By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, April 15, 2009; A19
Religion has often unintentionally enabled scientific skepticism. The faithful will issue a challenge to science: Ha,you can't explain the development of life, or the moral sense, or the nearly universal persistence of religion. To which the materialist responds: Can too. It is all biology and chemistry, thusdisproving your God hypothesis.
To this musty debate, Andrew Newberg, perhaps America's leading expert on the neurological basis of religion, brings a fresh perspective. His new book, "How God Changes YourBrain," co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, summarizes several years of groundbreaking research on the biological basis of religious experience. And it offers plenty to challenge skeptics andbelievers alike.
Using brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, and Sikhs and Sufis -- along with everyday people new to meditation -- Newberg asserts that traditional spiritualpractices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to "long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love." He assures the mystically challenged (suchas myself) that these neural networks begin to develop quickly -- a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strongreligious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances "social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions."
Newberg argues that religious belief is oftenpersonally and socially advantageous, allowing men and women to "imagine a better future." And he does not contend, as philosophically lazy scientists sometimes do, that a biological propensity toward beliefautomatically disproves the existence of an object of such belief. "Neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn't exist," Newberg states with appropriate humility. Neurobiology helps explain...