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Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature

Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature

by Malcolm Jeeves, Warren, Jr. Brown

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Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion is the second title published in the new Templeton Science and Religion Series. In this volume, Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown provide an overview of the relationship between neuroscience, psychology, and religion that is academically sophisticated, yet accessible to the general reader.

The authors introduce key terms; thoroughly chart the histories of both neuroscience and psychology, with a particular focus on how these disciplines have interfaced religion through the ages; and explore contemporary approaches to both fields, reviewing how current science/religion controversies are playing out today. Throughout, they cover issues like consciousness, morality, concepts of the soul, and theories of mind. Their examination of topics like brain imaging research, evolutionary psychology, and primate studies show how recent advances in these areas can blend harmoniously with religious belief, since they offer much to our understanding of humanity's place in the world. Jeeves and Brown conclude their comprehensive and inclusive survey by providing an interdisciplinary model for shaping the ongoing dialogue.

Sure to be of interest to both academics and curious intellectuals, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion addresses important age-old questions and demonstrates how modern scientific techniques can provide a much more nuanced range of potential answers to those questions.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781599471471
Publisher: Templeton Press
Publication date: 03/01/2009
Series: Templeton Science and Religion Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Warren S. Brown is director of the Travis Institute for Biopsychosocial Research and professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

Malcolm Jeeves is emeritus professor at the University of St. Andrews School of Psychology, Scotland. He was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1992 for his services to science and psychology. He is a leading experimental neurophysiologist, former chairman of the International Neuropsychological Symposium, and the author of several books dealing with the integration of science and faith.

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Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion

Illusions, Delusions, and Realities About Human Nature

By Malcolm Jeeves, Warren S. Brown

Templeton Foundation Press

Copyright © 2009 Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59947-147-1


Neuroscience and Psychology Today

The issues of neuroscience arise every day in our modern world. We hear about the sad effects of Alzheimer's disease on the elderly but also those stories of patients waking from comas, regaining their ability to speak—as if nothing had happened. Soldiers return from the battlefield suffering from brain damage they received in combat. Our Western literature also gives occasional glimpses of what happens when the workings of the brain go wrong, and perhaps none is more memorable than the account given by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel The Idiot. In this story, the character Prince Myshkin has bouts of epilepsy. During a brief "pause" before a seizure begins, he notices that

his brain was on fire, and in an extraordinary surge all his vital forces would be intensified. The sense of life, the consciousness of self, were multiplied tenfold in these moments.... His mind and heart were flooded with extraordinary light; all torment, all doubt, all anxieties were relieved at once, resolved in a kind of lofty calm, full of serene, harmonious joy and hope, full of understanding and the knowledge of the ultimate cause of things.... If in that second—that is, in the last lucid moment before the fit—he had time to say to himself clearly and consciously: "Yes, one might give one's whole life for this moment!" then that moment by itself would certainly be worth the whole of life.

Although this is literary fiction, the description accords well with the extensive literature showing how unusual religious experiences are sometimes associated with temporal lobe seizures. Dostoy-evsky himself had epilepsy, and this passage may well describe his own seizure experiences.

This book introduces readers to the wide range of issues in modern neuroscience and psychology, but it will take a particular interest in the topic raised by Dostoyevsky's compelling account: the role of brain activity in human behavior, experience, and even religious belief. Given the clear relationship between brain activity (abnormal activity, in this case) and its manifestations in psychological and religious subjective experiences, how should we view human experiences? Are human behavior and experience nothing more than the outcome of the physiological functioning of neurons or of the laws of physical chemistry governing the molecules that make up neurons? This consideration finally leads us to the specific question of how human nature can be interpreted from the perspectives of science, religious worldviews, and our inner subjective experiences.

In the past few decades, developments at the interface of psychology and neuroscience have seen remarkable advances. Psychology has also been hitting the headlines where it interfaces with evolutionary biology, generating the new specialty of evolutionary psychology. As the headlines also attest, some scientists have interpreted this progress as a confirmation of atheism—that is, if important properties of human nature, such as religiousness, can be shown to be aspects of the natural world, then any religious view must be ruled out. Both the popular science writer Richard Dawkins and Nobel laureate Francis Crick have published widely read books arguing this point. Crick spelled out what he saw as some of the radical implications of developments in neuroscience in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994).

This debate is not new, of course. Throughout the history and development of psychology and neuroscience, leading figures have written about the implications of this research for traditional religious beliefs. Some have written as theists and others as atheists. Leading figures in psychology who were theists include William James, Carl Jung, Gordon Allport, and Sir Frederic Bartlett. Among the atheists are Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner. In neuroscience, a leading theist was Sir John Eccles and a leading atheist Francis Crick, both Nobel laureates. When we see such distinguished scientists in psychology and neuroscience taking these radically different views on religion, the lesson becomes clear: there are no easy answers to these questions. There are no knockdown arguments to settle the debates. In these pages, we will explore the dialogue between a religious worldview and the rapidly accumulating new results from human neuroscience and psychology.


