“Neurotheology” is a term used by Dr. Andrew Newberg to describe the relationship between the brain and religious experience. In fact, many neuroscientists have performed studies claiming to find the part of the brain responsible for religious belief and experience. One approach is to use a single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanner to analyze the brains of religious people (from various faith traditions) and look for stimulation in activity in certain portions of the brain. In fact, many scientists claim to have found the “God Center.” A variation of this research comes from geneticists who search for the “God Gene,” a particular gene that correlates with religious belief.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with these studies. The problem lies in the use many new atheists try to put them to. Take Daniel Dennett, for example. In his book Breaking the Spell, he discusses the possibility that a gene called VMAT2 may fully account for religious belief.
Now we have a plausible candidate for filling in the blank: the hypnotizability-enabler. Moreover, in his recent book, The God Gene, the neurobiologist and geneticist Dean Hamer (2004) claims to have found a gene that could be harnessed for this role. The VMAT2 gene is one of many that provide recipes for the proteins—the monoamines—that do the major work in the brain. These are the proteins that carry the signals that control all our thought and behavior: the neuromodulators and neurotransmitters that are shunted back and forth between neurons, and the transporters within the neurons that do all the housekeeping, restoring the supplies of neuromodulators and neurotransmitters. Prozac and the many other psychoactive or mood-changing drugs developed in recent years work by enhancing or suppressing the activity of one monoamine or another. The VMAT2 gene is polymorphic in human beings, meaning that there are different mutations of it in different people. The VMAT2 gene variants are ideally placed, then, to account for differences in people’s emotional or cognitive responses to the same stimuli, and could explain why some people are relatively immune to hypnotic induction whereas others are readily put into a trance. None of this is close to proven yet, and Hamer’s development of his hypothesis is marked by more enthusiasm than subtlety, a foible that may repel researchers who would otherwise take it seriously. Still, something like his hypothesis (but probably much more complicated) is a good bet for confirmation in the near future, as the roles of proteins and their gene recipes are further analyzed.1
In essence the neo-atheistic argument proceeds as follows:
(1) Any belief with a purely genetic or otherwise biological origin is false.
(2) Religious belief has a purely genetic or otherwise biological origin.
(3) Therefore, religious belief is false.
So do these “God Center” studies show that all religious belief is merely the product of genetic influences in the brain overriding rational capabilities, a disability from which some lucky few (i.e., the new atheists) have fortunately been freed? Actually, the use of these studies in this way is fraught with classic logical errors.
When confronted with this argument too many Christians seek to refute premise (2), virtually ignoring premise (1). Usually, we fall for this trap because the atheist does not explicitly state premise (1) and it slips by unnoticed. Look, for example, at the quote from Daniel Dennett above. He spends all his time advancing premise (2), as if that premise alone is sufficient to support his conclusion. Obviously, though, premise (2) without premise (1) leads nowhere. Premise (1) is tacitly assumed.
The Genetic Fallacy
First, premise (1) is a textbook example of the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy occurs when someone explains the origin of a belief and thereby contends they have demonstrated the truth or falsehood of that belief. Suppose I tell you that the sky appears blue. You then ask me why I believe that to be true and I explain that long ago, fireflies poured blue food coloring on the atmosphere and from that point onward it was permanently stained blue. Assume you could demonstrate that my firefly theory is false. Does that mean my conclusion is false? Does invalidating the manner in which I arrived at my belief in a blue sky demonstrate that the sky does not, in fact, appear blue? Naturally, one has nothing to do with the other. It is possible for a person to arrive at the correct conclusion through faulty means. Demonstrating the origin of the means does not necessarily invalidate the conclusion. In order to do that you must face the conclusion head on and address its merits.
Christians make many truth claims, including “Jesus rose from the dead.” Assume that there is indeed a gene that makes someone more likely to believe this claim. Does that make the claim untrue? A skeptic still must evaluate the claim head on and evaluate whether sufficient evidence exists to support it.
