Monday, December 18, 2006

Rational Religion

The existence of God is neither proved nor disproved by a scientific understanding of spirituality. It remains the case that God is a matter of faith, not reason. It remains the case that rationality is a tool for measuring belief. It is not, in itself, the truth.

If, however, it is accepted that both spirituality and rationality are given to man to use, there should be a place for rationality within religious thinking. A rational approach to religion should lead to an understanding of a common spirituality regardless of religious difference. This approach tends to lead to a rejection of revealed and timeless truths. It also tends to lead to reassessment of religious founders and their relationship with the divine.

It may seem strange to expect religious people to take a rational view of their faith and remain religious, but many have. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the USA, re-wrote the New Testament to remove all miracles and give an account of Jesus as a great moral teacher rather than the son of God. Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries was a Deist who believed in a creator of the universe, but believed morals were human in nature. Jefferson’s view of God was central to the separation of church and state in the US constitution. This is not something which only occurs within the Christian tradition. There have been similar views within the Muslim world and there are offshoots of Islam that are similar in nature to Deism.

There have also been mystical traditions in most religions which see the divine as present in everything. For the mystic, the Universe is God. This has similarities to the views of Buddhism, Taoism and Pantheism. These mystical traditions exist in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the main world religions which traditionally believe in the concept of a personal God. The mystic sees the search for spirituality as existing across religions, and sees different religious traditions as alternative paths to spirituality rather than hard and fast truths. God becomes the Godhead, a metaphor for the ultimate oneness of everything.

There is anecdotal evidence that many people who remain members of specific traditions also make continual judgments about what parts of their doctrine to follow and what to abandon. The Catholic Church remains opposed to contraception and yet birth rates amongst western Catholics have dropped dramatically. Many members of various religions also have a much more tolerant view of homosexuality than their religions do.

Religion continues to give many people something that they find worthwhile and enriching despite their disagreement with much doctrine. Just as interesting a question as why religious membership declines in a free society is why people remain members of religions with which they have profound disagreements. One possible answer is that people have a sense of deep spirituality and recognize intuitively the role of ritual. The small, seemingly petty, rules are not a problem to them. When they eat only approved food or wear specific clothing or take part in religious ritual, they connect with their spirituality. It is the rules of hate and intolerance that they quietly abandon.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Religious View of Evolutionary Advantage

Many religious people do accept evolution and reject the fundamentalist arguments of biblical truth and creationism. For the religious person who accepts evolution, the evolutionary advantage of spirituality explains how spirituality is passed from generation to generation, but not why.

For the religious, man has been given a spiritual ability in order to access the truth. Man has been given a means of experiencing God, whatever they envisage God to be. The religious rationalist will also point out that instinct in any species exists because it matches up to reality, and that spirituality is no different in this respect.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Evolutionary Advantage of Spirituality

If spirituality has survived for so long, there is a very strong likelihood that it also confers an evolutionary advantage. When we make a distinction between religion and spirituality the question of what that advantage is, becomes easier to answer. If we accept that religion is a cultural expression of spirituality, the evolutionary or survival advantage becomes less of a puzzle.

The ability to feel part of something larger than yourself, to feel more than just an individual, to be part of something which is not physical in nature, is what allows us to exist in groups, in society. A spiritual ability allows man to live in large complex groups, and man is much more successful in a community than alone. Man is safer in a group. Man benefits from the combined knowledge of a community.

The level of spiritual ability varies between individuals just as it does for rationality. The level of spiritual experience also varies in individuals according to circumstances, but intense spiritual experience is a deeply satisfying experience for most people, leading to a reduction in stress and an increase in the feeling of general wellbeing. A spiritual ability, i.e. the ability to experience spirituality, seems to be beneficial to individuals as well as to the group as a whole.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Evolutionary Advantage of Rationality

If man is built to be rational and spiritual, if his brain is hardwired for both, what does this tell us? It depends who you are and what you already believe.

From a purely practical point of view, attributes which survive within a species tend to have some kind of evolutionary advantage. The advantages of rationality are fairly obvious. The tools of rationality are developed in mankind to a much greater extent than in other species. These, together with complex language ability are the mental tools that allows us to create all physical tools. The use of tools, technology, has allowed man to become the dominant species on Earth.

We are still threatened as individuals by other species, but we have no threat as a species from other species. Threats do still exist, but many of them are now man made. They are threats due to success of our species.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


If spiritual experience can be understood at a neurological level, so too can rationality. Areas of the brain which are involved with language, logic and reasoning can be identified, as well as those areas which are used for memory, which is used in recognizing repeating behavior and therefore allows us to make predictions about future behavior.

The study of neurology can also identify the areas of brain activity common in empathy. Empathy is not normally associated with rationality but it does play an important part in both morality and rational behavior in social situations. Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in another person’s situation, imagine their feelings, feel their feelings and imagine their responses to situations. It is out of this ability that reciprocal behavior emerges.

