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First let me thank the editors of Christian Scholar’s Review for allowing me room to respond to the extended review of my book on the neuroscience of religious experience.I also thank Professors Runyan and Kreitzer for their very thoughtful and stimulating review. My overall sense from reading their review is that there is much on which we would agree. I think the questions they pose are cenral to the field, such as: What is religious experience? What is a Self or a person? How does the brain participate in or “realize” religious experiences? What does self-transformation look like? How does religion address the issue of akrasia or weakness of the will (see pages 22, 43, 74, in my book; Runyan and Kreitzer claim I do not address akrasia)? How might neuroscience help with all these fundamental questions of science and of life itself?

Somewhat foolishly, I attempted to tackle some of these deep questions myself in my book. The reader can judge for himself to what extent I succeeded. Although I think I have produced some marginal insights on some aspects of these deep questions, I must admit that I was not satisfied with the end result. My hope is that others can build on the findings I describe in my book and steady progress can be made in these exceedingly complex matters. I suspect that these fundamental issues of life and religion and embodiedness are not really solvable at all; they can be addressed only provisionally by even the best of thinkers. They are not finally “computable” as the neuroscientists would say. But I think we gain enormously by engaging these issues and doing the best we can to answer them in some sort of coherent manner for ourselves and our times.

Runyan and Kreitzer are aware of the complexities of all these issues and rightfully they take me to task on two of the big ones: What is religion itself and what is a Self or person? Runyan and Kreitzer maintain that I focus on exceptional religious experiences and do not seem to realize that religious life has more to do with a way of life than with any special experiences per se. Runyan and Kreitzer claim also that my treatment of the Self tends to be too narrow—reducing it to a set of schemas or stories and the like.

From my point of view, to some extent these charges are unfounded. Nonetheless, I can see how intelligent readers like Runyan and Kreitzer might come to the conclusions they did. I may have overemphasized exceptional religious experiences, because the bulk of the existing empirical work on religious experiences concern these sorts of experiences. I was also focused on identifying changes in religious experiences after brain lesions or brain stimulation (due, for example, to drugs or medications) and these situations lend themselves to exceptional experiences as well. This also holds true with my treatment of the self. My book is an empirically oriented work—not a philosophical treatment of the issues. Empirical work requires operational definitions of the target phenomena that will be studied. It is understood that operational definitions necessarily simplify complex entities and to some extent that must have occurred in my treatment of these important topics.

Still, I very much agree with Runyan and Kreitzer that much of the most profound transformative work done by “religion” on the individual is done in the absence of any special experiences at all. As all religions testify, real transformationis done over time (except in very special cases like St. Paul), requires a steady willingness to be transformed (that long-term surrender Runyan and Kreitzer mention), and trust or faith that the process is occurring even when one is not feeling any special “warm feelings” or any special feeling at all. Let us call these aspects of religious self-transformation “non-experiential.” Runyan and Kreitzer are right to insist that religious transformation can occur even in the absence of exceptional experiences or indeed even in the absence of any experience at all. I believe I said this in the book. With respect to exceptional experiences, I noted that:

Most religious persons, for example, do not on a daily basis experience, paradoxicality, awe-struck wonder or ineffability. They do, in contrast, very often experience a quiet joy (positive mood), persisting efforts at positive changes in attitudes and behavior toward self and others, noetic insight or a sense of meaningfulness in life, ritualization, and a quiet, unassuming but abiding sense of the sacred in everyday life. (16)

Indeed, throughout the book I was at pains to point out to readers that Self-transformation via the religious life occurs over the long term and is an arduous process and a first-rate cultural contribution and achievement of the religious life. For example, in summing up much of the argument made throughout the book vis-á-vis the Self, I say, “Construction of an executive Self (vis-á-vis religious life) is an arduous process that requires years of effort” (254). In the preface I say that:

Most religions aim at and are successful in creating mature, autonomous persons, capable of inhibiting their own impulses, planning wisely for the future, and extending service and kindness to others. Religions take as raw material the average man with all his pettiness, blindness and violence and then create gold out of this unpromising material. (vii)

All of chapters 2 (on the divided Self) and 7 (on Self-transformation) are given over to discussion of the complexities of personhood, transformation, and religiosity. So I do not think it entirely fair to say that I have missed the importance of non-exceptional aspects of religious self transformation. Nor is it entirely fair to say that I have over-simplified the Self or the non-experiential aspects of religious transformation. On the contrary, I was at pains throughout the work to point to these matters and to remind the reader of the complexities involved. But again my task in the book was, as the title implies, to create the foundations for a neurology of religious experiences—so it would not have made much sense to focus on non-experiential or non-exceptional aspects of religiousness. I reminded my readers that those non-exceptional aspects exist, that they play a role in transformation, but that my focus was on experiential aspects of transformation of an impulse-ridden Self into a mature, autonomous, generative Self—a Self I called the executive Self.

Runyan and Kreitzer take me to task for “equating” the Self with a neuroanatomical network. They make the surprising claim that decision-making cannot be ascribed properly to parts of the brain. In a trivial sense this is correct—no higher-order cognitive process can be seen in the neurons and blood we see when we look at the brain. Yet, it is abundantly clear that neurons perform computations that enact cognitive operations. It is also abundantly clear that there are key nodes in neuronal networks that enable various types of computational operations. That was all that I claimed with respect to the Self and its brain correlates. I identified a key node in the network that is associated consistently with changes in self and religiousness. That will be a very valuable clinical tool for physicians working with patients confronting changes in their abilities to access religious coping or their own religiousness. No one knows how best to characterize the relation of brain processes to consciousness or higher cognitive processes. But a first approximation is that the brain matters a great deal! I think it a great mistake to downplay the role of the brain in the realization of religious life. I see this tendency among religious people as a hangover from the woeful legacy of many of the Gnostic sects of old.The Gnostics tended to view the body as illusory and something to denigrate and disparage. It could not get you to heaven, they thought. It is now a commonplace among theologians and philosophers to insist that we are in fact embodied creatures and that one key to understanding the human condition is to address the body. But to date, as far as I can see, religious people only pay lip service to this insight and the ancient theological tradition of seeing the body (including the brain) as key to salvation.

Cite this article
Patrick McNamara, “The Neuroscience of Religious Experience—A Response to the Runyan-Kreitzer Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:4 , 479-481

Patrick McNamara

Patrick McNamara is Associate Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine.