WASHINGTON -- Religion has often unintentionally enabled scientific skepticism. The faithful will issue a challenge to science: Ha, you can't explain the development of life, or the moral sense, or the nearly universal persistence of religion. To which the materialist responds: Can too. It is all biology and chemistry, thus disproving your God hypothesis.
To this musty debate, Andrew Newberg, perhaps America's leading expert on the neurological basis of religion, brings a fresh perspective. His new book, "How God Changes Your Brain," co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, summarizes several years of groundbreaking research on the biological basis of religious experience. And it offers plenty to challenge skeptics and believers alike.
Based on brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, Sikhs and Sufis -- along with everyday people new to meditation -- Newberg asserts that traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to "long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love." He assures the mystically challenged (such as myself) that these neural networks begin to develop quickly -- a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances "social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions."
Newberg argues that religious belief is often personally and socially advantageous, allowing men and women to "imagine a better future." And he does not contend, as philosophically lazy scientists sometimes do, that a biological propensity toward belief automatically disproves the existence of an object of such belief. "Neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn't exist," Newberg states with appropriate humility. Neurobiology helps explain religion; it does not explain it away.
But Newberg's research offers warnings for the religious as well. Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain -- particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate -- where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is "filled with aggression and fear." It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.