The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe

The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe

by John C. Wathey
The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe

The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe

by John C. Wathey


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Does neuroscience have anything to say about religious belief or the existence of God? Some have tried to answer this question, but, in doing so, most have strayed from the scientific method.

In The Phantom God, computational biologist and neuroscientist John C. Wathey, Ph.D., tackles this problem head-on, exploring religious feelings not as the direct perception by the brain of some supernatural realm, nor as the pathological misfiring of neurons, but as a natural consequence of how our brains are wired.

Unlike other neurobiological studies of religion and spirituality, The Phantom God treats mysticism not as something uniquely human and possibly supernatural in origin, but as a completely natural phenomenon that has behavioral and evolutionary roots that can be traced far back into our vertebrate ancestry. Grounded in evolutionary and behavioral biology, this highly original and compelling book takes the reader on a journey through the neural circuitry of crying, innate knowledge, reinforcement learning, emotional bonding, embodiment, interpersonal perception, and the ineffable feeling of certainty that characterizes faith.

Wathey argues that the feeling of God’s presence is spawned by innate neural circuitry, similar to the mechanism that compels an infant to cry out for its mother. In an adult, this circuitry can be activated under conditions that mimic the extreme desperation and helplessness of infancy, generating the compelling illusion of the presence of a loving, powerful, and all-knowing savior. When seen from this perspective, the illusion also appears remarkably like one that has long been familiar to neurologists: the phantom limb of the amputee, spawned by the expectation of the patient’s brain that the missing limb should still be there.

Including a primer on the basic concepts and terminology of neuroscience, The Phantom God details the neural mechanisms behind the illusions and emotions of spiritual experience.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633888067
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/15/2022
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

John C. Wathey, Ph.D., is a computational biologist whose research interests include evolutionary algorithms, protein folding, and the biology of nervous systems. Previously, he was a senior applications scientist at Biosym Technologies (now named Biovia), a company that develops molecular modeling software for the pharmaceutical industry. He then founded his own business, Wathey Research, and since that time most of his scientific research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health. Wathey has published his peer-reviewed research results in distinguished scientific journals, including Biophysical Journal, Journal of Neuroscience; Brain, Behavior and Evolution, and Neuroscience Letters, among others. He is the author of The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing and has published popular articles in the Huffington Post, Skeptic Magazine, and The Jonestown Report. For more information, visit

Table of Contents

Prologue vii

Part I Behavioral Foundations

1 Why Is God Two-Faced? 3

2 Evidence for the Innate Neural Model of Mother 25

Part II Circuitry of the Sensed Presence

3 Crying and the Neural Alarm System 45

4 Innate Knowledge and the Circuitry of Gut Feelings 53

5 Imprinting, Maternal Presence, and Addictive Love 65

6 Self, Other, and the Illusory Sensed Presence 77

7 Certainty, Neonatal Cortex, and the Phantom God 89

Part III Neurotheolooy Meets Neuroetholooy

8 The Image of God 109

9 The Helmet of God 117

10 The Flesh of God 135

11 The Madness of God 147

12 The Handedness of God 163

13 Predictions 179

Epilogue: So What? 193

Acknowledgments 197

Appendix A Getting Oriented in the Brain 199

Appendix B Measuring Religiousness 209

Notes 215

Index 283

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