Science – Does It Invalidate Religion?
By Stephen Russell-Lacy
The idea that science has replaced religion has become popular these days. Some put religion to one side as now of date. People are noticing a huge development in research into the working of the human brain which seems to support this view.
New imaging technologies allow science to measure blood flow and neural activity whilst people are meditating and praying. Science claims it can predict and measure religious experience in this way. Atheists like Richard Dawkins are saying this is evidence that religious experience is nothing more than natural activity in certain parts of the brain. From this they conclude that there is no such thing as any supernatural reality.
What science has found
It has been found that intense or mystical experiences associate themselves with co-ordinated activity in certain areas of the brain and absence of activity in other parts. For example both meditating Buddhist monks and praying Catholic nuns demonstrate a decreased activity in the parietal lobes. This is a brain region responsible for spatial orientation. They also show increased activity in their frontal lobes. This is a brain region responsible for concentration. Similar patterns of brain activity are observed for singing, meditation and prayer regardless of the specific spiritual belief of the people studied.
There is an alternative interpretation. Just because religious experiences are accompanied by predictable brain activity, why should this mean they are caused by it? When two things go together, either of them influences the other. Alternatively, some third factor influences both.
One cannot expect science to investigate spiritual factors that might be involved. Quite rightly researchers depend on using natural tools to measure phenomena. Science practices methodological naturalism. This is a strategy for studying the world, by which scientists choose not to consider supernatural causes – even as a remote possibility. So, science does not theorise about any unnatural causes of what it studies.
Drug induced religious experience
Those who are sceptical about religion say if psychedelic drugs can produce mystical and religious experiences then religion is due to brain chemistry and not to God. Users of such substances report that they have remarkably spiritual experiences.
These drugs produce a wide range of often extraordinarily vivid perceptions. The kind of experience depends on several factors including the individual’s type of spiritual orientation, and the expectations of the social setting, as well as the specific drug and its dosage. Since the early 1960’s researchers have shown that, for many, such chemicals have induced positive benign and blissful mystical and religious states. However some have agonising encounters with loneliness, hopelessness, guilt and visions of dark forces.
When we are in an altered state of consciousness something releases the mind from its attachment to, and its rational awareness of, the external material world. I would suggest then we become more aware of a normally hidden inner world of spirit. I would say this inner world consists of both a presence of timelessness and unity but also a presence of dark forces. So these drugs expose full awareness of this inner world which is not observable using our physical senses.
To my way of thinking we make a huge mistake to suppose that the mere swallowing of a pill can yield the same results as years of spiritual discipline and growth. Also it is an error to suppose that religious experience is nothing more than a brain in a certain chemical state.
Science and religion
So do you think that science invalidates religion? Or do you think, as I do, that when some argue that only science has the truth, they are not arguing scientifically at all. Actually, I would say they are stepping beyond the scope of science into discourses of meaning and purpose.
It is good for us to have factual knowledge. Without it we cannot build up our rational understanding of ordinary things. Science provides many opportunities to look for and find God in nature and to reflect on belief.
Hinduism has historically embraced reason and empiricism, holding that science brings legitimate, but incomplete knowledge of the world. Most Buddhists today view science as complementary to their beliefs.
According to Emanuel Swedenborg Christian philosopher, the danger comes when we only see things in a natural light. We also need to use a spiritual light which is available to us. In other words, the worldly and bodily-minded individual makes a mistake to imagine one can use sensory evidence alone to see what is really important in life for oneself.
I rather like the view of the son of the founder of the Bahá’í religion. He said that religion without science is superstition and that science without religion is materialism.
As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.
He edits Spiritual Questions a free eZine that explores links between spiritual philosophy and the comments and questions of spiritual seekers. You can share your views and find out more about making sense of life.
His eBook Heart, Head and Hands draws links between the psycho-spiritual teachings of the eighteenth century spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and current ideas in therapy and psychology.
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