Saturday, November 10, 2007

Should evangelicals be worried about The Spiritual Brain book?

Now that a number of people whose opinion I justly respect have read The Spiritual Brain, I have experienced two equal and opposite reactions - a good sign!

On the ONE hand, a conservative evangelical friend told me last Saturday, "I don't agree with your book. You say all religions are the same All roads lead to God."

I challenged him to tell me where we had said anything of the kind. Well, he said, that idea was "implied".

Actually, it wasn't implied. In fact, it was denied!

On the relative truth of religions, we explicitly said:
"If indeed religion is more adaptive than irreligion, the most likely explanation is this: the mystics are right. Materialism is false, but most nonmaterialist systems contain at least some elements that are true. As we might expect, some contain many more true elements than others. (P. 212)

That is a point often overlooked in the struggle between materialism and theism.

The falsity of materialism does not make all non-materialist belief systems equally true - or equally emotionally healthy.

It means that we face a cosmos in which meaning and purpose are real, consciousness and free will are real - and all the other facts are just as real as they were before!

And we must make sense of them using our minds, because science has NOT shown that we are just robots, or whatever.

On the OTHER hand, complaints come in twos, it seems. I also learned recently that some people are very worried about The Spiritual Brain because it is allegedly "too religious."

These complainers mean that we start out with the assumption - in our online Introduction - that spiritual experiences could be real:
Most scientists today are materialists who believe that the physical world is the only reality. Absolutely everything else, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena--leaving no room for the possibility that religious experiences are anything but an illusion. Materialists are like Charles Dicken's character Ebenezer Scrooge who dismisses his experience of Marley's ghost as merely "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato."

Vincent and I, on the other hand, did not approach our research with any such materialist presumption. As we are not materialists, we did not doubt in principle that a contemplative might contact a reality outside herself during a mystical experience. In fact, I went into neuroscience in part because I knew experientially that such things can indeed happen. Vincent and I simply wanted to know what the neural correlates—the activity of the neurons—during such an experience might be. Given the overwhelming dominance of materialism in neuroscience today, we count ourselves lucky that the nuns believed in our sincerity and agreed to help us, and that the Templeton Foundation saw fit to fund our studies.

In other words, Mario and his colleagues - and I, coming on board as a writer - did not start out to show that spiritual experiences must, by definition, be false. If that makes us "religious", some young neuroscience researchers are going to be very, very surprised by their public profile ....

I certainly do not ask my conservative evangelical friend to abandon his concern for purity of religion. But I hope he will see that the main conflict today is not between Jesus and Buddha but between people who think that the material world is all there is and people who don't.

I ask only this: Let's make sure that we have the story right on the main conflict before we sort out the conflict between claims for Jesus and claims for Buddha.

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