Is there a “religionome” and can it be mapped?

May 6, 2008

An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology, /Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara/HandoutNeuroscientist Andrew Newberg has an intriguing idea: is there a “religionome” similar to the human genome and can scientists map it? He raised this idea at a recent Pew Forum conference on religion and public life in Key West, Florida, where he discussed the topic of why belief in God persists.

Newberg’s work focuses, among other things, on his view that we are biologically driven to find meaning in our lives. He argues that our brains have the capacity to create and perpetuate systems of belief that take us beyond our basic survival needs. These beliefs are biologically rooted in the brain, he thinks, but are also given form by our peers, parents and society.

Newberg is an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and director and co-founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Neurosciences, all at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He talked with Reuters on the sidelines of the conference, organized by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, to flesh out his vision.

“If you think of it in the context of the human genome project, what we are talking about is finding a way of mapping all of the different aspects of religion, the different traditions and practices and experiences that people have,” he said.

Andrew Newberg“And by mapping it, I would not just be talking about the biology of it but trying to connect the biology with what people are actually experiencing, feeling, believing and therefore getting as full as possible a real understanding of what religion and spirituality are really all about for people.”

I asked him to further explain — in layman’s terms — what he saw as the biological basis of belief.

“What I think we have seen in the research we have done, what I would what to do in any kind of religionome type of study, would be to try and find the overall pattern of changes, the pattern of activity in the different structures in the brain that are involved with all the different types of processes that people consider to be religious or spiritual.”

“To expand on that a little bit, I have tended to find that there is a pattern of structures, a group of structures in the brain that seem to be involved whenever people engage in some kind of religious or spiritual activity. So what we tend to find is that there are a set of structures that are activated or inactivated depending on what a person is doing, how they’re doing it, what they’re trying to experience … while the pattern is a little bit different in each type of practice, it always seems to involve the same structures. It just involves them differently.”

The more we learn about the human body, the more some scientists search for a “God gene” or a religious zone in the brain or some other physical basis to account for the phenomenon of faith. Do you think science can explain faith?

3 comments

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we ll my comment is this that, one day science will proof the religious zone in human body. i belive in religious and god.

The simple fact of the matter is that this research will change not one iota of orthodox Christian theology.

What are they going to find out? That we don’t have ESP to communicate with the divine? That spiritual experiences are based to a large degree on imagination and acceptance of authoritative revelation? That people can have different temperaments, one of which makes them more prone to trust the basis of their spiritual experience as truth?

Well guess what. This was all hashed out and accepted by the scholastics before we knew the solar system was heliocentric.

The only reason people are looking for a “god gene” or wondering if science can explain faith is due to a simple reason. Today the bible is accepted as a “magic book” that can tell the average layman all he needs to know about it simply by reading it. No historical or textual criticism or context is required. Coupled with that is the idea that all we need to do is “feel the spirit” and we become authorities about what God wants.

Faith deals with non-empirical revelation. So no, science can’t explain faith because it needs something empirical to apply the scientific method to. It can help determine the naturalistic causes why some might be more temperamentally suited to a religious life. But what impact this would have on faith itself has already been figured out centuries ago.

Posted by Gerbertaurillac | Report as abusive

[...] Is there a “religionome” and can it be mapped? (Ed Stoddard, [...]

Faith by definition is the belief in something without evidence so it would be quite ironic if science explained faith.
Religion persists because children are brainwashed to believe it and also because we are selfish animals at heart and when we think of death we desperately hope that it is not the end and but into the myth of heaven which our forebearers dreamt up.
Frankly Ill be glad when I die and there is nothing. Better than being forever watched over by big brother in the sky, constantly being judged.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

investing in your spirituality…

. -If you can not recognize or accept your greatness – I am here. ? Provide support, acknowledgement and gentle feedback with no judgements….