Our Religious Brains
By Ralph D. Mecklenburger
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2012, 193 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 7, 2012
Science has proven beyond doubt that when people think they are having a religious, spiritual, or mystic encounter, or a feeling of sensing God, they are really not doing so, they only think they are. Ralph D. Mecklenburger describes the scientific findings of how the mistaken notion arises. Scientists discovered that "religious experiences" are the interpretations people give to a neurological event.
Scientists examined the brains of people of all faiths, cultures, and life styles, including priests, monks, and atheists. These people cleared their minds of extraneous thoughts by praying or meditating. The scientists found that there is "a small lump of grey matter nestled in the top rear section of the brain" that orients people to physical space. The lump keeps track of where people are. When the men and women meditated "there was less and less activity in this area," the brain received fewer pieces of data than usual from the senses, and the meditators lost some sense of where they are.
The scientists asked them what they were feeling. They found that "the same primary experience (of the lessening of brain activity) takes on different meanings based on the individuals'" ideology, religion, knowledge, training, and life. Two people praying side by side and reciting the same prayers with the same intensity have radically different reactions to the brain slowdown. Thus the mystical experience is an illusion, a misinterpretation, "a trick the brain plays on believers."
The scientists explained that human minds are tuned to find and create patterns where and when none exist. Thus, while people see the brain slowdown as something else, the feeling of a religious sensation is nothing more than their reaction, their mistaken interpretation of a lessening of brain inactivity.
This scientific finding is certainly reasonable to atheists and believers in a transcendental God who does not interact with humans. However, it should also make sense to people who are convinced that God is always present; for the scientific finding explains why those who have "spiritual experiences," never receive clear messages.
Some words now about the human tendency to see patterns where none exists. The most famous example is identifying clusters of stars as constellations while the truth is that the stars in the constellation have no relationship with each other.
Many religious people use patterns to prove the existence of God. They famously argue that if one found a palace in the middle of a desert it should be obvious even to a fool that the palace must have been built by a builder; it didn't build itself. Thus, since we see many patterns on earth, they had to be created by a creator, and this creator is God.
Actually, as previously stated, scientists have proven that people see patterns where none exist. This tendency is useful because, among other things, it helps people recognize their surroundings; remember events, objects, and places; and protects them from dangers. Thus, this proof from the existence of patterns is a figment of the imagination.