The Science of Religion

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The Science of Religion



The cover of the latest Newsweek caught my eye as I was running out the door to class: a vaguely futuristic, androgynous ascetic was basking in the glow of an ethereal ray of light, face calm, hands uplifted to receive inspiration. In the center of this enlightening beam, the title professed, "God and the Brain: How We're Wired for Spirituality." Who could resist such an evocative article? I flipped through it - it started with some stuff about how to achieve a spiritual state (by turning off environmental fear and orientation sensors in the brain), proudly confirmed that scientists can now track brain activity of Tibetan Buddhist meditation and Catholic prayers?I was starting to grow bored and skim faster; then my eye caught, "Neurotheology is stalking bigger game than simply affirming that spiritual feelings leave neural footprints?By pinpointing the brain areas involved in spiritual experiences and tracing how such experiences arise, the scientists hope to learn whether anyone can have such experiences, and why spiritual experiences have the qualities they do" (54).

The article went on to discuss how certain key religious figures from history are hypothesized to have had temporal-lobe epilepsy, a condition that yields "focused bursts of electrical activity called 'temporal-lobe transients' [which] may yield mystical experiences" (55). In order to test this, neuroscientist Michael Persinger built an electromagnetic helmet to directly stimulate the temporal lobes of the brain. The helmet produced the intended results, encouraging "out-of-body experience" and "a sense of the divine" in its users; thus Persinger concluded that "religious experiences are evoked by mini electrical storms in the temporal lobes, and that such storms can be triggered by anxiety, personal crisis, lack of oxygen, low blood sugar and simple fatigue - suggesting a reason that some people 'find God' in such moments" (55). The article moves on to suggest that people capable of "dissociation" - identified by their creativity, innovative tendencies, open-mindedness, and close interaction of the conscious and subconscious mind - "may be genetically or temperamentally predisposed to mystical ability" (56). Finally, after boasting that scientists can both monitor and produce "spiritual" experiences in the laboratory, after defining the physical causes of out-of-body experiences and divine inspiration as malfunctions or misinterpretations of the brain, and after claiming a sort of personality-based predestination, the article concedes that "it is likely that [scientists] will never resolve the greatest question of all - namely, whether our brain wiring creates God, or whether God created our brain wiring.

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Which you believe is, in the end, a matter of faith" (57).




And yet it is not that simple. Although the lack of scientific proof for either side of the argument requires the theological academic to make disclaimers about faith left and right, science and religion have become entangled in a frenzy of recent and/or contemporary research to the point where the "faith" disclaimer has almost entirely lost its philosophical potency. It seems to me that, based on the nature of their experiments and their conclusions, the neurotheologists discussed in the article must believe that science is capable of eventually proving or disproving the existence of a spiritual world external to the mind - otherwise, what is the point of observing and documenting, if not to be able to explain and understand?

Religion and science have formed over time a sort of sibling rivalry with each other. The two are both the progeny of human curiosity about the natural world/universe and fear of the unknown; however, ancestral heritage does not imply ideological compatibility. Because (historically as well as contemporarily) they have struggled with each other in order to be the dominant discourse in human society, people have attempted and will in all likelihood continue to attempt a formal reconciliation between the scientific world and religious experience. Current research on neurotheology is merely the modern manifestation of this recurring phenomenon.

History, unfortunately, does not look favorably on the success of such endeavors. Science and religion1 have previously been engaged in an academic setting - both as scientific theory being stimulated by older religious contemplation and as the exploration of religious truth by means of scientific tools; however, while they have been shown to complement each other, it has thus far proved difficult to combine the two in anything further than detail work. Thus, religion still provides explanations beyond the physical domain of science, and science retains the ability to describe the physiological effects and fill in the cultural history of religion, but (unless you believe in miracles or futuristic physics) the boundary of the physical world seems to be prohibitive to any sort of pragmatic reconciliation between the two systems of thought. My impetus for this paper came from studying one such attempt in the field of Biblical archaeology - an exploration that began with an unsuspecting interest in the merger of science and religion, and ultimately revealed the obituary of an academic discipline.

