To appreciate the cultural impact of the “cognitive revolution” discussed by David Brooks in his New York Times op-ed column “The Neural Buddhists” (May 13, 2008), we need to be clear about what has and has not been revolutionized by neuroscience. Brooks gets the research essentially right, but he overlooks some key issues raised by “neural Buddhism” that make me question his view of its future effects on religion and culture.
To begin with, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s brain-imaging studies of meditation, highlighted by Brooks, can easily be used to confirm rather than disprove a materialist worldview. Newberg’s finding that people who are meditating have measurable decreases in parietal lobe activity fits perfectly with the idea advanced by Richard Dawkins and others that religious experience is a product of altered or abnormal brain functioning. Contrary to the popular view that Newberg’s research supports religion, it can readily be taken as supporting the “militant atheism” Brooks wants to reject. The mind may, as Brooks says, have “the ability to transcend itself,” but we didn’t need Newberg’s SPECT scanners to tell us that.
Scientific research on “universal moral intuitions” is sure to appeal to a social conservative like Brooks, and he’s correct that evolutionary psychology has made big advances in our understanding of attachment, bonding, and pro-social emotions. Of course, these were the staple themes of early 20th century psychoanalysis, so I’m leery of calling this a “revolution” (for more on “disciplinary amnesia” in the psychology of religion, see Jeremey Carrette’s essay in this collection). In fact, Brooks leaves out the other half of the psychological equation, which Freud and Jung understood all too well: the anti-social instincts of aggression and xenophobia. In addition to showing that “love is vital to brain development,” contemporary neuroscience is also revealing how deeply primed humans are to react with hostility toward those whom we view as “other.” Given that most religions have been, and continue to be, guilty of prejudice, discrimination, and violence against perceived outsiders, I find only modest theological comfort in the latest findings of cognitive science. Brooks betrays perhaps too much confidence that the atheist cause is doomed to irrelevance.
This leads to the boldest claim made by Brooks, that “the cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible.” From my perspective, he’s got it exactly backwards. Our growing knowledge about the nature and functioning of the human brain-mind system is revealing the importance of cultural influences (like the Bible) in the development of our “highest” mental faculties, while at the same time challenging traditional monotheistic belief in a single universal deity.
Regarding the Bible, I imagine Brooks means that a fundamentalist belief in the literal meaning of scripture can no longer be held. Once again, we didn’t need neuroscience to tell us that. Setting aside Creationism and other scientifically invalid claims in the Bible (and in the Qur’an, for that matter), what remains is a valuable collection of teachings about history, morality, and collective meaning-making. This is where cognitive science becomes relevant, because researchers are finding that the most sophisticated aspects of human mental functioning (language, memory, reason, imagination) are dependent on cultural influences shaping our minds from the very beginning of life. Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, a leader in the study of cognitive science and religion, has taken to speaking of “embedded cognition” to emphasize the dynamic interplay of cultural and psychological factors in the growth of each individual mind. In sum, the cognitive revolution is giving us new ways of understanding why people’s faith in a cultural system of meaning-making like biblical religion remains so strong and is sure to continue despite its apparent incompatibility with modern science.
And what of God? Brooks speaks eloquently of God as “the unknowable total of all there is,” a formulation similar to Newberg’s “absolute unitary being” as the apex of all religious experience, whether it be Christian, Buddhist, or secular. There’s a superficial appeal to this kind of “neurotheology” (Newberg’s term), but it founders on one problematic fact: Religious experiences are more different than they are the same.
Consider the research of Nina Azari and colleagues, who performed PET scans of evangelical Christians praying to the words of Psalm 23 and found, contrary to Newberg, heightened activation of a frontal-parietal region of the brain associated with sustained reflexive evaluation of thought. Consider, too, the research of Hans Lou and colleagues, who used PET to study the brain functioning of a group of highly experienced yoga teachers during a relaxation meditation called Yoga Nidra, which includes a series of visualization exercises. Their PET results showed heightened activation in exactly those brain systems corresponding to the guided imagery tasks, which are different than the brain systems involved in praying to Psalm 23 or the types of mind-emptying meditation studied by Newberg.
The point is that there is no single model for religious experience. Humans are capable of many different modes of being religious, and the brain subserves them all in predictable and measurable ways. Brooks may follow Newberg in advocating belief in a single totalizing deity, but the actual findings of neuroscience are pointing in the opposite direction. What’s emerging is a new appreciation for the radical pluralism of religious experiences that humans are capable of generating. As better brain imaging technologies come online, we will begin to study a wider variety of spiritual phenomena (not just what occurs when people are sitting perfectly still in a laboratory), revealing new multiplicities of cognitive processing involved in different modes of religiosity. This research will not support traditional monotheistic faith in God, though it may spark a renaissance of spiritual exploration by researchers of a poly- or pantheistic bent. That’s the cultural-scientific revolution we may yet live to see.