Brain Science and Christian Experience

By Bradley L. Sickler

By Bradley L. Sickler

For the last few decades, there has been a growing fascination with the human brain. Far from being limited to the work of researchers in laboratories, an obsession with the brain has swept through the culture at large. When we turn on the television or pick up any popular journal we encounter explanations of every aspect of human life in almost exclusively neurological terms. The brain scientists are presumed to be the experts who hold all the answers to our pressing questions: how to manage our relationships, how to deal with stress and improve our mood, how to protect our cognitive powers from aging, how to become more creative, how to better connect with other people, and on and on. Any question related to living our lives well is to be explained by and understood through brain studies.

One of the ways this has manifested is in the neurological study of religious experience. In keeping with the pattern, experiences of God are ultimately to be described in terms of neurological findings and brain states. As such, they are also usually treated with skepticism—after all, they are merely quirky events in the heads of some far-out religious people, not veridical reports of contact with the divine. In explaining them through brain science, they are often dismissed as purely subjective and internal to the person having them. God does not need to be involved.

Because of the laboratory conditions currently needed for brain study, however, the kind of religious experience investigated is extremely narrow. In particular, most studies have focused heavily on mystical experiences brought about by prayer or meditation. These fall into two broad categories: the subject either experiences the presence of a transcendent, wholly other Being, or the subject has a feeling of absolute unity with all things cosmic and divine. While the division is not sharp, the first type tends to be more characteristic of Western religious practitioners such as Christians, and the second is more common in Eastern practitioners, especially Buddhists.

The conclusions of these studies are interesting, though often highly speculative. For example, one hypothesis is that during intense prayer or meditation increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, inferior parietal lobes, and inferior frontal lobes undermines the subject’s sense of self. This, it is theorized, inclines them to interpret the loss-of-self feeling of their meditative experience as being overshadowed or absorbed by the Absolute. The research as a whole suggests there are actually multiple patterns underlying mystical experiences, not a single “God spot” in the brain, so caution must be urged against a single explanation that could cover them all. Even so, there is nevertheless a common tendency to understand these phenomena through a reductionist lens: an explanation of the brain states exhausts everything there is to say about the experiences, making God a superfluous add-on to an otherwise tidy naturalistic story.

What are we to make of these findings? Do these studies undermine belief in God? Do they explain belief away as mere aberrations of normal brain functioning? I think not.

The first thing to note is that these experiences have little or nothing to do with the religious beliefs of ordinary people. While someone might occasionally come to Christ because of a dramatic dream or vision, events like that are exceedingly rare.  They are important in salvation history—the experiences of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, St. Paul, St. John, and others are foundational to the biblical testimony—but they are not normative. And it is certain those who received such visions would scoff at the idea of generating them at will in a laboratory. They were visited by God at his own initiative, not their own. Those events could not be replicated for study.

Second, even if they could be reproduced on demand, that would not automatically undermine their reliability. Michael Persinger’s “God helmet,” a modified snowmobile helmet configured with magnets, was able to get some subjects to feel something like the presence of a person they could not see. The proposal based on his findings was that brain states stimulated by machinery could imitate, and therefore explain, reports through history of encounters with God. But suppose that brain scientists could isolate and then learn to replicate the state of the brain associated with perceptions of giraffes. Someone might then fallaciously argue that giraffes—which people are trained to believe in through children’s picture books, stuffed animals, movies, and other sources of giraffe mythology—are nothing but figments of an overactive giraffe-inclined imagination. In the same way, even if experiences of God could be replicated in the lab, it would not follow that God does not exist or that no encounters with God are veridical. As brain imaging scientist and Christian apologist Sharon Dirckx explains, “Should Christians be fearful that neuroscience is squeezing God out of the picture? Not at all. Just because something is experienced through the brain, that does not necessarily mean it originated in the brain. . . And if God does exist, then it comes as no surprise that he would make us such that our brains are active when we encounter him.”[1]

Finally, it is important to situate these studies in the context of what ordinary believers experience. For most of us nearly all the time, our experience of God is quiet and subtle, far from the intense dramatic experiences of the mystics. When we feel convicted of sin, or moved to praise God for his goodness or the beauty of his creation, when we feel led to pray for a friend in need, or aware of God’s nearness when we worship—these, not the raptures of visions, are the daily bread and butter of Christian living. They are religious experiences because they bring awareness of the presence and activity of God in our lives, but they differ substantially from the experiences studied in the lab. They are subdued and come to us in moments of God’s choosing rather than being generated by our own efforts.

