Andrew Newberg MD., Eugene D'Aquill Ph.D., & Vince Rause
Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

from Kevin in the forum:
As promised, here is my review of Why God Won't Go Away by Andrew Newberg, MD., Eugene D'Aquill and Vince Rause.

Why God Won't Go Away would be a great addition to the libraries of both the Believers and the Non-Believers of this forum. It's pretty obvious that the authors would be classed as "Believers" if they were participants on this BB, but they would be very liberal, egalitarian "believers." I certainly got a lot out of the book, and definately recommend it to everyone. To me, this book helps explain why people with strong LDS testimonies, or Born-Again conversions, cannot accept the logic of the skeptic. Their belief is not just based on logic (or illogic, depending on your point of view), but has neurological roots -- or, to put it another way, their belief is rooted in their brain's natural spiritual center.

The primary argument of Why God Won't Go Away is that true mystical experiences are not the result of delusional or psychotic minds, but occur naturally in a normal healthy brain. To be sure, the psychotic and "normal" mystical experiences share a great many similarities, but are different in a few fundamental ways (which I won't go into right now).

Why God Won't Go Away also emphasizes that true mystical experiences are "real" in the sense that they don't just originate in a person's imagination, but have a scientific explanation (the brain mechanics can be explained), and are repeatable in a lab -- each person's SPECT scans will be similar. All of which indicates that our brain has apparently evolved to include "spiritual" experiences in its natural capacity.

In other words, human beings cannot really avoid spiritual experiences at least on some level. It's hard-wired into our brains. It's just the way our minds function. We can explain away the phenomenon, but in the end, we can't stop the phenomenon. Even those of us who avoid Church still experience some level of spiritual experience through music, art, communing with nature, etc.

The brain, of course, compartmentalizes its functions in different physical areas. Some areas are centers for higher cognitive functions, others for keeping track of where we are in relation to our surroundings, etc., etc.

In a healthy mind (non-psychotic), mystical experiences are acheived by one of two ways. According to Why God Won't Go Away, there is a particular combination of ritual and either a "passive" or "active" approach to meditation that results in a mystical experience of some level. Some variation of the "passive" approach is usually followed by Eastern religions -- typically all thoughts and sense of "self" are pushed out of the mind, resulting in a feeling of "oneness" with everything around the meditator -- while the "active" approach is generally preferred by Western religions in the form of intense concentration on one particular object -- a crucifix, a theological concept, a mental image of Jesus or God.

Whichever way the potential mystic attempts to acheive his/her mystical experience, the brain reacts the same way. In everyday life, we are acutely aware that the world around us is distinctly separate from our person. But, as the sensory input coming into the section of the mystic's brain which controls this perception is successfully decreased (via the person's meditation techniques), this section attempts to compensate for the lack of information, and the separation between the person and the world becomes less distinct; resulting in a perception that the person is "one" with his surroundings, or "one" with the universe. Why God Won't Go Away, of course, goes into much more detail of the actual mechanics involved, which I found fascinating. In any case, the results are as follows:

"At low levels, this blockage results in mild unitary sensations, such as the feelings of unity and common inspiration shared by worshipers in a moving religious service. [Earlier in the book, Why God Won't Go Away explains the elements found in a typical religious service that can act as a type of mini-meditation-experience.] As we move along the continuum we find a progression of increasingly intense unitary states, characterized by feelings of spiritual awe and rapture. Where prolonged and rigorous rituals are involved, trance states may occur, featuring moments of ecstasy and hyperlucid visions. At the farthest end of the continuum, where deafferentation* would be most advanced, we find the profound states of spiritual union that have been described for us by the mystics." (p. 116)

(*Deafferentation is a neurological term describing the deprivation of information to certain brain structures such as the orientation association area.)

The authors of Why God Won't Go Away use the term "Absolute Unitary Being" to describe this ultimate unitary state. In describing the mechanics leading up to this Absolute Unitary Being, they state:

"...The total shutdown of neural input would have a dramatic effect on both the right and left orientation areas. The right orientation area, which is responsible for creating the neurological matrix we experience as physical space, would lack the information it needs to create the spatial context in which the self can be oriented. Its only option, when totally deprived of sensory input, would be to generate a subjective sense of absolute spacelessness, which might be interpreted by the mind as a sense of infinite space and eternity; or conversely, as a timeless and spaceless void.

"Meanwhile, the left orientation area, which we have described as crucial in the generation of the subjective sense of a self, would not be able to find the boundaries of the body. The mind's perception of the self now becomes limitless; in fact, there is no longer any sense of self at all.

"In this state of total deafferentation of the orientation area, the mind would perceive a neurological reality consistent with many mystical descriptions of the ultimate spiritual union: There would be no discrete objects or beings, no sense of space or the passage of time, no line between the self and the rest of the universe. In fact, there would be no subjective self at all; there would only be an absolute sense of unity -- without thought, without words, and without sensation. The mind would exist without ego in a state of pure, undifferentiated awareness. The name Gene and I have used for this state of pure mind, of an awareness beyond object and subject, is Absolute Unitary Being, the ultimate unitary state.

