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