Can God be discovered by science? Can religious experience be found in the brain? Today, the cognitive science of religion seems to suggest this is so. Does this mean that religion is reducible to physical happenings? Or that the neural correlates are the conduit of which religious experiences occur? In this multi-part blog post, I will examine the discursive history of the cognitive science of religion, its intellectual forerunners, and the contemporary case of the ‘God Helmet.’
While religious experience and God are conventionally understood to occupy the domain of the supernatural, religion has been ‘brought down to earth’ since antiquity, positioning it in a natural setting. One way this has been commonly accomplished is by placing the immaterial aspects of humanity—the mind, the soul, emotions, free will—into the material realm of the brain and the psyche.
Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460–360 or 370 b.c.e.) suggested that the brain was the seat of the mind, stating “men ought to know that from nothing else but thence [from the brain] come joys, delights, laughter, and sport and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations.” It was also around this time that those such as Herophilos (335–280 b.c.e.) and Erasistratos (ca. 304–250 b.c.e.) began to outline specific brain structures and functions. While emotion and cognition were being identified with the brain, the brain was being identified as the central actor of living creatures.
If the mind can be found in the brain and the brain is central to who we are, it seems intuitive that other major aspects of humankind might be found there as well, such as the soul.
The Roman physician Claudius Galen (ca. 129–199 c.e.) examined the human brain directly, dissecting it, and argued that the vital spirits (psychein pneumata; psychic pneuma)—“the first instrument of the soul”—were located in the ventricles of the brain. In the fourth century, a disciple of Galen, Bishop Nemesius of Emesa (present-day Syria) (fl. ca. 400 c.e.) defined various mental faculties into a finite list and localized each in the different ventricles of the brain. It seemed there was nothing that the brain could not account for.
Despite these early developments, it was not until the seventeenth century that this ancient thought saw a revival largely attributed to the empiricist and Roman Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), who extended such materialistic philosophies across physics and psychology. Many materialists often continued to find a place for the mind, the soul, and God. René Descartes (1596–1650) claimed that the pineal gland was the seat of the soul, and, echoing earlier thinkers, suggested that the ventricles powered the animal spirits that animated the nerves and gave rise to consciousness. Denis Diderot (1713–1784) claimed that because the human being was not separate from nature, the soul was not separate from the body, and psychology was not separate from the physiology of the nerves.
Even though the religious aspects of humanity were conceptualized as part of the natural world, there was still the question of what part of nature religion occupied. In other words, is it an objective aspect of society and culture or a subjective aspect of the psyche?
Early on, religion was objectified and externalized—placed in the realm of society and culture by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) and Karl Marx (1818–1883), as well as earlier thinkers. According to Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), God is nothing more than the “symbolic expression of collectivity.” In Durkheim’s view, the main function of religion was to preserve social unity. Religion was frequently identified with morality and ethics at this time, as this increased possibilities for social unification.
Part of identifying religion with morality in the mid eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was to strip religion of the distinctiveness of separate traditions that would inevitably give rise to differing dogmas. In doing so, there was an increased distinction between ‘objective religion’ and ‘subjective religiosity.’ George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) argued if religion was to continue to serve the important practical purpose of social activism, it must be subjective, not objective, religion that is appealed to.
This emphasis on subjective religion eventually resulted in placing religion primarily in the realm of the psyche and this conceptualization corresponded to the arising of the psychology of religion around the end of the nineteenth century—though not yet as a specialized field. Ironically, though subjective religion emerged in part as a means to reconcile the idea of religion as a social unifier and the obvious conflicting claims of various dogmas, with this psychologization of religion, religion lost its privileged status. By the twentieth century, religion no longer was hailed for its preservation of social unity, but instead this interpretation was turned on its head by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who spread the notion of religion as a social neurosis and who was widely regarded as ‘explaining away’ religion as an ‘illusion’ reduced to its psychological factors.
With religion—and not just religious aspects—being naturalized and ‘located’ in society and the psyche, this led to the question of whether religion was nothing more than natural phenomenon. Julien Offray de la Mettrie’s (also known as Lamettrie) (1709–1751), in Histoire Naturelle de l’Ame (Natural History of the Soul), accepted Descartes’ view that animals are mere machines and thus all mental phenomena were also mechanistically explicable. He went further though and claimed that if animals can feel and perceive and engage in other mental activities without a soul, as Descartes claimed, then there is no reason to conclude that humans are any different—no reason to assume a human soul.
The science of the day agreed. Research on the functions of the brain was thought to be significant as to the role of the soul and vital spirits—as the thought was that there was no longer a need to appeal to immaterial entities to move and animate the material body once it’s understood how the brain works. If religion is simply physical, then it should be identifiable to the brain in a one-to-one relationship, so the thought went. The first extensive theory mapping cortical gyri to cognitive functions was the practice of phrenology, now considered a pseudoscience. Phrenology, developed by the German physicians Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828) and Joseph Casper Spurzheim (1776–1832), was the practice of identifying personality and character traits by examining the varying shapes and unevenness on the surface of the skull, which was developed in the late eighteenth century.  For example, a pronounced forehead suggested that an individual had a well-developed benevolence ‘organ’ and thus was expected to behave benevolently. While Pierre Flourens (1794–1867) has been credited with discrediting phrenology—in favor of a more global view on brain functions—localization theories lived on in other forms, discovering associations between specific regions of the brain and specific behaviors, functions, and other characteristics.
And so the hunt for the ‘God spot’ in the brain was underway…
To be continued…
For more on the development of the cognitive science of religion and the search for God on the brain see, the next post.
 Stephan Carlson, “The Neuroscience of Religious Experience: An Introductory Survey,” in Voney P. Gay, ed., Neuroscience and Religion: Brain, Mind, Self, and Soul (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009), 153–173, here 155; Warren S. Brown, “Neurosciences,” in J. Wentzel Verde van Huyssteen, ed., Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, vol. 2, (New York: MacMillan, 2003), 610–617, here 611; Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature (West Conshohocken: Templeton Foundation Press, 2009), 25; quote from Hippocrates, The Genuine Works of Hippocrates, Francis Adams, trans. (New York: W. Wood and Company, 1886), 344.
 Brown (2003), 611.
 Carlson (2009), 155.
 Max Jammer, “Materialism,” in J. Wentzel Verde van Huyssteen, ed., Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, vol. 2 (New York: MacMillan, 2003), 538–543.
 Kelly Bulkeley, “Consciousness and Neurotheology,” in Gary Laderman and Arri Eisen, eds., Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy, vol. 2 (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2007), 527–535, here 528.
 Jammer (2003).
 Quoted in Volkhard Krech, “From Historicism to Functionalism: The Rise of Scientific Approaches to Religions Around 1900 and Their Socio-cultural Context,” Numen 47 (2000), 244–265, here 254.
 Guenter Lewy, “Revolution,” in Lindsay Jones, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., vol. 11 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 7790–7792, Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed 29 October 2014).
 Krech (2000), 251–252.
 Raymond Keith Williamson, An Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 13–16.
 Krech (2000), 255–259.
 Jeeves and Brown (2009), 13–14.
 Jeeves and Brown (2009), 28.
 Brown (2003), 611–612.