I have just finished Andrew Newberg's Why God Won't Go Away which was recommended by a correspondent a few months ago. I have to say that I was disappointed for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that Newberg is a bad writer who makes a potentially fascinating subject seem rather dull. He likes to use words like 'deafferentation' and 'reified'. His second problem is that he frequently has no idea what he is talking about. His conception of myth is based on discredited sources like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. It is depressing when scientists, who would not dream of using old-hat theories in their own field, think that this is fair game in the humanities. Finally, Newberg fails in his basic aim of providing a convincing explanation of religious experience. How he fails is quite interesting because he does make some important points.
Newberg is a materialist. No surprise there as most neurologists are. His aim is to show how mystical experience is derived from brain states which he tries to describe. Common everyday religious experience, he says, is simply on a continuum towards the most profound mystical visions. Newberg's first and most important point is that religious or mystical experience is not a sign of mental illness. In fact, they happen to people whose brains are functioning fine. Although some mentally ill people suffer from visions and hyper-religious sensation, these are not the same neurologically as normal religious experience. Newberg's second insight is that religious experience affects the brain and hence it is no surprise that it shows up on brain scans. This does not mean the experiences are not real. His third important point is that if religion was not a good thing for human survival then it would not have been selected by evolution. The human animal is clearly a religious creature and if religion is bad for you then evolution would not have allowed it to develop. Of course, you have to agree with evolution to buy this argument, but presumably atheists do. So, according to their own outlook, it is atheism that is heading for extinction.
So where does Newberg go wrong? It is that he tries to make the jump from a materialist view of brain function to some sort of meaningful religion. He decides that the mystical experience of Buddhists represents the ultimate reality and that this is the basis of some sort of universal religion. The mystical union with God reported by monotheistic mystics is dismissed by Newberg as an inferior sort of brain state merely on the way to the ultimate reality. He then gives us some rude remarks about literalist religions. The trouble is, as he nearly admits, the universal religion that he is espousing has no meaningful content. No one outside university common rooms would be the faintest bit interested in it.
Where does all this leave Christianity? For those people who are dualists in an old fashioned sense, it might be disturbing to see religious experience lighting up our brains. I am less concerned because I tend to follow Aquinas in assigning only our highest faculty to the soul. And the Bible is pretty much in favour of bodies - even after the resurrection. What Newberg does teach us is that religion is a central part of what it means to be human. He also suggests to me that religious experience remains deeply mysterious.
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