"The mystical traditions of the East have all described some version of this ineffable unity -- Void Consciousness, Nirvana, Brahman-atman, the Tao -- and all hold it up as the essence of what is inexpressibly real. On the neurological level, these states can be explained as a sequence of neural processes set in motion by the willful intention to quiet the conscious mind, which is the age-old goal of passive meditation. In a similar sense, active meditation -- which consists of intensely focused contemplation or prayer -- triggers a slightly different pattern of brain activity which may account for Western conceptions of the transcendent absolute." (pp. 117-118)

While Why God Won't Go Away concentrates on the extreme end of the mystical experience, it is clear from their descriptions that the feelings that Latter-day Saints call their "testimony" is simply a low-level mystical experience. Since "normal" mystical experiences are repeatable and predictable in many aspects, it is no wonder that the LDS Church has so much success getting millions of people (including many of us growing up) to experience a "testimony." This mini mystical experience, like the more intense experience of Buddhist meditators (and others), comes out of a specific combination of ritual and meditation -- in this case, an "active" meditation. More importantly, it is repeatable, so believers can always renew their spiritual "batteries" when the need arises, and be reassured that they are living in such a way that they are worthy of a connection with the "divine."

The authors of Why God Won't Go Away see a strong scientific and historical basis for their conclusion that all religions of the past and present have originated from this tendency of our brain to have spiritual experiences.

They also contend that most religious divisions and strife may come from incomplete mystical experiences:

"Transcendent states, as we've seen, exist along a continuum of progressively higher levels of unitary being that ultimately leads to the point at which unity becomes absolute. In the state of absolute unity, there are no competing versions of the truth; there is only truth itself, so conflicting beliefs, or conflicts of any kind for that matter, are not even possible.

"If however, a mystic falls short of absolute unity -- if, in neurological terms, the deafferentation of the orientation area is not complete -- then subjective awareness would survive, and the mystic would interpret the experience as an ineffable union between the self and some mystical other. We examined the neurobiology of just such a state -- the Unio Mystica -- in our discussion of active meditation.

"Like all advanced unitary states, this mysterious union would have a profound sense of realness; the mystics would viscerally feel that he or she had stood in the presence of absolute reality. A Christian might call this truth Jesus, a Muslim might invoke the name al-Lah, in primal cultures it might be interpreted as some powerful spirit of nature, but in every case it is experienced as a spiritual truth that stands apart from and above all others.

"We've seen that the "discovery" of such truth through mystical experience, provides believers with a powerful sense of control over the otherwise uncontrollable whims of fate. The presence of a powerful spiritual ally convinces believers that their lives are a part of some comprehensible plan, that goodness rules the world, and even that death can ultimately be conquered.

"What makes these beliefs more than hollow dreams is the fact that the God that stands behind them has been verified, through a direct mystical encounter, as literal, absolute truth. Any challenge to the authenticity of that truth, therefore, is an attack not only upon ideas about God, but also upon the deeper, neurobiologically endorsed assurances that make God real. If God is not real, neither is our most powerful source of hope and redemption. There can be only one absolute truth; it is a matter of existential survival. All others are threats of the most fundamental kind, and they must be exposed as impostors.

"In other words, the presumption of 'exclusive' truth, upon which religious intolerance is based, may rise out of incomplete states of neurobiological transcendence. Ironically, when the process of transcendence is taken to the logical, and neurobiological, extreme, the mind is confronted with a state of absolute, uncompromising unity, in which all conflict, all contradictions, all competing variations of the Truth, disappear into harmonic, monolithic oneness. If we are right, if religions and the literal Gods they define are in fact interpretations of transcendent experience, then all interpretations of God are rooted, ultimately, in the same experience of transcendent unity. This holds true whether this ultimate reality actually exists, or is only a neurological perception generated by an unusual brain state. All religions, therefore are kin. None of them can exclusively own the realist reality, but all of them, at their best, steer the heart and the mind in the right direction." (pp. 163-164)

Of Why God Won't Go Away's nine chapters, the first six deal primarily with brain mechanics as it relates to spiritual and mystical experiences. It discusses Brain Machinery (ch. 2), Brain Architecture (ch. 3), our nature compulsion for Myth-making (ch. 4),and the importance of Ritual (ch. 5) for a successful mystical experience.

The last three chapters get progressively speculative. We begin in chapter 7 with the authors' theories of the Origins of Religion.

Chapter 8 ("Realer Than Real") gets quite speculative as the authors present their belief that there may be an actual reality that is greater than the physical reality that we can see, touch and measure every day. Their belief is that our brains (during meditation) is truly sensing this "reality" instead of imagining it, as the skeptic might insist.

While I am certainly not opposed to a "higher" reality than the one we live in now, and while I would be the first one in line to retain my "self" in some form after death, I don't find the authors' arguments for the reality of this higher plane persuasive enough. Intriguing, but not persuasive.

In the end, of course, they admit that they can't prove or disprove this speculative hypothesis, and that such a "reality" may indeed be the perception of our neurons inside our brains. I will say this of their arguments, however -- it's fun to speculate, and it got me thinking, since their arguments in favor of a literal higher plane of existence were unique.

But, aside from the speculative last three chapters (which Believers may find more persuasive than I did), I found the book to be thoroughly enjoyable, and fairly easy reading. Anyone who wishes to understand the neurobiology behind spiritual experiences should find this book interesting.

My note: Other books along somewhat similar lines include: Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, The "God" Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper, and The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions by Joseph Giovannoli.