While the description above is definitely true of certain elements of evangelicalism, especially those with an allegiance to Reformed theology, the fact is that the majority of Christians and the majority of religions seek to experience the divine. The great popularity of "worship music" in the evangelical church, I think, is emblematic of this trend. People will sing the same few words over and over again as they close their eyes and look toward heaven. They are looking to experience "the presence of God." Others meditate and pray in beautiful cathedrals with stained glass windows and inspiring organ music and sit in silence and awe of the majesty of their God. These uplifting emotional experiences are Christianity for many people. They interpret them as proof that they have a real relationship with God and that their faith is real. This sense of transcendency is what draws many people to religion.
Neuroscientists are making some interesting discoveries relative to these "religious experiences," and it has some Christians worried. A recent article in Christianity Today the mouthpiece of evangelical Christianity in America is entitled: "The End of Christianity as We Know It," by Mark Galli. He writes:
This sort of thing makes many a Christian nervous, and for good reason. We live in an age in which religious experience is the centerpiece of faith for many, many Christians. We disdain faith that is mere intellectual assent or empty formality. We want a faith that is authentic, that makes us feel something—in particular, one that enables us to experience God. When we describe the one time in the week when we put ourselves in the presence of God, we talk less and less about "worshipping God" and more about "the worship experience." The charismatic movement, with its emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit, has penetrated nearly all churches. This religious mood, which characterizes our era, is epitomized by the title of Henry Blackaby's continuing best seller, Experiencing God.
New Scientist Magazine (21 April 2001), reported the following:
The researchers found intense activity in the parts of the brain that regulate attention--a sign of the meditators' deep concentration. But they saw something else, too. During meditation, part of the parietal lobe, towards the top and rear of the brain, was much less active than when the volunteers were merely sitting still. With a thrill, Newberg and d'Aquili realised that this was the exact region of the brain where the distinction between self and other originates.Neuroscience can now duplicate the mystical experiences claimed by religious people over the years in two different ways. One is through the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as ketamine and psilocybin. The other is through electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain.
Broadly speaking, the left-hemisphere side of this region deals with the individual's sense of their own body image, while its right-hemisphere equivalent handles its context--the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe, the researchers thought, as the meditators developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually cut these areas off from the usual touch and position signals that help create the body image.
"When you look at people in meditation, they really do turn off their sensations to the outside world. Sights and sounds don't disturb them any more. That may be why the parietal lobe gets no input," says Newberg. Deprived of their usual grist, these regions no longer function normally, and the person feels the boundary between self and other begin to dissolve. And as the spatial and temporal context also disappears, the person feels a sense of infinite space and eternity.
More recently, Newberg has repeated the experiment with Franciscan nuns in prayer. The nuns--whose prayer centers on words, rather than images--showed activation of the language areas of the brain. But they, too, shut down the same self regions of the brain that the meditators did as their sense of oneness reached its peak.
This sense of unity with the Universe isn't the only characteristic of intense religious experiences. They also carry a hefty emotional charge, a feeling of awe and deep significance. Neuroscientists generally agree that this sensation originates in a region of the brain distinct from the parietal lobe: the "emotional brain", or limbic system, lying deep within the temporal lobes on the sides of the brain.
Karl Jansen, M.D., Ph.D., a is a leading neuroscientist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In an article entitled, "Neuroscience, Ketamine, and the Near Death Experience," published in The Near-Death Experience: A Reader (ed. Lee Worth Bailey and Jenny L. Yates) he writes:
There is overwhelming evidence that the mind is produced by the brain. The effects on the mind of adding drugs to the brain, and the religious experiences which sometimes result, provide further evidence (p. 267).Jansen's research shows that drugs such as ketamine produce out of the body experiences or the sensation of experiencing the divine which are virtually identical to many near death experiences.
Brain scientists have also found that
electrode stimulation of the temporal lobes evokes experiences which become part of the subjective stream of consciousness, embedded into the very fabric of the personality, such that the personality, and even sexual orientation may be altered. Moreover, patients may experience profound visual and auditory hallucinations and even feel as if they have left their bodies and are floating in space or soaring across the heavens (Rhawn Joseph, Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, Clinical Neuroscience , 3rd Edition, chapter 9).What does this research on how the brain operates tell us about religious experiences? I think it makes clear that there is no reason to suppose there is a supernatural element at all. Thus, another one of the "proofs" for Christianity evaporates.