William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience detailed the universal belief systems of the human species. Freud's colleague GustavJung called our belief in God a universal archetype, an integral part of our collective unconscious.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist and author of "Why We Believe What We Believe," is working on ways to track how the human brain processes religion and spirituality. It's all part of new field of study called neurotheology.
Why, for example, do we continue to be fascinated by God, religion, UFOs, conspiracy theories, and miracle cures, even when science can dispute many of these claims? Simply put: Why do we believe what we believe?
Newberg examines the underlying mechanisms which govern our spiritual, social, and individual beliefs, arguing that we are biologically driven to find meaning and wholeness throughout our lives. In fact, our brains have the capacity to create and maintain a system of beliefs which can take us far beyond our survival-oriented needs. These belief systems not only shape our morals and ethics, but they can be harnessed to heal our bodies and minds, enhance our intimate relationships, and deepen our spiritual connections with others. However, they can also be used to manipulate and control, for we are also born with a biological propensity to impose our belief systems on others. This innate power of our beliefs to heal or injure, to foster happiness or disease, or generate societal friction or peace is the underlying theme of his book.
After spending his early medical career studying how the brain works in neurological and psychiatric conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, depression and anxiety, Newberg took that brain-scanning technology and turned it toward the spiritual: Franciscan nuns, Tibetan Buddhists, and Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues. His team members at the University of Pennsylvania were surprised by what they found.
"When we think of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, we see a tremendous similarity across practices and across traditions."
The frontal lobe, the area right behind our foreheads, helps us focus our attention in prayer and meditation.The parietal lobe, located near the backs of our skulls, is the seat of our sensory information. Newberg says it's involved in that feeling of becoming part of something greater than oneself.The limbic system, nestled deep in the center, regulates our emotions and is responsible for feelings of awe and joy.
Newberg calls religion the great equalizer and points out that similar areas of the brain are affected during prayer and meditation. Newberg suggests that these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God. Echoing Jung, he says there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power.
Some nuns and other believers champion the brain scans as proof of an innate, physical conduit between human beings and God. According to them, it would only make sense that God would give humans a way to communicate with the Almighty through their brain functions.
Some atheists saw these brain scans as proof that the emotions attached to religion and God are nothing more than manifestations of brain circuitry.
Scott Atran doesn't consider himself an atheist, but he says the brain scans offer little in terms of understanding why humans believe in God. He is an anthropologist and author of "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religon" he sees religion as a mere byproduct of evolution and Darwinian adaptation. Posted by Casek Kazan.