I recently got round to listening to the podcast of a discussion on this topic on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable show. The Revd Dr Alasdair Coles is a neurologist and a Christian. His interest in the subject was stimulated by meeting a Christian patient who claimed to have some very powerful religious experiences but which, as it seems, were actually being triggered by epilepsy. The sceptical perspective was represented by Martyn Frame, a psychological therapist.
Here are a few brief reflections, based mainly on Alasdair Coles’ contribution:-
- Neuroscience cannot settle the question of whether there is a God or not.
- It is of interest, however, that the human brain appears to have a natural propensity to mediate experiences that are subjectively regarded as ‘spiritual’, ‘mystical’, or ‘religious’.
- This propensity tends to be stronger in those who have a dominant right cerebral hemisphere; those with a dominant left hemisphere are capable of a faith which is no less valid, but which is characterised by logic and verbal reasoning rather than by numinous experience.
- The right hemisphere’s ability to respond to God via these numinous experiences can (and often is) suppressed in our Western culture.
- Brain function – including susceptibility to ‘spiritual’ experiences – is not wholly genetically determined. It can be altered by environmental factors and by training.
- The fact that such experiences can be stimulated by altered brain states (induced by drugs, say, or disease) does not mean that they cannot also be associated with a real encounter with the living God. It does mean, however, that spiritual experiences, however real they may seem to the subject, need to be evaluated where possible by objective evidence. This will mean screening out other possible triggers, including epilepsy.
- We should not be surprised that our Creator has only made it possible (but not certain) that our brains will experience him in this way. To do otherwise would have been to violate that element of free choice which lies at the heart of a truly loving relationship.