There is a new interest among scholars in the relationship between the brain and spirituality, and it appears such scholarship is appealing to a popular readership.
Publisher Weekly’s Bookline newsletter (June 12) reports a “bumper crop” of new books finding that people may be “wired for God,” as spiritual impulses are being gauged and studied in laboratories around the world. During the past few months, there has been wide coverage of recent brain-spirituality books and scholarship, with news stories reporting on recent attempts to map spirituality in the brain (most often citing experiments of brain scans to detect the effect of meditation and prayer).
Lauren Winner reports that several of these books have been surprise successes: Ballantine’s “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief” by Andrew Newberg, Eugene G. D’Aquili and Vince Rause, published April 3, has 25,000 copies in print after three trips to press.
Matthew Alper self-published “The ‘God’ Part of the Brain” (Rogue Press) in October 1997. Since then, the book, now in its fifth edition, has sold more than 12,000 copies. Authors and editors say that this recent research is bound to reshape how we think about spirituality. “With neurological explanations coming to account for an increasing number of phenomena, it is natural that there should be a focus of interest on the relationship between religion and the mind,” says Kevin Taylor of Cambridge University Press.
Some of these books seek to affirm or reaffirm faith, seeing the new science as a way to discover more about spirituality rather than explain it away. Others are more reductionistic, seeing faith and spirituality as mainly biological functions with no supernatural component. Matthew Alper said the new knowledge about the cognitive underpinnings of spirituality could — and should — reshape organized religion as we know it.
“If spirituality is an instinct, we should look at it as such, and see that we temper the extremities of the instinct.” Believers who read his book, said Alper, should not necessarily give up going to mosque or temple altogether, but “they should at least embrace a more tolerant, less discriminating spirituality.”