Our fascination with the brain is likely to continue for a long time. Researchers will carry on investigating the neural activities associated with religious experiences of all varieties, possibly even developing ways to study brain states that are now inaccessible. As they do, there will be those who interpret their findings as disproving belief in God by explaining it away. But since we assume that our senses, perceptions, and experiences are generally trustworthy indicators of the nature of reality, we should start by granting prima facie support for the existence of God based on religious experiences. However popular the skeptical and reductionist conclusions growing out of the brain sciences might be, there is precious little in what they study that is relevant to Christianity, and none of it in any way undermines the Bible’s testimony that we can and do interact with God himself.

Notes

[1] Sharon Dirckx, Am I Just My Brain? (Good Book Company, 2019), 112–13.

—Bradley L. Sickler (PhD, Purdue University) is J. Edwin Hartill Endowed Professor of Philosophy and the program director for the Master of Arts in Theological Studies at the University of Northwestern, St. Paul, Minnesota.  Dr. Sickler is the author of the recent Crossway publication, God on the Brain: What Cognitive Science Does (and Does Not) Tell Us about Faith, Human Nature, and the Divine.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


Recommended Resource

One primary goal we have as Christians is to understand the Bible in order to grasp what God has communicated to us through it. This is challenging, however, because we are separated from Scripture’s authors by language, culture, and time. Thus, much in Scripture can appear to us to be confusing, mysterious, or even contradictory. That’s why a volume like Murray Harris’s Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament is so useful.

Harris, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Exegesis and Theology at Trinity Evangelical Theological School, draws on a lifetime of expertise to clarify and explain dozens of challenging passages throughout the New Testament. A few examples include:

  • What Jesus meant when he said, “the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it” (Matt. 11:12).

  • What he meant by “binding and loosing” on earth and in heaven (Matt. 16:19).

  • The meaning of Paul’s reference to those “who are baptized for the dead” (1 Cor. 15:29).

  • How we should understand Paul’s attitude toward slavery as expressed in the book of Philemon, and many more. This segment is excerpted below.


PAUL AND SLAVERY (Phlm 15–16)

Onesimus was a slave of Philemon in Colossae who had not only run away from his master (Phlm 15–16) but had also absconded with some of Philemon’s money or possessions (vv. 18–19). Attracted by the anonymity and excitement of a large metropolis, he traveled furtively to Rome, where somehow he met the imprisoned Paul, who led him to faith in Christ (v. 10). Paul soon discovered him to be an able and willing helper as well as a Christian companion (vv. 11–13, 16). Other considerations apart, Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus at his side (v. 13), but he felt compelled to send him back to Colossae so that Philemon, the legal owner of Onesimus (v. 16), might himself have the opportunity of receiving him back as a Christian brother (v. 16) and of possibly releasing him for further service to Paul (vv. 14, 20–21). Accordingly, Onesimus returned to Philemon with this letter.

Although this letter is not an essay on slavery, from it we may deduce Paul’s attitude to slavery. To begin with, Paul apparently accepted slavery as an inevitable part of the social, economic, and legal status quo, without questioning or trying to justify its existence. But acceptance of the status quo should not be equated with endorsement of the status quo. Toleration is not the same as approval. Paul did not object to slave ownership within Christian ranks, but he encouraged masters to reward slaves suitably for honest work, to desist from threatening them (Eph 6:8–9), and to give them just and equitable treatment (Col 4:1). He elevated the status of slaves by addressing them as persons and as moral agents who were responsible, and ought to be responsive, to their earthly masters as well as to their heavenly Lord (Eph 6:5–8; Col 3:22).

Further, when Paul emphasizes Onesimus’s true identity as a dearly loved Christian brother (v. 16), he sets the master-slave relation on a new footing. “It may be that he (Onesimus) was separated from you (Philemon) for a short time precisely so that you may have him back permanently, no longer regarded as merely a slave (hōs doulon) but as more than a slave—as a dear brother” (vv. 15–16). Paul is undermining the discrimination that is at the heart of slavery and sounding its death knell. In this letter, Paul, a highly educated Roman citizen, is championing the cause of a destitute runaway slave whose life was potentially forfeit because of his flight and his theft (vv. 17–19).

Did Paul advocate freeing slaves? When he expresses his confidence that Philemon would obey him and accept Onesimus back and forgive him (v. 21a), he adds that he knows Philemon “will do even more than I ask” (v. 21b). That undefined additional element could well be the setting free of Onesimus for Christian service either at Colossae or at Rome with Paul. When he is discussing possible changes of status for believers (including slaves) in 1 Corinthians 7:17–24, his general advice is “remain as you were when God called you” (see 1 Cor 7:17, 20, 24). But in 1 Corinthians 7:21b, he parenthetically states an exception to the general principle: “But if you are actually able (kai dynasai) to gain your freedom, seize it all the more.”

It is fair to conclude that by his teaching and his example, Paul was laying one of the explosive charges that would one day—although sadly, belatedly—detonate and destroy the institution of slavery.

Find Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament at Lexham Press or Amazon.

*This is a sponsored post.


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