought about life after death, and Hawking replied “I imagine what happens to human consciousness when we die is much like turning off a computer. I don’t believe in a heaven for computers. I think the after-life is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

But one can extend the metaphor a bit further. It’s quite OK to picture what happens to consciousness after death as being like turning off a computer, but then the Christian belief is that God has us all backed up on DVD somewhere, and that one day he’ll reboot us on better hardware.

In fact there was once a novel with a plot loosely based on this idea, The Müller-Fokker Effect by Jim Sladek, though it was before the invention of DVDs, so it envisaged tape backup.

Another researcher in the field, Igor Voronov, has said

“Many ideas of modern mathematics are based on the work of the same functional modules of a human brain, which served in the last history of mankind and form now a basis for the creation of religious feelings.” To substantiate his claim, he adds that “both spiritual experiences and experiences of a more ordinary material nature are made real to the mind in the very same way – through the processing powers of the brain and the cognitive function of the mind.” (from Andrew Newberg and others, “Why God Won’t Go Away”, page 37.)

In other words we are back to the absurdity of consciousness and the consciousness of absurdity. If God is produced purely by the biological functions of the brain, then so is everything else that we are aware of through our brains. And so we are back to the statement of N.F. Simpson

[let us thow back our heads and laugh] at knowledge which is an illusion caused by certain biochemical changes in the human brain structure during the course of human evolution, which had it followed another course would have produced other biochemical changes in the human brain structure, by reason of which knowledge as we now experience it would have been beyond the reach of our wildest imaginings; and by reason of which, what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would have been familiar and commonplace. Let us laugh at these things.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 February 2009 6:38 am

    If God is produced purely by the biological functions of the brain, then so is everything else that we are aware of through our brains.

    You know, that is such a good point. Our physics, which we often erroneously defer to as the last word on how the universe works, is also a product of our consciousness, in that case.

    Terri in Joburg

  2. 12 February 2009 12:37 pm

    Thanks for this post, Steve. I believe (believe!!) that the recent advancements in neurological research, particularly insofar as it relates to belief systems, provide us with excellent tools to take the debate about the existence of God to the next level.

    In the past it was mostly a matter of either believing in God or not believing. Although proponents on both sides of the debate could (and still can) provide very compelling reasons for their stance, nobody could prove or disprove God’s existence.

    It seems to me that for the first time in history we have at least some scientific evidence to work with, although this research is still in its infancy.

    This December I read Andrew Newberg’s follow-up to “Why God won’t go away”, entitled “Why we believe what we believe: Uncovering our biological need for meaning, spirituality and truth.”

    I blogged about it at

    Regrettably I haven’t read any of his other work yet but I hope to rectify that soon. One of his perspectives that I found quite refreshing was that we actually need some form of belief (he doesn’t necessarily mean belief in God) in order to survive.

    What I mean by taking the debate to the next level, is that both believers and non-believers should take note of the mechanics in our brains that enable us to form belief systems. It is an unbelievably (pun intended) complex process which neuroscientists are only beginning to understand.

    This new understanding allows us to move from debate to discussion to dialogue. Instead of shouting our reasons for believing or not at each other we can discuss the neurological basis for our belief systems – shared by theists and atheists alike. Once we do that we are already moving into the domain of dialogue.

    We might just discover that believers and non-believers have a lot more in common than we previously thought.

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