If you wanted to compartmentalize how religion is encoded in the brain: what we learn from diseases is that damage to the frontal lobes of the brain – these areas here – can disrupt our religious behaviour, our religious observance, and our religious ideas. So to what extent we go to places of worship, to what extent we sign up for this or that creed, can be altered by damage in those areas. Whereas the experience of God – that oceanic feeling of the ineffable that people have when they encounter the god in some way – that is mediated through the temporal lobes, which are further down here. We know that because diseases in that area induce these feelings. So I think we can begin to get a structure around how religion is mediated through the brain.
In dementia, of various types, parts of the brain degenerate leaving other parts of the brain healthy. In the particular form of dementia affecting the frontal lobes, where one frontal lobe may degenerate leaving the other one healthy, occasionally … we see people suddenly develop new talents. So in the context of disease, something is released. Most characteristically, this is around creativity. So someone who is not particularly artistically gifted throughout their life will suddenly develop a passion and a gift for art for a few months or a few years. And then the dementia catches up with them, and that frontal lobe degenerates further and this is lost. It is as though one frontal lobe – perhaps the left frontal lobe – suppresses the talent of the right frontal lobe throughout life. And it is when that left frontal lobe degenerates that the other lobe is allowed to release its creativity.
Now interestingly, if you look carefully at the case histories of people who have this, alongside creativity can sometimes appear a flowering of religiosity, or an increased interest in faith matters, an increased attendance at places of worship. It is as though that religious module had been suppressed during life and was now allowed to flourish and to flower. That presents us with the hypothesis, which needs to be addressed, that we all have within us an inherent religiosity that may be being suppressed by our brains, by conflict within the brain.
All this demonstrates is that the human brain has been built or has evolved with the capacity to experience God and to understand the religious impulse, in a way that can be influenced in health and in disease. It tells us nothing about whether God actually exists or does not exist, and it tells us nothing about the important questions of whether God cares for us, whether God intervenes in our lives, and so on. All we learn is that the brain has a mechanism which allows us experience God and allows us to behave in a religious way.
- Does the fact that religious behaviour and religious experience can be traced to certain parts of the brain make you more or less likely to believe that religious experiences are possible? Why?
- Have you ever had “that oceanic feeling of the ineffable” that Alasdair Coles described? Did you attribute it to God or to something else?
- Have you ever had any other types of religious experiences? What were they like?
- What do you make of the fact that the human brain seems hard-wired for religious belief?