Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: The God Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper

Many psychologists explain spiritual experiences as results of certain stimuli, quite natural to our physical brain. As psychologist Frank S. Hickman stated, “Religious experience is not haphazard or whimsical in the manner of its appearance, for it is a natural reaction to certain kinds of stimuli.”(1) Based on this information, these psychologists, basically, conclude that spirituality is all in the head.

Matthew Alper argues that since spirituality is a behavior “universal to any species”(2) it must have been passed down from generation to generation in genes the same way the “genes from which our linguistic capacities emerge”(3) have been passed down; “Just as all human cultures have demonstrated a propensity to develop a language, all human cultures have just as clearly demonstrated a propensity to develop a religion as well as a belief in spiritual reality.”(4) 

Alper further explains that the spiritual mind that man began to pass down years and years ago came about because of mankind’s fear of death. “In perceiving ourselves as immortal,” he states, “we are relieved of a great deal of the psychological strain that comes as a result of our unique awareness of inevitable death.”(5)

Since this does not explain spiritual experiences, Alper went on to explain in his chapter “The Transcendental Function” that the symptoms of religious experience that have been described by people are a result of a repression of the ego function, which he states results in a detachment “from any coherent sense of self, a state universally depicted as cosmic, boundless.”(6)

You may ask how this repression of the ego happens. Alper explains that transcendental meditation causes this, as well as spiritual contemplation. He says that “if we close our eyes and focus our concentration on some higher power or god, it alters our neurochemistry in such a way as to transform our conscious experience, and in such an unusual manner, compels us to believe that our beliefs in a spiritual realm are genuine.”(7)

Because this argument does not explain sudden, involuntary religious experiences, Alper went on to show that this happens to a person as a result of anxiety. He quotes psychologist E.T. Clark who studied 2,174 cases and concluded that “Sudden conversions were associated with fear and anxiety.”(8) Fear and anxiety, then, have the power to cause the repression of the ego involuntarily.

He also explained the religious experience of speaking in tongues. He stated that it was found that when those who enter into “an “anointed” state of consciousness” in which they begin to speak in tongues, “their brain wave patterns suddenly [shift] from alpha to beta, thus confirming that such experiences have direct correlation to neurological activity.”(9) This explanation does not confirm any such thing. If someone enters into an anointed state of consciousness, it is obvious that there would be a drastic change in brain activity. If there wasn’t a change in brain activity, the argument could be made that the spiritual experience is not genuine.

Nevertheless, with all of this, Alper concludes that “what we perceive as spiritual/mystical/transcendental experiences can be reduced to workings of our basic neurobiology—this and nothing more.”(10) Along these lines, psychologists Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newburg wrote in their book The Mystical Mind, “We feel certain . . . that any specific theological idea may eventually be reducible to neuropsychological functions.”(11)

However, D’Aquili and Newburg go on to state, “We are still left with the problem that, based on such an analysis, all of reality, including the analysis itself, can be similarly broken down.”(12) The fact that spiritual experiences and theologies can be reduced to the “workings of our basic neurobiology,” “to neuropsychological functions” does not rule out their existence. “As to what the further cause of such an experience may be,” says psychologist C. G. Jung, “the answer to this lies beyond the range of human knowledge.”(13) There can be a further cause to the spiritual phenomena in the brain, and that further cause could be God. After all, the brain activity that spurs from ideas about a metaphysical spiritual realm and from spiritual experience would appear the same if the spiritual realm actually did exist.

What Alper suggests does not disprove God's existence. The so-called “God part of the brain” could have been established by God Himself. Obviously, if there is a God that created us, a part of the brain would respond to ideas about His metaphysical world. With that, I will let William James have the last word:

In the psychopathic temperament we have the emotionality which is the sine qua non of moral perception; we have the intensity and tendency to emphasis which are the essence of practical moral vigor; and we have the love of metaphysics and mysticism which carry one’s interests beyond the surface of the sensible world. What, then, is more natural than that this temperament should introduce one to regions of religious truth, to the corners of the universe?(14)

Notes:
[1] Hickman, Franklin S.. Introduction to the Psychology of Religion (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1926), 115.
[2] Alper, Matthew. The "God" Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God. 5th ed. (Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2006), 80.
[3] Ibid 79.
[4] Ibid 80.
[5] Ibid 139.
[6] Ibid 151.
[7] Ibid 40.
[8] Ibid 173.
[9] Ibid 192.
[10] Ibid 154.
[11] Aquili, Eugene G., and Andrew B. Newberg. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), 175—176.
[12] Ibid., 176., emphasis added.
[13] Jung, C. G.. The Undiscovered Self (Boston: Little, Brown, 1957).
[14] James, William. "Religion and Neurology." In The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (London: Longmans, Green 1903), 25.


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