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Should scientific evidence that religion is 'all in our heads' be cause for a crisis of faith?

This video is interesting for asking a question that is asked more and more often as time goes by and technology advances. During the four minutes of the speaker’s soliloquy, he discusses existing neuroscience experiments that can simulate a spiritual and perhaps even, what one would call, a religious experience.

It has been known for some time that dysfunction of the temporal [or side] lobe of the brain can create the sense of different types of experiences. Stimulate one area of the temporal lobe on one side of the brain and the person will smell food. Stimulate another area of the temporal lobe on the other side of the brain and a person will hear a ghostly voice speaking to them.

I remember reading about a medical student who had a crisis of faith when he realized that seizures in the temporal lobe could manifest as almost any type of perceived experience. This crisis of faith stemmed from the simple fact that many religions are based on an exchange with a deity. Whether it be hundreds of thousands of Jews standing around a mountain or a rabbi preaching to his apostles, in theory, all this could have been nothing more than temporal lobe seizures.

Of course, this would require that multiple people experience an identical type of seizure that yielded a near identical phantom experience, all at the same time. But of course, that’s assuming that one takes biblical accounts as historically accurate. Other faiths and religions also speak of a unique individual who interacts with the universe or rises to the heavens. Ultimately, it does all seem to be just a variation on a [temporal] theme.

Let’s say that in future computer games, i.e., the descendants of the video games we play now, it is possible to stimulate our temporal lobes in such a way that we can literally experience anything we want. What if an external piece of technology can convince us that we are standing at Mount Moriah or personally speaking with Buddha. Does this mean anything? Does it mean that the combined faiths in all their forms are meaningless? Does this prove, emphasis on the word “prove”, anything about the existence of a deity?

Interestingly, one of the commentators on the Bible noted that the experience at Mount Sinai was invisible to anyone other than the Jews. In other words, a sheepherder walking by, would have seen hundreds of thousands of people standing around a mountain for no good reason. Is this further proof that all 600,000 Jews had a seizure? Or, was it a case equivalent to George Burns, playing G-d, making it rain only inside of John Denver’s car because he didn’t want to ruin the day for everybody else? In other words, G-d was giving the Bible to the Jews and He didn’t want anybody else listening in.

One of the problematic issues with explaining religion away with neuroscience is determining how people would have such temporal lobe stimulation without external intervention or a brain dysfunction. How can it be that so many people swear to the fact that they have experienced something supernatural when we are only able to simulate the same thing by direct stimulation of the brain?

One answer is that there is an evolutionary advantage to imagination and even delusions. It could be that these two elements create a psychological protective net such that humans are better able to deal with threats. So a human that can imagine and even sense a divine presence would have a benefit over a human who cannot, when both are faced with the Tiger that wants to eat them. So, perhaps every person who experiences “something beyond” simply self-triggered a part of their temporal lobe. The nice thing about theories is that you can have as many as you want, because they are free. What isn’t free are the experiments  to test theories and either prove them true or false.

Allow me one more theory. As I noted above, perhaps the foundation of all religion is in our temporal lobe. Whoever said that a deity didn’t put our temporal lobe there for exactly that reason. Perhaps G-d’s way of speaking to us is via totally normal physiological neural pathways. This reminds me of a classic moment in the movie Amadeus when Salieri is looking over first drafts by Mozart. Salieri states that they were perfect, without a single correction, “as if he was taking dictation”. Perhaps Salieri was right. How would one expect G-d to interact with us if not through our normal brain tissue?

I must admit that I enjoy playing with these ideas because the ultimate source of faith is not much of a concern to me. I look at the world we live in and I compare the part that follows the rules of morality to the part of the world that does not. I think most people would agree with me that it is preferable to live in a world guided by a Judeo-Christian based morality. Do I believe that Moses went up to a mountaintop and received the word of G-d or do I think that he was having a seizure? The answer is, what difference does it make? I would imagine that G-d can communicate in any way that He likes. And it would be reasonable to do so in such a way that would still leave our present day brilliant scientists guessing.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.