For the past half century, the field of neuroscience has experienced remarkable growth, from an undesignated scattering of research enterprises to one of the largest, fastest-growing, and most rapidly advancing fields of science. The commitment of both the scientific community and governments to research in neuroscience was underlined in the minds of the public when the U.S. Congress declared the last ten years of the twentieth century "The Decade of the Brain." The consequence of this was a significant increase in research funding for neuroscience. This rapid growth is also reflected in the increase in the number of active researchers in neuroscience over the past thirty years. At the inaugural meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 1969, there were a hundred participants. In 2005, there were more than thirty thousand. In the same year, leaders of nine nations within the European Community became sufficiently concerned about the wider implications of research in psychology and neuroscience that they set up a commission to report on these.

New technologies have fueled this rapid growth of research. The most important advance is a new means of imaging the human brain in a nonintrusive manner—that is, in a manner akin to taking a simple x-ray. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) allows scientists to look at the structure and integrity of brain tissue inside the skull of a patient or research participant. Then, using functional MRI (fMRI), it is possible to superimpose on the MRI's brain image an additional representation of areas that are relatively more metabolically active. By this, patterns of brain activity can be observed during a particular mental state or while accomplishing a cognitive task. For example, brain activity can be seen in the language areas of the left cerebral cortex when a person is asked to provide verbs to accompany nouns. Another research tool, positron emission tomography (PET), is very much like fMRI in providing information about the distribution of mental activity in the brain. These are the most often used of an increasingly large array of brain-imaging techniques that are still being developed.

New technologies are also allowing scientists to refine older methods of studying the brain in living subjects. Prior to the advent of brain imaging, neuroscience had focused on experimental studies of animals or relied on the clinical observations and behaviors of people with brain damage or brain disease. Now there is a way to experiment harmlessly with such interruptions to the brain. This is possible with transcranial magnetic stimulation, a technology that gives scientists a reversible method of temporarily disrupting brain activity in selective areas. Thus, research on the effects of the disruption of function is no longer limited to experimentally damaging (or stimulating) brain areas in animals or to studying accidental damage in humans.

With the tools of imaging, neuroscience has also begun to tackle the highest forms of human cognitive and social functioning. For example, researchers have imaged brain activity while a person is involved in moral reasoning or while experiencing empathy for another human being—a topic we will review in later chapters.


The term psychology comes from a Greek word referring to the mind. In the early years, psychologists agreed that their field was principally about the internal processes of a human mind under study. However, frustrated by the fact that minds of other people cannot be studied directly, psychological science shifted dramatically to experiments and theories only about people's behavior. This shift took place by the middle of the twentieth century (in a movement led by B. F. Skinner). In this view, behavior was all that existed. Any talk of mind was, at best, unscientific. This was the era of behaviorism. But the pendulum has swung back. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, psychology has moved in a direction heralded now as the "cognitive revolution." Theories about inner mental states (consciousness, emotion, memory, etc.) have all been allowed back into the field.

The contemporary move to neuroscience research has also occurred among many psychologists, but it took longer in their profession. Either way, the field has grown dramatically. When the American Psychological Association was founded in 1892, there were 131 members, associate members, and fellows. When it divided into the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society in 1988, there were 66,996 affiliates.

The field of psychology is broad in its subject matter. Scan the contents of a contemporary college textbook of psychology and you understand why it is so difficult to pigeonhole psychology as a biological science or a behavioral science or a social science. However, most today would agree that large parts of contemporary psychology can quite properly be labeled as scientific.

It has been more than a century since William James wrote to his friend Thomas W. Ward, "It seems to me that perhaps the time has come for psychology to be a science." Psychologist Howard Gardner, like James a professor at Harvard, was still reflecting on this issue in his 1988 William James Lecture entitled, "Scientific Psychology: Should We Bury It or Praise It?" Gardner believed that "psychology has not added up to an integrated science, and it is unlikely ever to achieve that status." He continued:

What does make sense is to recognize important insights that have been achieved by psychologists; to identify the contribution which contemporary psychology can make to disciplines which may someday achieve a firmer scientific status; and finally to determine whether these parts of psychology might survive as participants in the conversation which obtains across major disciplines.

As an aside he added, "For the most part, psychologists (like other academics) go about their daily research and writing without agonizing about the actual or potential coherence of their field." Most psychologists are content to accept as their primary goal to produce "reliable knowledge."

While debate about the scientific status of some areas of psychology will no doubt continue, most agree that, in the case of neuropsychology—which is where psychology interfaces with neuroscience—there is no doubt about its scientific status. This area of psychology will be the focus of this book as we consider the science's impact on religion and religious beliefs.

Relating Science and Religion

Throughout the last century, it became increasingly clear that both psychology and neuroscience pose difficult questions for the religious views of most people. The liveliest debates have occurred in two fast-developing fields. The first is neuropsychology, the study of the neurological basis of human thought and behavior. And the second is evolutionary psychology, the study of the likely evolutionary emergence of human thought and behavior. It is fair to say that the scientific status of these two areas of contemporary psychology is widely accepted. Although they may be regarded as part of "the scientific enterprise," that phrase itself has been used in a variety of different ways over the past four centuries. Moreover, we seem to be continuing that long, historical debate on how exactly to relate this accumulating "scientific" knowledge to traditional theological statements.

