Does the field of Neurotheology present a threat to Christianity?

Neurotheology is a field of science that tries to correlate brain states to spiritual experiences, such as speaking in tongues, prayer, and meditation. Scientists' understanding of the brain is getting more and more detailed. My question is, if it succeeds in correlating the two, does that threaten the Christian beliefs in God, spiritual beings, free will, human consciousness, etc.? Or would it actually reinforce those concepts?

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    In an absolute sense, nothing is a threat to Christianity, at least insofar as Christianity is the true and honest practice of living according to the will and commands of Christ; because in the Christian world view, Christ is King of all creation--including the human brain, human experience, and neurotheology, and those who study it, or who may try to use it to discredit Christianity.
    – Flimzy
    Feb 5 '12 at 6:27
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    I suspect the question you really mean to be asking is: Is Neurotheology compatible with Christianity? And the answer to that question probably depends greatly which Christian tradition you're asking about.
    – Flimzy
    Feb 5 '12 at 6:28
  • @Flimzy, thanks for your comments. I agree that the question could be better phrased with the word "compatible" if we're looking at it in a purely intellectual sense (i.e. what is true). However, neurotheology could also be a threat to Christianity by turning people away because of perceived incompatibilities between the two.
    – Matt White
    Feb 7 '12 at 7:18

Barbara Bradley Haggerty (most known for being NPRs religion correspondent but also a former Christian Science practitioner turned Christian herself) investigated many of these claims in her book The Fingerprints of God. The book seeks to be a compendium of scientific investigations about the brain and its relationship to God.

While to book itself is fascinating, her conclusion is what speaks to your question. Her basic point was that these investigations may explain brain functioning better but ultimately still leaves a lot of room (an imperative actually) for God.

She also suggests that what all of the deepest religious practices reveal is that while each religion moves one closer to the God hinted at by the scientific research she chronicles, they do so in different ways, leading Haggerty to the analogy of a bike wheel.

She presumes that all religions get you to the same God (This is a highly questionable postulate in most forms of Christianity, but it is what she espouses). She sees each religion as a single spoke of that wheel leading one to God. Borrowing practices from other religions doesn't get you closer to the center because each one is a completely different path.

What is interesting in regards neurotheology is that in Haggertys estimation, these scientific studies in many cases point towards the reality of transcendent Spiritual being who calls but does not command adherence, thus allowing for Spirit, God, and free will, much like the original Christianity from which Haggerty begins.

  • "the God hinted at by scientific research" What research? Or is that a quote from the book?
    – hammar
    Feb 6 '12 at 5:58
  • That's a quote from the book it represents Haggertys thesis Feb 6 '12 at 13:09
  • @AffableGeek, thanks for link to the book! I will check it out.
    – Matt White
    Feb 7 '12 at 7:32

In its present form, neurotheology is not a threat to Christianity (though a few specific beliefs may be overturned). The reason is that regardless of what is found about the neural basis of spiritual experiences, this only tells you what is there not why it is there.

Thus, either one can view these findings as the way in which God imparts certain types of spiritual experiences to us (much like he created our eyes to deliver visual experiences); or one can view these findings as further confirmation that a material explanation exists for human experiences, rendering God even less necessary as an explanation than before.

Depending on the details of what is found, the evidence may lean one way or the other, but since there will be no proof that it is one way or the other, people who already have made up their minds will likely not feel compelled to change their minds.

(It will, however, provide extra impetus for those Christians who are uncomfortable with the brain's causal connection to the mind to think deeply about why they find this troubling, since neurotheological research has, so far, only strengthened the connection between the two.)

  • If neurotheology was able to show that all brain activity was in fact deterministic, then it would explain the "why" as well (i.e. your brain does what it does because it has no choice). However, it doesn't seem like neurotheology is anywhere close to saying that yet. In fact, as I was looking into this further, it seems like the field of Neuroquantology may actually indicate the opposite, that our brains are fundamentally indeterminate.
    – Matt White
    Feb 7 '12 at 7:44
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    @MattWhite - Neuroquantology (as currently practiced) is not taken seriously by any neurobiologist I'm aware of, including ones who switched to biology from physics. The leading journal in the field, "Neuroquantology", mostly contains a collection of articles wishing that telepathy, ghosts, and various other supernatural phenomena were real, and hoping that by dropping the word "quantum" or "electromagnetic" enough, they will be spared the chore of providing hard evidence. But whether or not brain activity is deterministic has not been shown and is too daunting to admit an answer soon.
    – Rex Kerr
    Feb 7 '12 at 15:20

I'll take "threaten the Christian beliefs" to mean that neurotheology's future findings might make some who are Christian change these beliefs to something else.

