Religion and Spirituality: Trivializing the Transcendent

What can science really tell us about faith? Does religious faith improve health? That’s certainly what you’d conclude by reading the media these days. Recent cover stories in Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and Parade report that religion is good for you. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times have featured front-page articles on the impact of distant prayer on health. In Prevention, an article explored “how religious faith can make you almost invulnerable to disease.” These stories are based on burgeoning scientific literature examining links between religion, spirituality, and health. Some report there are more than 1,400 scientific papers on the topic, with a substantial number of these papers showing that religious involvement is associated with better health.
Such studies are the basis for attempts by physicians to introduce religion into clinical medicine. Physicians recommend asking some patientsthose who report that religion or faith is “helpful” in dealing with their illnesseswhat they can do to support their patients’ faith or religious commitment. Some studies declare that excluding God from a medical consultation is a form of malpractice. They recommend conducting a spiritual history during the initial visit and annually thereafter. Discussions on this topic almost always focus on the quality of the evidence and the presumed benefit to patients. Less frequently, they address ethical or practical issues associated with bringing religious practices into clinical medicine. But the impact on religion itself has been ignored almost completely. That’s a big mistake, because satisfying the demands of medical science inevitably requires the kind of reductionism that strips from religion the transcendence that distinguishes it from other social phenomena, “dumbing it down” to such a degree that its distinctiveness is compromised.
Science depends completely upon the capacity to measure phenomena. If something can’t be measured, it can’t be studied scientifically. Sometimes this isn’t difficult. If we’re interested in the effect of a new drug on cholesterol, we can determine precisely the amount of the drug we give to patients and then measure its impact on their blood cholesterol with great accuracy. While all measures of biological indices are subject to error, their measurements generally are simple and unambiguous. Measuring religion and spirituality is not so easy. To study them, we have to quantify them, and, unfortunately, there are no simple blood counts or drug levels to help us. Our measurement procedures have the effect of reducing religion and spirituality to relatively crude indices. Thus, attendance at religious services has become the most widely used index of religiosity, not because it perfectly captures the experience of religious devotion, but rather because it is easy to measure. We simply ask people to report how frequently they attend church.
Garrison Keillor is reported to have remarked that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a Chevrolet. A person may attend religious services for a variety of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with religious devotion: social contact, habits based on family history, or even interest in developing business connections, to name just a few. And even at that, attendance represents only a single behavior that encompasses a tiny fraction of the whole of religious or spiritual life. The measurement requirements of science reduce religion and spirituality to something that does not fully represent themand as a result, it does violence to them. But this is the tip of the iceberg. In 2003, researchers from Stockholm reported that higher scores on a measure that covered religious behavior and attitudes were associated with fewer serotonin receptors in several parts of the brain. The implication, of course, was that religiosity and spirituality were mere products of brain neurochemistry.
Equally problematic is the new field of “neurotheology.” Using neuroimaging to discover the biological basis for religious and spiritual experience, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have identified regions of the brain that are activated during Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer. They reported, not surprisingly, that brain areas associated with concentration and attention, two hallmarks of meditation and prayer, showed increased activity compared to other regions. Regions of the brain associated with the sense of space and time showed reduced activity, consistent with the loss of a sense of self that is characteristic of some religious rituals. In a book, researchers asked whether these images of brain activity were a “photograph of God.” Unfortunately, none of this sheds light on the transcendent aspect of religion. It merely reflects an increased metabolism in certain brain regions. But the effort to identify biological substrates of religious experience tells us a great deal about the reductionist nature of neurotheology.
Researchers Marguerite Lederberg and George Fitchett illustrated this problem in an interesting article with the provocative title: “Can You Measure a Sunbeam with a Ruler?” By attempting to measure a sunbeam and thus reduce it to that which can be quantified by a ruler, we risk losing the character of the sunbeam itself. It is like trying to quantify the aesthetic experience of a Beethoven symphony by counting the number of times a listener smiles. Certainly we could conduct a brain imaging study to demonstrate the difference in cerebral activity while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony versus listening to white noise. But would that tell us anything essential about the aesthetic experience?
It is undoubtedly true that we can submit religious ritual and experience to scientific study, to determine if they are associated with better health. The question is whether we should. To do so runs the risk of trivializing religious experience, stripping it of the transcendence that distinguishes religion from other aspects of our lives. For this reason, attempts to understand religious experience by scientific means can never be satisfying to religion. Researchers encouraging the scientific exploration of religion should be careful what they wish for. ###