Columnists > Judgment Calls

Don't get uppity

Scientist hasn't proved anything about the origin of religion

Issue: "Bush wins one," June 9, 2001

The story goes that an old Yankee, asked for directions by a traveler in Maine, paused over his rake to consider first this way and then another, before dismissively declaring, "Y' can't get there from here."

These are my sentiments as I finish a new book titled Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, by Andrew Newberg, M.D., director of clinical nuclear medicine and professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a school just down the road a piece.

Sometimes I get a little nervous when I find myself disagreeing with people smarter than I am (Penn would probably turn me away from its café, never mind its neuroPET research lab), but then I remember 1 Corinthians 1 about God using foolish, uneducated, and weak things, and I feel better.

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Mr. Newberg spends his days studying the strange brain emissions of subjects in "religious states," using his neuroimaging camera, which is fine with me as long as someone keeps an eye on his conclusions. Heck, Christianity was the matrix of modern science in the Middle Ages; I have nothing against science. Just let it keep its place and not get uppity, or start posing as something it's not. Just let Dr. Newberg not suppose he's proved anything, at the end of the day, about the origin of religious experience. But this, I fear, is the tilt all through the book.

Meet Robert, a practitioner of Tibetan meditation, now hooked up to the SPEC camera during "transcendental peak," and found to exhibit unusual activity in a specialized bundle of neurons called the posterior superior parietal lobe. So far so good. It's no threat to me, or to Bible truth, if religious ecstasy-whether Buddhist or Christian, for that matter-is accompanied by corresponding occurrences in the brain. Why wouldn't the Creator, in all His wisdom, fashion various parallel spheres of operation in His creation?

But Dr. Newberg jumps spheres and hopes no one will notice. What has material to do with immaterial? What has a cauliflower-shaped organ roughly the consistency of firm tofu to do with consciousness? Why should the one be presumed to originate from the other, or be reducible to the other? At what point in Evolution did that organ you see pickled in formaldehyde in a lab jar achieve transcendence? And why would you, Dr. Newberg, being only Evolution's midpoint, a mere rung higher than an ape, trust the theories of a monkey-even one dressed up with a Penn degree?

Dr. Newberg has even bigger problems. As a self-styled empiricist, who will countenance nothing but what is directly observable to himself, he is qualified to record and collate the spewings of his SPEC thingamajig and that's about it! No fair launching into terrain with headings like "The Seat of the Will," "Defining the Self," or "The Compulsion to Create Stories and Beliefs." Indeed, a pure empiricist (one who has not smuggled in romantic rationalism) may not even say things like "all men are mortal"-not having seen all men. "In the final analysis," as John Frame says in a better book about knowing God, "there is no difference between empiricism and subjectivism."

Why not rather be honest, like the 18th-century father of skepticism, David Hume, and despair? Or, like the logical positivists, retreat to little word exercises the rest of your life? Even the philosopher who penned to his lover these saddest of all words, "love me irrationally," showed some awareness of the absurdity of his worldview.

Better yet, why not meditate on "the God who is there" (a title worth the price of the book)-more than that, who is there and is not silent? And in His breaking into the creation with speech we have our hope: hope of true knowledge and not the "upper story leap" and wishful thinking with which Dr. Newberg ends his book.

'Cause y' can't get there from here.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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