In Leap of Faith (Paramount Pictures: 1992), Steve Martin offers a modern take on Elmer Gantry as conman and revivalist Jonas Nightengale. In the movie, Nightengale’s bus breaks down while in the small town of Rustwater, Kansas. As he waits for it to be fixed, he decides to run a series of tent meetings complete with several staged miracles.
When the local sheriff, played by Liam Neeson, confronts Nightengale one-on-one, accusing him of fraud and asking him to leave town, Nightengale replies:
Up in New York, they’ve got Broadway shows that cost $65 a pop just to walk in the door. Now, maybe you like the show and you leave humming a tune, or maybe you don’t and you kick yourself. I give my people a good show: plenty of music, worthwhile sentiments, and most of them go home with hope in their lives that wasn’t there before. Now, usually, I only play towns that can afford me, but, uh, what about towns like this that really need me?
The sheriff is unmoved by Nightengale’s argument and continues to seek Nightengale’s ouster from the town for the rest of the movie.
Strange as it may seem, Nightengale made a point that finds some resonance with the cognitive neuroscientific study of religion. In a recent roundtable discussion, Jordan Grafman, the Director of Brain Injury Research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and a Professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine as well as the Department of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, stated, “I believe God exists in the brain.”1
Grafman co-directs the Cognitive Neuroscience of Religious Cognition Project which investigates “the brain basis of religious belief” using “social and cognitive neuroscience.” One aspect of the project’s work is determining how the brain behaves in those who claim to have had a spiritual or religious experience.
Grafman made his comment to explain how he answers the question of whether he believes in God. From his perspective, God exists at least as an empirically observable phenomenon in people’s brains because he has been able to track how different neurological networks behave when people think about religious and spiritual experiences. In this sense, God exists for everyone regardless of their stated beliefs because everyone who thinks about God has a cognition that can be measured and tracked in their brains. We might term this approach to the existence of God “cognitive neuroscientific theism” (CNT).
CNT does not seek to make ontological claims about the existence of God. However, it does presume the ontological existence of the human creature and a human “self.” This self has both consciousness and awareness which are mediated through neurological processes. These processes are empirical, discoverable, measurable, and all-encompassing. There is nothing that the human thinks, believes, or feels that does not generate from within the brain. Religion and spirituality are no exception to this.
The intersection of individual experience and empiricism makes CNT a welcome contribution while also raising significant challenges for Christian theism. It is welcome because it provides empirical and measurable proof that humans are neurologically wired to receive and process religious and spiritual experiences. Augustine’s famous line in The Confessions that our hearts are restless until we find rest in God appears to have scientific support, at least insofar as neuroscience can now show that our brains behave in specific ways relative to our beliefs about and experiences of God. The longstanding Christian contention that we are embodied creatures and that our faith does not require a Manichean separation of body and spirit has even more to substantiate it.
However, this same logic could be twisted to reduce human consciousness and faith to little more than a biological version of what AI can produce. Both are bounded, measurable, and—once we finally gather all the data about how the brain operates—entirely predictable. Just as an AI bot can hold a conversation about faith within the parameters of its programming, so humans can experience the spiritual and religious within the parameters of their neurological networks. Both are simply doing what they are constructed to do.
This conundrum presents not only an epistemological problem but a seduction. In my academic field of evangelism, we research ways to equip the church to share the gospel more persuasively. Usually, this involves reflecting on how we can best explain the gospel in contextually meaningful ways. CNT offers us an intriguing shortcut to this approach: Can we figure out how to excite the specific neurological networks in the specific sequence needed to have someone experience a conversion or believe they have encountered God? Evangelistic practices would become more about how to hack the neurological network than inviting people to share in the abundant life of God through Jesus Christ.
If we follow this path, we would be little better than Nightengale, just trying to generate a positive response from our audience. We could contend that the ends justify the means, and since the end is someone having an experience of Christ, focusing on the neurological means would be worth it.
How is the Christian theist to respond to this? Leap of Faith offers two possible solutions: community and the miraculous.
In the movie, a young man who has been injured in an accident and has genuine faith comes forward at Nightengale’s healing service. To the joy and amazement of the large crowd attending, the young man can suddenly and miraculously walk again without his crutches. Later, the people gathered at the tent celebrate as a torrential rain begins to fall, breaking the drought that had been threatening the town with economic disaster because their crops were not growing. Even the cynical conman Nightengale is affected. As a result of the healing, he offers his first and only genuine prayer in the movie. It is angry and accusatory, but it is spoken to God, represented by a figure of Jesus hanging over the stage where he preaches. Soon after, as the rain begins to fall, he leaves town, and it is implied that he will quit being a charlatan revivalist.
While this resolution can be dismissed as a Hollywood-style happy ending in which the innocents are rewarded for their simplicity of faith and the conman finds redemption, it still makes a critical point: Even if humans cannot grasp God beyond what our neurological networks allow, God is not confined by human limitations. While God’s character may be consistent (Hebrews 13:8), God’s actions are not beholden to human expectations (Isaiah 55:8-9). It is for this reason that we often face cognitive dissonance when we struggle to make sense of what God is or is not doing contrasted to what we believe about God’s nature. God does not fit into our neat patterns, whether they are formed neurologically, culturally, or in any other way. Sometimes we grapple with tragic endings instead of happy ones.
Moreover, the activity of God is communally experienced. The communal aspect provides a new layer that moves outside of what CNT can measure. While the cognitive neuroscientific theist could contend that everyone in a group was processing a religious experience through expected neurological networks, the fact that everyone experienced the same thing that came from outside themselves would challenge a strict notion that relegates God only to existing as an individual’s cognition.
This recognition that God exists externally from humanity and is free to operate apart from human limitations proscribes us from adopting Nightengale’s approach of just trying to elicit a positive response from people who encounter our message. Ironically, in the movie, the young man who is healed nearly falls into this trap. He offers to join Nightengale’s revival team. Conscience-stricken, Nightengale reveals that he is a fake. The young man, undeterred, asks “Well, what difference does it make if you get the job done?” Nightengale replies, “Kid, it makes all the difference in the world.”
Nightengale has enough integrity to admit when he is facing something bigger than himself. The young man’s healing represents something he cannot control or even comprehend. His tidy world of manipulation is undone because God showed up in a way that he could not expect. Yes, the way that his brain processed that religious experience was mediated through neurological networks that worked in specified patterns. However, those networks were set in motion by the power of a God that existed beyond just being a cognition.
Likewise, we can appreciate the ways that God has created our brains to respond uniquely to Him, drawing gratefully from the insights that cognitive neuroscience provides us related to religious experience. We can even deploy this information to better share the gospel with others. However, we do this not as adherents of CNT who shrink God to no larger than our brains, but as Christian theists who recognize God is bigger than us, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).