I feel detached from my body. I am floating up . . . there is a kind of vibration moving through my sternum . . . there are odd lights or faces along my left side. My body is becoming very hot . . . tingling sensations in my chest and stomach . . . now both arms. There is something feeling my ovaries. I can feel my left foot jerk. I feel there is someone in the room behind me.
This was the report of one test subject in the lab of neuroscientist Michael Persinger, who has made the claim that ‘genuine religious experiences’ can be artificially induced with a device called the ‘Koren Helmet,’ more popularly known as the ‘God Helmet.’ The epithet was bestowed by journalists after discovering that some claimed to have had visions of God under the Helmet’s influence and the name stuck. Persinger’s God Helmet—the earliest models looking something like a motorcycle helmet with wires without and electrodes within—is said to induce a ‘visitor experience,’ variously interpreted as closeness with God or in the presence of angels, saints, ancestors, aliens, ghosts, and other supernatural agents. (One subject claimed the testing chamber should be exorcised because the Devil was in there, while others have claimed the presence of demons.) Persinger repeatedly identifies this induced state as the ‘God experience.’
Shiva Neural Stimulation System, a commercialized version of the God Helmet [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy, which does not suggest in any way that he endorses my views]
The Original Koren Helmet, created by Persinger and Stanley Koren [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy]
From about the nineteenth century on, mapping brain areas to specific behaviors, or ‘localization,’ became the predominant frame for the study of the brain and the focus of neuroscientific research as it emerged. Despite the fact that the localization research effort is “based on assumptions […] that cannot be validated either in principle or in practice,” it remains one of the main underlying premises to the natural scientific study of religion. It is also the basis for research to find God in the brain.
As we saw in the previous post, while religion was historically being subjectified and ‘placed’ in the mind, individual thought and behaviors were being ‘located’ in the brain. With religion identified with the mind and the mind identified with the brain, it was not a far step to develop the thought that religious experience might just be purely physical—a scientific phenomenon. And this reductive claim was increasingly put forth in the science of religion. The thought went that if the exact location of religion were found in the physical world, then it would be wholly understood.
The Thinker in Ueno [credit: Wikimedia Commons] In the last blog post I left off with some musings about what further methodological and theoretical aspects could be incorporated with discourse analysis and the sociology of knowledge. I am still mulling this over. My own methodology I would like to propose is in the works and could take some time to develop. Thus, I am taking a turn with my blog posts and will now focus on some of my case studies and return to these other issues at some other time.
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.
Whether religion and science conflict, whether they are paired, even whether or not religion and science is a topic to speak of at all are all historically and socially situated ‘facts.’ But facts can’t be contradictory, right? Wrong. As I’ve shown over these past blog posts, there is substantial historical evidence for all of these ‘facts.’ And they can easily be contradictory and still count as ‘facts’ because, according to discourse theory and the sociology of knowledge, knowledge is a communicative and social product.
This all sounds a bit ‘out there’ perhaps. But think about it.
[credit: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia excerpt from YouTube]
What is taken for ‘fact’ in one time and place is often turned on its head, quantum mechanics being one of the more recent major transformations in scientific thought, involving significant changes to ‘classical physics.’ Setting aside the validity or invalidity of these ‘facts,’ lets focus on how ‘facts’ become ‘knowledge’ and the process by which ‘knowledge’ is taken for ‘reality.’ In the words of Kocku von Stuckrad, “there is ‘no thing’ in the world that determines what is being said but that the meaning of things are generated by the chain of signifiers that the speaker is introducing.” Today, we will break this down and discuss discourse-historical analysis and relevant concepts. 
“I think there is quite a conflict [between religion and science] … If you think that religion is a path to any kind of factual truth … then you’re just wrong.” —Daniel Dennett 
“Despite a developing consensus among scholars that science and Christianity have not been at war, the notion of conflict has refused to die.” —Ronald L. Numbers 
God the Geometer [credit: Wikimedia Commons]
In the last two blog posts, I discussed the history of the idea of inherent conflict between religion and science — i.e. the “conflict thesis” — with specific emphasis on how religion-science conflict historically resided primarily in the realm of thought and not action. In other words, there was much more discussion of inherent tension between religion and science than the physical presence of conflict. A critical reader might respond that it doesn’t matter that ‘conflict’ has a conceptual history, how we use the term today applies to the real world. While conflict is certainly part of the story, it is by no means the big picture. To demonstrate, lets talk about some of those alternative models to conflict of which I mentioned in the previous posts, all of which constitute distinct approaches to method and theory in the field of religion and science.
What is ‘science’? A major historical perspective says ‘science is what religion is not.’ The very formulation of the idea of ‘science’ is closely historically connected to religion, in negative correlation. In Part One, I introduced the conflict thesis and began to historically unpack the view that religion and science are in opposition. I left off with a discussion of the emerging idea of science as ‘not religion,’ that is ‘science’ as a term was explained in specific contrast to religion.
Top left: Portrait of Galileo; Top right: Photo of NASA’s Galileo probe; Bottom left: Artistic depiction of NASA’s Galileo orbiter as it arrived at Jupiter in 1995; Bottom right: Galileo’s tomb in Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. [credit: public domain, Wikimedia commons]
In regard to religion in the public sphere, the infamous atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins states, “The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science …” Implicit in this statement is the idea that religion and science are in conflict and this is a presupposition that runs deep in contemporary society. When I tell people I study religion and science, the majority of the time I get similar responses of surprise and confusion about the pairing, followed up by a quick question regarding the inherent conflict between the two. Although this ‘conflict thesis’ is largely doubted by specialists, it continues to hold sway over popular perceptions, prevalent in the media and among academics in many fields. For example, a quick scan of news headlines relating to religion and science in the past few months is revelatory: “Widening the Bridge Between Religion and Science”; “Science and Religion — An Impossible Match?”; “Religion and Science Mix …” Whether religion and science mix, match, meet, or not at all depend on an initial idea of separation, of two distinct things interacting. When we discuss ‘conflict’ in the field, it is not about warfare exactly — at least not exclusively —, but inherent conflict or this fundamental separation. Ideas of ‘conflict’ between religion and science date long before the time of Ian Barbour’s work, yet Barbour is the buzzword when it comes to the conflict thesis. This is because, even though he supported dialogue and (some) integration of religion and science, his widely influential taxonomy of the religion-science relationship “forces an ontological separation.” Put differently, religion and science are framed as fundamentally distinct. As I’ve illustrated, he is not alone in this assumption.