Pray, and your brain lights up

by
24 January 2007

Jeremy Craddock on religious experience

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Something There: The biology of the human spirit
David Hay

Darton, Longman & Todd £15.95 (978-0-232-52637-0)
Church Times Bookshop £14.35

DAVID HAY, a zoologist, continues the work of Alister Hardy, who had been Professor of Zoology at Oxford and who, in 1969, founded the Religious Experience Research Unit. I began Hay’s latest book, about spiritual experiences (whether or not the people concerned go to church), when I had just finished Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion; and I found Hay a pleasing antidote.

Dawkins asserts that spiritual or religious ideas are transmitted culturally, by “memes” that are transferred between brains. Hay provides some evidence that the ideas are transmitted biologically, and are inbuilt. Dawkins thinks that children learn the ideas from irresponsible adults; the evidence is that children have a high level of innate spirituality, and learn to hide it from older children and adults for fear of being thought odd.   

  Dawkins alleges that the supposed loss of spiritual awareness began in the 19th century as a result of increasing scientific knowledge among the intelligentsia. Hay provides some evidence that it began as early as the 16th century among the illiterate, and that it has been driven by the belief that individualism and competition propel a successful economy.

Dawkins alleges that the ideas are diminishing; Hay’s evidence is that, in the years between 1987 and 2000, while churchgoing fell by 20 per cent, the incidence of people reporting experiences of the transcendent increased by 60 per cent. That suggests that we who are within the Church need to find ways of lowering its threshold, and Hay includes three chapters designed to help address the problem.

David Hay does not overplay the evidence of those who support his case; nor does he disparage those with whose evidence he disagrees. He is, however, sharp with scientists who, without providing any evidence at all, use emotive language, or rely on their status to support opinions. Thus he assesses as “precisely nil” the value of Francis Crick’s proposal that religion is a “theo-toxin”, and Richard Dawkins’s description of it as a “virus of the mind”.

There is neurological evidence that parts of the brain (not an individual “God spot”) involved with relationships become active during contemplative prayer. Of course, some think that God is therefore merely the product of neurological activity. On the other hand, I am sure parts of my brain light up when I think of my wife; and it doesn’t follow that she is a figment of my imagination. Like David Hay, I think there is “something there”.

The Revd Jeremy Craddock was a forensic biologist.

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