It should be noted that Biblical archaeology is unique in that it is not a clear-cut case of science attempting to explain religion or religion attempting to direct science, but is rather a cooperation of the two. The Bible, taken as a historical text, is an invaluable artifact for archeological study of the ancient Near East; in correlation, archeological evidence of Biblical lands has produced many cultural details that substantiate Biblical narrative. According to William G. Dever, Biblical archaeology began with the work of Edward Robinson, an American Biblical scholar and seminary professor. In 1870, the American Palestine Exploration Society formed for the purpose of "the illustration and defense of the Bible"; and by the turn of the century, Biblical archaeology had become a "respectable academic discipline" (Dever, 13). With the impetus of the early twentieth-century Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, whose arguments on the subject of Biblical historicity threatened to make the Bible seem "nothing more than a pious fraud" (Dever, 15), Biblical archaeology suddenly became an attractive tool for Protestant Evangelicals, who thought it could "come to their aid by proving the historicity of Biblical personalities and events" (Dever, 15). By the 1930s, these soldiers of Biblical historicity were overeagerly sending claims to the American public along the following vein: "Not a ruined city has opened up that has given any comfort to unbelieving critics or evolutionists. Every find of archaeologists in Bible lands has gone to confirm Scripture and confound its enemies?Not since Christ ascended back to heaven have their been so many scientific proofs that God's word is truth" (Dever, 16).

By the middle of the twentieth century, the effusive religious victories of the Fundamentalist archaeologists had petered out; in their place, a more cautious, secular form of Biblical archaeology emerged. In contrast to the above proclamation, the successes of mid-twentieth-century Biblical archaeology were described: "Archaeological research in Palestine and neighboring lands during the past century has completely transformed our knowledge of the historical and literary background of the Bible. It no longer appears as an absolutely isolated monument of the past, as a phenomenon without relation to its environment. Discovery after discovery has brought increased recognition of the Bible as a source of history" (Dever [quoting Albright], 16). Biblical archaeologists, if not more sober about their research itself, had discovered the necessity of promoting their field not as an attempt to prove the bible per se but to illuminate the society that had written it. G. Earnest Wright admits that, "in my judgment we have indeed been guilty of overstatement in particular contexts and that the time has come for a more cautious and judicious qualification of the positive assertions? so that it may be quite clear what the evidence really is" (Wright, 16). But whether their sentiments were their own or whether they were giving "faith" disclaimers to validate their work is a subject worth debating.

This more cautious Biblical archaeology produced respectable (though often challenged) Near East archeological work for a few decades, but by the early 1970s, Dever claims "that Biblical archaeology as an academic discipline was dead" (22). He blames for its demise the "ambitiousness" of the projects launched by Biblical archaeology schools, the early connections Biblical archaeology had with the reactionary climate of Biblical studies in the early 1900s (although other scholars disagree with this claim [Wright, 16]), the homogeneity of backgrounds among American Biblical archaeologists ("Protestant, post-Liberal, Old Testament scholars" [23]), and its lack of progress on the "basic historical problems" of the discipline. Dever (quoting David Noel Freedman) concludes, "Archaeology has not proved decisive or even greatly helpful in answering the questions most often asked and has failed to prove the historicity of Biblical persons and events, especially in the early periods;" he goes on to complain that, "It was not archaeology that failed, but rather a generation of Biblical scholars who misunderstood and misapplied this valuable tool - largely because most never developed beyond amateur status" (26).

Fortunately for the optimistic reader, Dever does not leave his "dead" field of Biblical archaeology to rot in its religious grave; he points out that, with the dissolution of the discipline, Biblical archaeology was relegated to a "dialogue " between the more independent disciplines of archaeology and Biblical studies. Thus, Dever's "unprofessional" Biblical scholars were removed from their mound-sites in order to make room for a more secular multidisciplinary archaeology, which combined the knowledge of archaeologists with "geologists, paleobotanists and paleozoologists, physical and cultural anthropologists, historians of technology, and, finally, computer programmers to help record, process, and analyze this mass of data" (28). The archaeological domain of the Near East was delivered to more competent, more eclectic (and just generally more) hands. Biblical archaeology therefore benefited from the efficiency and professionalism of their research; today, the dialogue of Biblical archeology is still a presence in American society through journals, organizations, and pop-culture.2

This short history of Biblical archaeology leaves one wondering: What is it, then, that caused Biblical archaeology to be so intensely popular, to make it still interesting today? My initial impression of Biblical archaeology left me with the expectation that it should be phenomenally unpopular among religious communities, and yet it was theologians who latched onto it so ferociously. In order to even consider using science to prove the Bible, Biblical scholars must have been completely without concern that science's powers to disprove could have any effect on the fundamentals of religion.

An immediate contradiction one might question between religious dogma and advocacy of Biblical archaeology is the treatment of Biblical text. Archaeologists catalog the bible as an artifact, which implies that it was both man-made and corruptible by cultural interpretation / translation. Because the bible was never lost, it has not been preserved in its original form; therefore, depending on how altered it has been after being passed down through different societies, it is probable (from a secular standpoint) that some of the original meanings have been lost.

