The Neuroscience of Religious Experience: An Interview with Patrick McNamara

Randall Stephens

In The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902) William James explored the physiological dimensions of religion. Why did nitrous oxide and ether "stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree"? (378) Why did epileptics have similar, euphoric religious experiences? What was the connection between the brain and the numinous?

In his typical around-the-barn style James observed:

The subliminal region, whatever else it may be, is at any rate a place now admitted by psychologists to exist for the accumulation of vestiges of sensible experience (whether inattentively or attentively registered), and for their elaboration according to ordinary psychological or logical laws into results that end by attaining such a "tension" that they may at times enter consciousness with something like a burst. It thus is "scientific" to interpret all otherwise unaccountable invasive alterations of consciousness as results of the tension of subliminal memories reaching the bursting-point. But candor obliges me to confess that there are occasional bursts into consciousness of results of which it is not easy to demonstrate any prolonged subconscious incubation. . . . The case of Mr. Bradley, that of M. Ratisbonne, possibly that of Colonel Gardiner, possibly that of Saint Paul, might not be so easily explained in this simple way. The result, then, would have to be ascribed either to a merely physiological nerve storm, a "discharging lesion" like that of epilepsy; or, in case
it were useful and rational, as in the two latter cases named, to some more mystical or theological hypothesis. I make this remark in order that the reader may realize that the subject is really complex.

Neuroscientists are now directly studying what James was groping at in the dark. One of those scientists is Patrick McNamara (Director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory in the Department of Neurology at the BU School of Medicine). He has worked on "developing an evolutionary approach to problems of brain and behavior and currently is studying the evolution of the frontal lobes, the evolution of the two mammalian sleep states (REM and NREM) and the evolution of religion in human cultures."

McNamara is also the author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (Cambridge University Press, 2009). "For billions of people the world over," he writes, "religious experiences and beliefs influence who they marry, how they rear their children, whom they spend time with, and how they comport themselves in dally life. It may well be that we
would not be as we find ourselves in the twenty-first century if our ancestors had not been intensely religious for most of the 'life' of our species." McNamara thinks its the perfect time to develop a "real science of religion," aided by breakthroughs in "anthropologic, cognitive, and neuroscientific studies
of the manifold features of religious experiences and in evolutionary approaches to religious experiences and behaviors" (ix)

I met up with McNamara at his office at Boston Medical Center about eight months ago. In the two-part interview embedded here I ask him about recent developments in neuroscience and pose questions about how the biological sciences can inform religious studies and, even, religious history.

I'm not sure how easy it will be to bridge the divide between the hard sciences and the humanities. (Charges of reductionism, functionalism, and the like will probably continue to be bandied about.) It reminds me of how C. P. Snow famously summed up the gap in his 1959 The Two Cultures: "Literary intellectuals at one pole--at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension-sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can't find much common ground."

That gap may still be wide. But I find the conversation going on among neuroscientists like McNamara and some religious studies scholars (not so much historians, I think) a fascinating one. Humanists should pay far more attention to what's going on over on the other side of the campus. And, vice versa.


rjc said…
Ann Taves's Fits, Trances, and Visions should be required reading for anybody interested in this direction of research.
esclark said…
In addition to Fits, Trances, and Visions, those interested should also pick up Taves's more recent work Religious Experience Reconsidered. It is a kind of methodological/theoretical prequel/sequel to FTV and an example of how one religion scholar has recently approached the sciences.