We’re living in a contradictory period in which spirituality and religious belief are thriving during an era of unprecedented biological enlightenment. Further, the fundamentalist religious groups that seem most concerned about recent biological discoveries are experiencing the most growth, and are gaining substantial political power in the process.
Our society is currently debating issues related to stem cells and cloning, gender and sexuality, the beginning and ending of life, and the basis of biological diversification. Further, the anticipated solution to the mystery of the neurobiology of consciousness will certainly cause cultural controversy. And as I write this, a major development in stem cell research has occurred in South Korea, and Kansas is trying to decide whether Intelligent Design and Darwinian Evolution should co-exist in that state’s science curriculum.
Science and technology focus on process, and so tend to change more rapidly and easily than cultural beliefs, which focus more on established content. Science and technology use objective measurement, prediction, and validation techniques that encourage a paradigm shift when the evidence warrants it. Conversely, our cultural beliefs become subjectively imbedded within us, and thus are more resistant to change.
The issue our society now confronts is how best to bridge the growing gap between the two perspectives, realizing that our beliefs and practices are at least occasionally inconsistent. For example, folks who reject Darwinian principles of biology take medications that emerged out of Darwinian principles—and an evolutionary biologist may belong to a church that rejects evolution.
It’s important that biology and theology collaborate on the resolution of issues that involve both, since they have complementary capabilities and limitations. Biology is good at determining how systems such as genetics work, and how to make them work better, but it’s less focused on whether genetic manipulations such as cloning should occur. Conversely, theology is less competent at understanding and improving biological systems, but it has a long history of exploring the appropriateness of human behavior. The two groups should be combining their contrasting how/should capabilities and limitations, but their relationship is currently contentious.
The issue is exacerbated by the academic preparation of scientists and theologians. Most learn little in their programs about the premises and scholarship of the other field, and so are often dubious of its legitimacy.
Efforts at resolution of this issue are fortunately beginning to occur at several levels within the scientific and religious communities. The four excellent books described below provide a sense of optimism, in that biologists and theologians are now writing crossover books that seriously and effectively explore both perspectives.
An earlier column (Neurotheology: Brain Science and Religious Belief) described the work of Anthony Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili whose extended research focused on the underlying biology of religious belief and transcendent experiences (a research field that’s now called Neurotheology). Neuroimaging technology has allowed such researchers to probe into brain systems and processes that had long eluded exploration, and so to locate and explain cognitive activity that underlies religious belief and practice. The title of Newberg and D’Aquili’s book, Why God Won’t Go Away (2001), implies what they discovered about the biological reality and depth of religious conviction in many people.
The renowned cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga is a member of The President’s Council on Bioethics. His thought-provoking new book, The Ethical Brain (2005) provides an excellent accessible explanation of the underlying biology of current moral/ethical issues confronting our society—the beginning and ending of life, the genetic and chemical enhancement of functions, free will and personal responsibility, and motor and cognitive decline.
He also drew on his distinguished research career and the research of others in the development of his intriguing explanation of the nature of moral and ethical behavior, and of religious belief. Central to this is a left hemisphere system Gazzaniga calls the Interpreter that monitors and interprets the actions of all other brain systems in order to create a unified sense of self—basically the beliefs that regulate our behavior.
Gregory Peterson’s Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences (2003) is a biologically knowledgeable theologian’s scholarly exploration of phenomena and issues that concern both theology and cognitive neuroscience— the need to understand ourselves, nature, and what’s beyond nature. It’s a fine, balanced book for theologians who want to understand cognitive neuroscience, and for cognitive neuroscientists who want to understand theology. Further, it’s an engagingly accessible and informative book for folks who just want to understand both the spiritual and scientific elements of their life.
Peterson argues that theology can no longer ignore biology, since scientists can now gather credible objective data on formerly speculative elements of life and belief, but also that biologists must realize the power of religious belief in the many transcendent areas of life that currently seem to defy biological explanation.
Bob Sitze’s Your Brain Goes to Church: Neuroscience and Congregational Life (2005) focuses on the practical problem of how to get a religious community to understand and incorporate new biological understandings of human life into their congregation’s religious life.
His ingenious solution is not to provide specific answers, but rather to propose a series of (frequently metaphoric) explorations that a congregation might undertake to discover the common ground that exists between biology and theology. He focuses on a set of intriguing dichotomies that are relevant for understanding both a brain and a congregation: belief and knowledge, growth and development, foreground and background, danger and opportunity, learning and memory, and coming and going.
The book’s informal conversational approach and explanations of brain systems and processes make it a useful resource for a congregation’s educational and leadership programs. It doesn’t view either biology or theology as remote and mystical, but rather as constructs replete with exploratory possibilities.
All four books successfully handle the daunting problem of unfamiliar biological and theological terminology, realizing that they can’t possibly make their case if readers don’t clearly understand the terms. The four books stimulated my thinking, and I trust they will also stimulate yours if you approach them with an open mind.