Empathy allows people to make unconscious predictions about how others will react in social situations, by imaging themselves in the same situation. It is this use of empathy that makes it a tool of rationalism. If the expected behavior does not occur, the prediction will change based on experience, however empathy gives a tool for prediction where no experience currently exists. Without memory and empathy social interaction would be chaotic. Society would be incapable of functioning and would break down.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Neurotheology – Part 2

Brain activity has been studied during meditation and prayer, forms of spiritual experience from different cultures. During both of these activities the parietal lobe has a reduced blood flow and it becomes less active. This is significant because it is an area of the brain that gives a sense of space and time, a sense of orientation. This area also slows down during activity involving focused concentration.

When this area begins to close down the sense of self begins to diminish and the person’s identity can be seen as melting into a larger reality. The intensity of the change in brain activity will affect the experience.

At one end of the spectrum, someone concentrating on an activity can lose themselves in the act of whatever they are doing and time simply seems to pass quickly.

At the other end of the spectrum a person can enter an intensely spiritual or mystical experience, and feel a sense of oneness with everything. This kind of spiritual experience exists across cultures and can be found in the writings of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu writings.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum a person can find themselves within a group situation becoming part of a crowd that seems to somehow think and act with one mind. This can be a very intense experience and is why group activities are so powerful in terms of their emotional effect on an individual.

When viewed from a neurological point of view the role of dance, signing, chanting or any kind of ritual can be understood as a path to spiritual experience. Focused concentration on something, anything, results in a blocking out of other stimulus. The part of the brain which deals with time and spatial information is not needed and partially shuts down, shutting down the sense of self with it. In sport this becomes the flow state, complete absorption in the task itself. In prayer and meditation it becomes spiritual experience.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Neurotheology – Part 1

In the past, the study of parapsychology has looked at the reality or otherwise of so called supernatural phenomenon. With advances in medical imaging and neurology it is now possible to look, not at the reality of the supernatural, but at the brain activity associated with supernatural and religious activity.

The study of religious activity from a neurological view has been dubbed Neurotheology. In reality it is still neurology, but the name is attractive and will no doubt grow in use. This is still at the early stages of development as a field of study, but it shows that we should not assume things cannot be studied scientifically just because it has not been possible in the past.

Some patterns are already starting to emerge in the area of Neurotheology. Two areas of brain activity have been studied. The temporal lobe and the parietal lobes. It has been found that people with temporal lobe epilepsy can have, as a side effect of the epilepsy, religious visions. When electromagnetic fields are applied to this area of the brain, there are individual differences, but a common experience is the feeling of a presence. This offers the possibility of testing areas known for ghost activity, to check whether specific spaces have certain characteristics which affect the brain and give the sense of a presence. There is also anecdotal evidence that higher than normal levels of electromagnetic activity in the atmosphere causes increased ghost sightings.

Ghost sightings and religious visions are culturally specific. A Christian will have a christian vision, a Muslim will have a muslim vision. An Atheist will betray his upbringing by the nature of his visions, regardless of whether he believes them to be genuine or not.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Spirituality and Drugs

The use of drugs is probably one of the most effective methods of achieving intense spiritual experience. In some cultures the use of drugs derived from local plants is part of their shamanistic practice.

Recreational drugs in the west have also been found to create spiritual experience outside of religion.

The existence of spiritual experience through music, dance, visual art and drugs all tends to support the notion that spirituality can be induced by specific physical conditions, i.e. brain activity induced by direct chemical stimulation or by a combination of physical and mental behavior that leads to natural chemical activity in the brain.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Spirituality and Art

Art in all of its forms can be useful in creating spiritual experience. Some specific movements are seen to have a very spiritual dimension. Impressionism is seen as spiritual by some because its subject matter is often nature and conveys a sense of serenity. The blurring of images so that boundaries are not completely distinct and merge into one another also provide a link to spirituality and the notion of oneness.

Romanticism as a movement looked for spirituality outside of religious themes. Even abstract art of the modern era is often concerned with the spiritual, although this is usually at a rational level rather than through experience.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Spirituality in the Wilderness

Many people gain a sense of spirituality and have spiritual experiences through nature and in particular in wilderness environments. Natural vistas such as mountain tops or views of the ocean seem to have a special resonance for many people. These are places where the scale of nature is apparent.

This notion of nature as a place of spiritual experience is found in pantheism, the notion that the universe is one being of which we are all part. This is also a theme of many Deists, who believe in a created universe but not in a personal God. A third group, Panentheists, see God as within all aspects of the universe but also transcending the universe.

It is within nature that many Atheists most strongly feel a sense of spirituality. For many Atheists the universe and its workings are worthy of awe and wonder without the need for supernatural beings. For some, the beauty and complexity of the universe is diminished by the supernatural. The supernatural simplifies and trivializes the vast scale of interactions that give rise to all of the complexity that the universe shows.