Posted by: Andries Louw | 3 January 2009

Hardwired for God?

I’ve just finished one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, Why we believe what we believe (2006) by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. The subtitle is Uncovering our biological need for meaning, spirituality and truth. It was my main holiday read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Newberg, a neuroscientist and associate professor of Radiology and Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, is also adjunct assistant professor of Religious Studies at the same university as well as director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind. He is co-author of Why God won’t go away and The mystical mind.

He has conducted a number of interesting experiments, measuring neural activity in the brains of people while either praying, meditating or speaking in tongues.

He says in chapter 7 (p178):

Skeptics used my findings to conclude that religious experience was nothing more than a neural confabulation within the brain, and religious practitioners cited my work to confirm that human beings are biologically “hardwired for God.”

What I love about this book is that the authors don’t attempt to answer this question. They are honest about the limitations and the subjective nature of science. They are trying to explain how the different areas of the brain are processing incoming sensory data and interacting with other parts of the brain in order to create and maintain belief systems.

The core problem, as Newberg seems to suggest, is that we cannot get outside of our own minds in order to determine what is truly real. In the epilogue he explains that since the age of twelve he has been pondering the “ultimate” question: How do we know if anything is real?

He took a college course in Buddhism and western thought and one day asked his Japannese professor, “How do we know what’s real?”. Newberg says:

– [the professor] smiled and said that there was no way to escape the illusions generated by the human mind. Even meditation, which could show you that perception was an illusion, could not do anything more.

Perhaps the greatest value of this book lies in its potential to stimulate dialogue, not just between people from different faiths, but especially between believers and atheists / agnostics.

The following paragraph, entitled Believing in each other, comes from chapter 9 (pp 244-5):

In conclusion, the evidence suggests that we should be very careful about making causal connections in the accumulating data concerning spiritual and religious beliefs. There are compassionate, creative atheists; and there are murderers who act in God’s name… Different beliefs can open the mind to possibilities previously undreamed of, and this open-mindedness can be best achieved by maintaining a compassionate dialogue between all sides of the spiritual debate, especially between scientific and religious views. I believe that this is what Einstein was suggesting when he said that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Whether we are gazing through a telescope, or contemplating our soul, we all can marvel at the beauty and mysteriousness of the universe. It is in the nature of our brain to search for its deepest truths, and although we may never grasp truth in its entirety, it is our right, and our biological heritage, to try.

This is what I’m longing for – a more open dialogue between Christians and atheists. Too often Christians and atheists don’t listen to each other and simply talk past each other. Hopefully these kinds of studies can contribute in getting believers and unbelievers to better listen to each other.

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Responses

  1. Wow, that’s an interesting topic. Never thought of it like that.

  2. Hi Andries,

    Nice, thoughtful blog – thanks. Your article on “Why we believe what we believe” has tickled me into ordering the book.

    As somebody who doesn’t, let me make two comments – one, that those who do and those who don’t probably share at least an interest in why – and it is a tough one, as in my experience both “sides” have quite a bit of trouble figuring out the other’s mindset.

    And two, that your call for more open dialogue is certainly an enlightened one in the South African context, as nowhere in the world (and I get around a lot) have I had to – perhaps not so much defend, as patiently try to explain – my belief or lack of it.

    Do you feel your position is widely shared by those within the religious community in South Africa? Or is it a significant stratifier?

    All the best,
    Rian

  3. Rian, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. I agree that believers and non-believers share an interest in why the other side believes or doesn’t believe.

    Your question is difficult to answer but I think most Christians are not interested in dialogue with non-believers – they don’t value listening to atheists. They are more interested in witnessing about their faith.

    However I do sense that there is a growing number of Christians, also in South Africa, who seek to understand before seeking to be understood.

  4. […] the spirit of a previous post, Hardwired for God? I am calling on Christians, other theists and atheists / agnostics alike to engage in dialogue […]


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