Suppose these studies are correct and a certain portion of the brain is stimulated when a person is having a religious experience. What does that have to do with whether the religious experience is true? It is the classic chicken and the egg dilemma, or in logical terms the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Did the brain stimulation produce the religious experience or did a genuine religious experience produce the brain stimulation? Observing stimulation in a certain portion of the brain, in and of itself, cannot answer this question. The evidence behind the claimed experience must be addressed.
Again, assume for the sake of argument that these studies are correct and that a certain gene predisposes someone to religious belief. What about atheism? If the action of that gene leads to religious belief, does the inaction of that gene (or contrary action, or the action of another gene) lead to atheism? If one part of the brain is stimulated when a person is having a religious experience, is another part of the brain stimulated when he or she is having a secular (or atheistic) experience, or is it simply the lack of stimulation that is correlated with anti-religious thought? It really does not matter how the atheist answers these questions. Either through action or inaction, if genetics is responsible for theistic belief, it must also be responsible for atheistic belief. The atheist fails to recognize that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.” If a theist’s views are determined (or at least predisposed) by his or her genetic makeup, then so are the atheist’s.2
A similar tactic often used by atheists3 is to ask the Christian, “Do you realize that if you had been born in India you would most likely believe in Hinduism? Or if in Iran you would be a Muslim?” The simple response would be to point out to atheists that the same is true of them. If they had been born in India, statistically speaking they would be more likely to be a Hindu, not an atheist. Does that invalidate their atheistic belief? If not, why should it invalidate my belief in Christianity? If my brain chemistry makes me more likely to believe in Christianity than theirs (either in the form of the presence of some element in me that is absent in them or the absence of some element in me that is present in them), does their brain chemistry invalidate the truth of their claims? If not, why should it invalidate mine? In point of fact, neither is true. Whether claims of this sort come from theists or atheists, they are equally invalid genetic fallacies.
The Assumption of Improper Function
Second, this argument suffers from a more subtle problem; it involves circular reasoning. It assumes that which it seeks to prove. Generally when circular reasoning is utilized it is not as obvious as stating a first premise that matches up exactly to the conclusion. When it occurs “in the real world,” the proponent of an argument has usually failed to recognize that they have made an implicit assumption that matches their conclusion. That is the case with the “God Center” proposal.
In advancing the neurotheological argument the atheist assumes that the genes and/or portions of the brain that correlate to religious belief are acting improperly when they lead a person toward belief in the divine. In other words, the proper function of the brain in regard to truth claims is to point toward truth, not away from it. In the case of religiously-minded people, the so-called “God Center” points toward belief in some form of religion. Therefore, the atheist assumes that the brain must be pointing away from truth when it does this, thereby demonstrating that the brain is acting contrary to its proper function.
But why does the atheist conclude (based solely on the fact that some aspect of the brain may point someone toward religious belief) that it is thereby pointing away from truth? How does the atheist know that the genes that predispose someone to religious belief do not do so because it is their proper function? In other words, how does one know that the brain with these genes acting is not the one functioning properly (i.e., pointing toward truth) as opposed to the brain without them which leads someone toward atheism? The atheist assumes that this brain activity points away from truth rather than toward it, but that is only because they have decided in advance that the conclusion to which this brain activity points (i.e., the existence of God) is false.4 This is classic circular reasoning.
All attempts to construct an argument against God based upon neuroscience defy many standard logical rules. C.S Lewis explained beautifully how the entire venture “puts the cart before the horse,” so to speak.
Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment. Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. … In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.5
In advancing an argument based upon neuroscience, atheists attempt to show why the religiously-minded among us are wrong without first demonstrating that we are wrong. No amount of scientific terminology or inquiry will ever be able to overcome this elementary logical error in the structure of the position they advance.
1. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 138-39 (emphasis in original). ↩
3. See, e.g., John W. Loftus, Why I Rejected Christianity: A Former Apologist Explains (Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2006). ↩
5. C.S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 272-73. ↩