I'd say there is a reasonable chance. More strongly, of all scientific enterprises, if any can do it, neurotheology probably has the greatest chance.

Take free will, as you mentioned, as one example. There are already studies that suggest that our actions are already decided in our brain prior to our conscious awareness of making a decision to act (discussed here). This suggests a different view of will than the free one that Christianity proposes.


I'll have a try at this one. But since Affable Geek gave a Great answer to the direct question, I allow myself to tackle the question on a broader spectrum. Is neurology a threat to Christianity? Assumes that science and Christianity is opposed to science or vice versa.

But if you that a look in history you will find that the same question was asked during the enlightenment. Could rational reasoning replace God? But rational reasoning proved that it could not save the human being. Then modernity came along? Science or technology would save us. But that also failed in the end. Now we live in post-modernity, and what next.

My point is simply that the next kid on the block is neurology, where is used to be psychology. The problem is not the new scientific discovery but the premises behind the study. For the atheist neurologist that is the greatest threat to any kind of belief system. For the believer just an other way to praise God the creator. (Understand that all of the philosophy come with some good in them. They are not a total affront to Christianity. And the good part in them should be redeem.)

My answer is greatly influence by Ravi Zacharias' book Deliverus from evil.

Is neutrology a threat to Christianity? that really depends on the premises you hold.

EDIT How does rational reasoning try to save us? If I take the first point of the westminster confession of faith the shorter catechism:

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. source

The way some thinkers have looked at the rational reasoning was to bring them a purpose in life and a joy in life. That could be compared has the salvation in Christianity René Descartes used rational reasoning to get to God, because of is Catholic premises. But Voltaire on the other end express the following :

The world embarrasses me, and I cannot dream that this watch exists and has no watchmaker Voltaire / 1694-1778 / Les Cabales, 1772 source

The both of them look to rational reasoning, but they only proved their thesis or premises. Therefore, rational reasoning failed to bring everlasting joy, eternal life and all the questions.

What to I mean that science and technology failed in the end? A bit like rational reasoning, if one look into it for everlasting joy, eternal life and the answer to all the questions, well I believe that the old saying : the more I learn the more I learn how little I know (Socrates ?)

The problem with the human heart is that it tries to be free from God. Our hearts create all kind of divinity to worship. (Jean Calvin idea of our heart as a idol factory, Tim Keller Counterfeit Gods).

This being said, I am in no way implying that Christianity have all the answer, and at is core it understand human limitations. How could a finite being understand fully an infinite one.

  • Ps 115.3
  • Isaiah 55:8 and following

Note : I am in no way saying the christian most switch off their brains. We should push in science and technology, and thinking hard about all the issues of life. Think by John Piper would express that though more. But we should not look in to those field has a place to receive everlasting joy, freedom from sin, peace, everlasting life. Our final hope must be in our Lord and Savior Jesus-Christ.

Edit 2 I left the previous post unchanged to allow you to follow the discussion. After talking with @Marc Gravell. The idea in this post what to present that the philosophy of the time could not dismiss the idea of God. Not the technical/scientific method. Thanks Marc for the discussion.

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    That science and technology has "failed in the end" is a strange statement given that we're hardly at the end of science and technology. How would you know so soon (unless you actually knew all along)?
    – Rex Kerr
    Feb 6 '12 at 5:02
  • If you get a moment, could you possible clarify your point "But rational reasoning proved that it could not save the human being"? I'm unclear a: from what was this trying to save, and b: what exactly was proven, and how. Feb 6 '12 at 9:07
  • @MarcGravell I edited my post, hope it provide a more clear answer. I could provide more details, but I'll have to write a book if I go more lengthty. ;) Seriously, thanks for helping me make my ideas more clear. Feb 6 '12 at 11:42
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    Still not sure I understand - or at least, maybe it could be clearer that the "rational reasoning" to which you refer is not the science rational reasoning which you allude it to be... no scientific rational reasoning of which I am aware starts with "glorify God" as an initial assumption. I suspect what you are referring to is religious rationalism, but that has little to do with science, and more to do with philosophy. Feb 6 '12 at 11:53
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    @David no, because rational reasoning doesn't start with the assumption that there is a fundamental question/quest of mankind; it is, however, having remarkable success at gradually understanding the universe in spite of not making this assumption. Feb 6 '12 at 12:26

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