Thus, archaeology views the Bible in artifact form as only "received text" from a historically altered original. "The Bible cannot simply be read at face value as history; nor, of course, can any other ancient text be so read," argues Dever (5); the following questions consequently arise: "But how did we receive it, in what form and by what means? How old is the text, how accurately does it reflect the lost originals, and thus how close can it be to the truth of what really happened?" (Dever, 8) The attraction of archaeology, then, from a secular standpoint, "is simply that it offers the possibility of getting beyond these late, reworked sources to contemporary, firsthand records and other remains that may?illuminate certain events directly" (Dever 7).

So if it is true that Fundamentalists at the beginning of the twentieth-century latched onto Biblical archaeology in order to prove the authenticity of Biblical text, weren't they even a bit nervous that they would be proven wrong? Just as archaeological evidence promised to prove the historicity of Biblical events, it also threatened to completely undermine the basic principles upheld in the Bible. Imagine, for instance, that Near East archaeology uncovered early Biblical texts that were polytheistic or perhaps had different commandments that outlined an unintuitive ethical code (according to the standard laws of Western society). Present archaeological evidence already refutes some of the chronological and geographical facts within Biblical narrative - there are, for example, "anachronisms of style" in certain sections of the Bible "that date the writing to a period after the events they purport to record" (Dever, 5); if I were devoutly religious, I imagine I would be rather uncomfortable with the whole enterprise.

In the Bible, St. Paul says that all scripture is divinely inspired - a condition that would include translation and cultural distortion of text; thus, the idea that earlier texts could undermine the contemporary Bible becomes a small worry for Biblical scholars. The "anachronisms of style" could also be discounted by "divine inspiration"; a religious person could argue that because the Bible is the Word of God, and God is omniscient, then God would enlighten whichever writer was currently receiving his Word with historical truth, even if it was humanly impossible to achieve such historical accuracy of the event in question. Furthermore, Biblical archaeologists worked around the issue of the Bible as an "artifact" by claiming that Biblical narrative can be interpreted to point to the Word of God rather than literally being the Word of God.

This allowed discoveries such as the Ugaritic texts to be accepted as brilliant and necessary discoveries. The comparison of the old, rediscovered Canaanite literature, when compared to previously debated sections of the Bible, helped Biblical scholars to clarify uncertain translations, to define ambiguous words, and to illuminate obscure references. In The Archaeology of Palestine, Albright gives the following example:




In Psalm lviii, 4 we have a curious expression which has been commonly rendered literally as 'rider on the evenings', or by a reasonable guess as 'rider on the heavens'; in Ugaritic the expression occurs frequently with only a very slight consonantal divergence from the transmitted Hebrew spelling as 'rider on the clouds', referring to the storm-god Baal. In Hebrew poetry this beautiful appellation has been transferred to Yahweh, without carrying with it any mythological connotation (234).




Thus, Biblical archaeology serves to clarify the Bible for those who wish to study it as a religious text as well as an historical one. Dever explains that "some texts of the Hebrew Bible have become so corrupt that they simply cannot be translated with any certainty?the attraction of archaeology is its promise to render many difficult passages more intelligible either by finding parallel texts that may explain enigmatic phrases (as the Ugaritic texts have done brilliantly), or by putting the Biblical texts back into their original context so as to restore their full meaning" (8).

On the subject of giving context to text, Biblical archaeology also provides socioeconomic information for the Ancient Near Eastern civilizations that Biblical texts neglect. Dever explains the problem with Biblical historicity as the following:




The Bible is historical in the sense that it contains an account of particular peoples and occurrences at particular places and times, and in this respect it contrasts sharply with some of the mythological literatures of other ancient religions. The Biblical writers [however]?are not concerned with the question, "What really happened?" but with the larger question, "What does it mean?" For them and their original readers, the Bible is?the story of the saving acts of God on behalf of his people?The modern notion of a disinterested secular history would have been inconceivable to Biblical writers, nor would they have been interested in it had they conceived of it. [Furthermore, Biblical] writers portray on a grand scale the dramatic public actions of great kings, priests, reformers, and prophets, but they tell us next to nothing about the daily life of the average Israelite or Judean. [Therefore, the Biblical texts] are 'elitist.' They were written by and for the upper classes, and they were interpreted, preserved, and transmitted by them. Ultimately, the Bible as we have it is almost entirely a product of the royal court and the priestly establishment of Jerusalem. The Bible is concerned with political history, not social or economic history (6).