Most scholars agree that, by the seventeenth century, Puritan scientists, such as John Wallis, William Petty, William Turner, Henry Briggs, John Bainbridge, and John Wilkins (many of whom were founding members of the Royal Society of London), regarded science as an ally of true religion. In a spirit of optimism today, we might even admire the protagonists of "free science" among the Puritans (who otherwise held revelation as their highest authority). Wary of mere human authority, they pitted their free science—which was "not adorned by great names but naked and simple"—against what they regarded as the superstitious cult of Aristotle. For Puritans, it was not freedom that led to truth, but truth that led to freedom.

For those who had stood on Aristotle's teaching, it was only "natural" and "reasonable" to move from his idea of living things as embodiments of eternal forms or unchanging essences to the idea of species as fixed and unchanging. Eventually, the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin shook this Aristotelian biology at its very foundation. What if species are not fixed? What if there is a measure of change from generation to generation? What Newton had done to Aristotelian physics, Darwin did to Aristotelian biology. With this challenge Darwin, like Newton, produced a point of departure for a new worldview. Newton's intelligently designed machine would, under Darwin's influence, acquire the properties of a dynamic and progressive organism.

Some may find it strange that aspects of Darwin's views of humankind had simply recaptured the Hebrew–Christian emphasis on human beings as a part of nature. Nature, said Darwin, includes both man and his culture. By contrast, the Greek tendency was to separate humankind from the rest of creation and to give human beings and human minds an arrogant, aristocratic place over nature. Darwin's views also challenged any simple analogy of God as the "maker" of the universe—that is, as an absentee landlord who made the world and then left it to run autonomously.

But historical puzzles remain. Given that Hebrew–Christian thinking about nature encouraged the rise of science and that Christian thinkers developed scientific research, why do we now say that science and religion are in conflict? This topic has been dealt with at length by several scholars. They have traced out the origins and recurrence of the "warfare metaphor." Although "warfare" readily describes debates over creation and evolution, it also remains near the surface in debates about scientific and biblical views of human nature. Neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology have produced much of our best scientific data on human nature, and so, unfortunately, these are fertile fields for the new advocates of "warfare" between science and religion.

By the end of this book, readers will have a greater sense of the puzzles that neuroscience and psychology have produced in regard to human nature and the religious nature of humankind. We begin our journey in chapter 2 by laying out the two perennial options—warfare or partnership—in the relationship between brain science and religion. We will show in chapter 3, however, that some of these issues are not as new as is claimed. Next, we move to the physical functioning of the brain: chapter 4 presents a model of brain activity that is helpful when interpreting claims about the physical nature of psychological and religious experience; and chapter 5 shows how tightly bound—or "embodied"—mental activity is with the brain's physical activity.

As we approach the question of human nature, we must look at our evolutionary history and our relationship to nonhuman primate cousins—the topic of chapter 6. In chapter 7, we return to the type of questions raised by Dostoyevsky's novel: how are scientists tying religious experience to particular events of the brain, such as temporal lobe seizures, or to particular "spots" in the brain? All of these findings have an impact on a central concept in Western thought, that of human beings in the "image of God." So chapter 8 will survey the new ways of interpreting this concept. We conclude in chapter 9 with a synthesis of neuroscience, psychology, and religion—that we shall generally call emergent—that we feel is a compelling solution for our modern understanding.


Warfare versus Partnership

Enormous strides are being made in research in both neuroscience and psychology. But with each new discovery, partisans have seized on the latest findings as weaponry in the ongoing, and at times contentious, debate between science and religion. Now as in the past, we invariably meet the outspoken voices on both sides of this debate: some say brain science and religion are in a perennial battle, while others claim that a constructive partnership can be forged.

There are science-minded and religious-minded people on both sides of this debate. Among the proponents of "warfare," some scientists argue that scientific information trumps all religious views, while religious voices often respond by rejecting all scientific theory as a rival to traditional religious commitments. On the other hand, there are many who would argue (including the authors of this volume) that, with appropriate adjustments and open reflection on both sides, there is the real possibility of a partnership between scientific and religious views of humankind.


Excerpted from Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion by Malcolm Jeeves, Warren S. Brown. Copyright © 2009 Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Foundation Press.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Neuroscience and Psychology Today,
Chapter 2: Warfare versus Partnership,
Chapter 3: From Soul to Mind: A Brief History,
Chapter 4: Principles of Brain Function,
Chapter 5: Linking Mind and Brain,
Chapter 6: The Human Animal: Evolutionary Psychology,
Chapter 7: The Neuroscience of Religiousness,
Chapter 8: Science, Religion, and Human Nature,
Chapter 9: Getting Our Bearings: Looking Back and Looking Forward,
Further Reading,

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