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The Brain and religious belief (Part 1)

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

I recently saw a short video on Youtube entitled "What causes religious belief?" You can see it here (It's less than 2 minutes long, and is definitely worth a look)

The lady that was interviewed, Thalia Wheatley, is an Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Studies, a leading expert in her field. To be faced with this kind of assessment of the origins of religious belief by someone like her can be daunting to a believer.... after all if someone so experienced and qualified in the science of the brain can seemingly explain away the origins of religious belief, how can we then cling to the faith that we hold? Is it all just an illusion, some kind of psychological weakness or a flaw in our thinking that causes us to hold onto belief in God?

However, when you step back and examine her comments carefully there are some problems with her reasoning that need to be addressed. In spite of her expertise, her arguments aren't as strong as they seem.

The first problem is the enormous unspoken presupposition in her research which can be summed up as follows- 1) There is no God, no supernatural, and nothing exists other than the physical universe that we can measure and touch and see or hear or feel in some way. 2) Because this kind of thing doesn't exist, anyone who says that they believe in God or the supernatural is clearly wrong, and the reason for their belief must lie in some kind of aberrant brain state. 3) Therefore, when we can find the part of the brain that leads to this thinking, we will have found the reason behind religious belief and we can therefore dismiss anyone who claims faith in God.

A question I'd love to ask the researchers involved is.... if we had replaced 'religious belief' with 'atheism' in this sort of argument, what would be their response? For example, we could say- "Atheism is clearly wrong, and once we can find the part of the brain responsible we will be able to dismiss anyone who says they don't believe in God because it's just a particular brain region that causes atheism- we can safely ignore it because we have identified the clump of cells it comes from".

It's safe to say that this would have been met with a flurry of objections. If we had the audacity to assume (as solid fact) that atheism is automatically wrong, and then to allow this to shape the direction of the research and interpretation of the results, it would have been (among other things) extremely poor science. Yet this is just the same as beginning with the assumption that materialism (ie the denial of God/ the supernatural etc) is correct.

Keeping the researchers' biased attitude in mind, we can move on to the next issue. Dr Wheatley makes a comment that really isn't supported by the research (and probably could never be). Because of her level of expertise people may be tempted to just accept conclusions that she draws, but her conclusion isn't very well supported. Firstly she makes the following statement about the brain- "[The brain has}... the want to find patterns, and the want to be part of something bigger, and the two of these together create an irresistible pull into a belief system like a religion".

The problem is that the first two statements (the urge to look for patterns and the desire to be part of something "bigger") do not necessarily lead to any kind of religious belief at all. She makes a confident assertion here that can’t be supported in any meaningful, conventional scientific way but it is still being stated as a scientific fact. A predisposition toward looking for pattern/ meaning and a desire to be part of something 'greater' than ourselves are simply aspects of our ways of processing information and our attempt to find our place in the world around us. One obvious objection to this is that if this were the case why is it that so many people deny any religious belief? Another glaring problem with her conclusion is this- how can Dr Wheatley (and others in her field) say that these two states create religious belief but not the beliefs of scientific materialism/ atheism? After all, is it not the attempt to find pattern and meaning in something that has prompted her to look for the roots of religious belief by scanning the brain? And could it not be said that the desire to be "part of something bigger than ourselves" could equally be applied to members of the scientific community who want to explain away anything that does not fit into their way of looking at the world? The conclusions that she has drawn could just as easily be applied to her perspective as to any religious perspective, and yet she has assumed that her viewpoint is correct and simultaneously rejected anything that contradicts her view... all the while failing to see that her conclusions actually undermine her own position.

But from a Christian perspective the most important objection is this- Christianity is based upon the historical events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many of those who actually followed Jesus during his life were imprisoned, tortured or killed because they remained faithful to what they had witnessed and experienced, and spread the gospel that was based on the life, death and resurrection that they had been witnesses of. It was not a desire to see patterns or to belong to something bigger than them that resulted in their execution- it was their witness to His life and His teachings, and the resulting conflict with the authorities of their time. To assert that two hard-wired brain states are the the 'cause' of religious belief is to sever Christianity from everything that defines it as a belief and world view.

In short, there are many glaring problems with the view of Dr Wheatley and others in her field concerning the origins and causes of religious belief. There are several other issues that need to be dealt with, and which effectively undercut the ideas in this video, which I will address shortly in a second post

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