By providing the cultural history of ancient societies, Biblical archaeology adds context to the stories in the bible and makes contemporary understanding of the Biblical world more complete; thus, the socioeconomic details provided by archaeology substantiate biblical events.

This societal wholeness appeals to both secular and religious communities. Dever accounts for the secular connoisseur in his observation that "archaeology offers a contemporary but more objective account of conditions and events in the ancient world?allow[ing] us a fleeting glimpse of past reality without some of the filters [of tradition, experience, and faith], so that it may be seen in its true colors" (11). Similarly, biblical scholars would likely share the following sentiments of Harry Thomas Frank: "We want to know all we can about the life and times of biblical man. Who were these participants in the divine drama? How did they think, work, and live? What were the influences upon them? Surely the more we know about the land, the cities, the culture, and the people of that time and place, the closer we shall be able to draw to the events and lives described in the Bible" (Frank 40).

The question all of this raises for me is, "why now?" Why, after all these centuries, are we as a society so concerned with documenting culture, when we apparently only used to be interested in politics? The answer, it could be argued, is Science:


Religion is a "big picture" system: it is concerned with power as opposed to detail; with politics as opposed to culture; with meaning as opposed to matter. Science, on the other hand, deals in minutia and "bottom-up" explanations. Thus, as science impresses its methods on society, it is reasonable to imagine that society would turn those methods back onto itself; hence, the atomic view of the physical world would encourage a discrete view of society based on individuals and culture rather than broad, sweeping themes and omnipotent monarchs. Such a change in societal ideology could explain the modern trend to try to substantiate the bible to accommodate contemporary demands by filling in the cultural environment of its historical narrative. Contemporary society is no longer is content to learn from stories about kings and miracles - it also wants to see how its religion worked for the common man in everyday life. "It is not surprising," Frank observes, "that archaeology, which has been called 'history's latest and greatest source,' has in recent years become so vital to man's self-understanding" (28).

Furthermore, science preaches truth through consistency and exposure (i.e. the more you know about something, the truer it is). Because the scientific method is based on proving or disproving through empirical evidence, as opposed to the emotional appeal of religion, something is or is not in scientific terms if it is physically reproducible. In a way, scientific truth is just an educated guess based on all available evidence, strengthened by the scope of the evidence and its stability over time. Hence, science has imposed on modern society the tendency to prove the thing-ness of a thing by increasing the amount of knowledge available about said thing. Therefore, the physical evidence promised by Biblical archaeology would, by increasing the wealth of knowledge substantiating the existence of Biblical society, consequently make the Bible a more influential force in society; the more information available supporting the Bible as an accurate historical text lends more credibility to the Bible itself as a "true" document, in scientific terms.

It is worth quickly regurgitating here the common argument that science can itself be categorized as a form of "religion." Because science is ultimately just a guess limited by the parameters of the humanly-observable world (defined by the limits of our senses and instruments, or our ease of access to the studied phenomenon), it has been argued that science itself depends on basic faiths, and, though it delivers physical proof of its competence, it is still a product of the human mind. Furthermore, theories within sciences are constantly in jeopardy of being proven wrong by new evidence that undermines the consistency of previous proof.

If religion is turning to science for detail work, and science requires its own brand of faith in order to propagate, it seems they may not be so unrelated after all. But what, then, is the relationship? I posit that we are currently at a point where the relationship (or at least human consensus about the relationship) is at an unstable equilibrium. I have defined religion and science to be views diverging from "real life" in completely opposite directions, with religion striding towards the "big picture" and science delving into detail; now, I would like to propose a somewhat different model.

It seems probable that the model held by Biblical archaeologists, neurotheologists, and anyone else who has taken on the ambitious task of reconciling science and religion is not as absolute and eternal as my straight lines traveling in opposite directions from real life to infinity. Their model is perhaps more circular, with science and religion diverging from "real life" initially but ultimately coming back around to rejoin each other in a sort of "universal truth." I suggest that humanity is simply unsure of which model to believe.

A slight modification of my previous divergence model changes the paths of religion and science to be asymptotic as opposed to opposite straight lines - hence, the principle remains, but in the form of a different mathematical model. Now imagine that religion and science have been moving at approximately the same rate from the starting point of non-theoretical "real life" - suddenly their paths curve and they can see each other across a theoretical distance. As they continue moving up, the slope of each path continues to increase, until, at some point, it either remains increasing asymptotically into space or it flips around to converge with the other path and form a circle. This is explained better in the diagram below:



From observing the popular but uncertain attempts in recent history to show that religion and science are academically compatible, I imagine that society is currently resting at the point right before the paths turn into dotted lines, such that we can only hypothesize as to which direction the two views will ultimately follow.

Mathematical models are fun to play with, but what is the significance of the two paths? What if the circular view is right? What does that mean from a religious point of view? I recalled the following quote from Bible, Archaeology, and Faith:

Some scholars, usually not archaeologists, have seized upon certain discoveries in an attempt to "prove" the Bible. One of the more popular books on Bible and archaeology in recent years?is filled with the excitement of a man for whom a new vista has suddenly been opened. At the same time, it is shot through with the idea that now, finally, the Bible has been validated?It dispels doubt; it proves. It gives tangible evidence to sustain the intangible. Where faith cannot stand on its own merit?some people feel more secure and comfortable in their beliefs if a wall, a city, or a manuscript can be produced to suggest that after all the Bible just may be true. This unfortunate situation?[is] a violation of both Bible and archaeology" (337-8).




Did this mean that modern religion actually did not want physical evidence? I felt I couldn't tackle this question by myself, so I conducted a few informal interviews to find out what my contemporaries thought on the matter.3

I was surprised to discover that my secular interviewees were more often offended by the use of physical proof to substantiate Biblical claims, and the religious interviewees were more accommodating of the individual paths one might take to religious belief. They did seem to have a slight bias, however, for those who believed based on faith alone - I was directed by one of my interviewees to John 20, 21, in which Jesus appears to a skeptical disciple: "Jesus said to him, 'Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.'" Thus, it seems that if physical evidence leads greater numbers to accept religion, then that evidence indeed serves a purpose for the religious community; yet at the same time, these conditional followers are somehow less "religious" than those who have "faith" first. In fact, it seems that secular communities might argue that the conditional follower has no "faith" at all.

Furthermore, I received an overwhelmingly unanimous response (from interviewees of different religious backgrounds, nonetheless) as to what would be the most interesting scientific evidence for Biblical events. The most immediate response I received was for some evidence proving or disproving the resurrection of Jesus and solidifying his actual physical appearance. This is an understandable, considering it is both the basis for Christianity and the fundamental cause of the split between it and Judaism. Unfortunately, according to Albright,

It is much more difficult to apply the results of archaeological research in Palestine to the New Testament than to the Old. In the first place, the latter spans a period of over a millennium and a half, whereas the New Testament covers less than a century?Moreover, while a high proportion of the contents of the historical books of the Old Testament are national in scope, the happenings recounted in the New were shared as a rule only by small groups of private individuals (238).




Thus, it is the least provable (which, unsurprisingly, corresponds to the most spiritual) for which my interviewees desire evidence; otherwise, they seem content to let religion and science remain irreconcilable.




I can only conclude that the two paths seem destined to be separate but equal. As nice as it is to imagine a world in which science and religion intermingle in a comprehensible and universally attainable melding of the physical and spiritual, there are key events in history that will likely always be a stumbling block on the path to achieving "universal truth." I imagine that every time each path tries to confront these issues with regard to the other, they will only become frustrated and ultimately veer further away from reconciliation. But (and here is where I make my disclaimer) just as asymptotic lines never reach a final mathematical value, as long as there is a dialogue between religion and science, neither will ever be able to ignore the value of the other, and, consequently, neither will ever prove that it follows the only path to truth. Thus, as the popularity of neuroscience in the 1990s once again makes it possible for science and religion to flirt with each other under the respectable chaperonage of the academy, I applaud their noble efforts, but I can only offer skepticism that neurotheology will suffer a better fate than its dialogic predecessor; interesting though it may be, when the novelty of neural eavesdropping wears off, both scientists and their audience will most likely realize that their efforts have failed once again to answer the fundamental questions they so ambitiously set out to confirm.



Works Cited


Because God First Loved Us (Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version). New York: American Bible Society, 1989.


Albright, W.F. The Archaeology of Palestine. Baltimore: Penguin Books Ltd, 1960.


Begley, Sharon. "Religion and the Brain." Newsweek 7 May 2001: 50-57.


Ben-Hain, Jeannie. Personal Interview. 15 May 2001.


Dale, Elizabeth. Personal Interview. 15 May 2001.


Dever, William G. Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.


Frank, Harry Thomas. Bible, Archaeology, and Faith. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971.


Graham, Katherine. Personal Interview. 15 May 2001.


Klann, Jeffrey. Personal Interview. 15 May 2001.


Wright, G. Earnest. "Is Glueck's Aim to Prove that the Bible is True?" The Biblical Archaeologist Reader. Ed. G. Earnest Wright and David Noel Freedman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961. 14-21


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