Hardwired for God?

For many, if not most, believers, faith isn’t something that is limited to Easter or even only on Sundays—it shapes the way they live. That’s because we believe that God is at work in our lives.

But according to some neuroscientists, what people call “God” is little more that brain chemistry.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, anthropologist Lionel Tiger described what he called “relatively friendly challenges” to religious experience from scientific research. Specifically, he wrote about research “on the links between the brain and religious experience.”

This research proceeds from the presupposition that only a “tiny number of believers” believe because “they find a particular theology convincing.” For the rest, he says, “faith emerges from the group with which they are affiliating and in which they are likely to have been born and raised.”

It’s the belief that faith is a product of social connections that makes the alleged connection between neuroscience and religion possible. According to Tiger, previously unexpected “links between social behavior and brain chemistry are now almost routinely identified.”

To oversimplify that, what he is saying is that our brains are hardwired to make us feel better if we are connected to others. Belonging to a group triggers neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which makes us feel calm and contented.

Similarly, Tiger says, contemplating ideas “well outside the realm of daily experience,” especially in the company of others, can soothe our brains. From this and other findings, Tiger concludes that there is a “stunning possibility…that religion will find its sturdiest roots in the natural, not the supernatural.”

To put it mildly, I’m not convinced. For starters, Tiger is wrong about why people believe, at least in the case of Christianity, which is a religion of conversion. A majority of Christians live in places where Christianity is a recent arrival. They weren’t raised as Christians. And in many parts of the world, converts to Christianity are ostracized by their families and communities or even persecuted. That’s not the kind of thing that kicks into high gear those pleasant feelings.

And while we are undoubtedly “hardwired for connection,” as one study has already put it, such a connection does not explain why people contemplate things outside “the realm of daily experience.” If the goal is for people to come together, why not skip the metaphysics and just reward sociability with lots of chemically induced good feelings?

Of course, all of this begs the question of our being “hardwired by whom?” Why is there a “strange but durable connection between surviving in this world and contemplating another?” Tiger and others really haven’t a clue—they’re only sure because it’s their presupposition that it doesn’t have anything to do with God.

Put that way, it sounds foolish, and the late Cornelius Van Til would say “rightly so.” He argued that once you rejected the presupposition that “God is,” your attempts to make sense of the world would devolve into absurdity.

Such as reducing faith to brain chemistry and coffee hours in church.

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  • Cooky642

    I’m a “ringer” for the neuroscientists: I was raised by agnostic parents, and yet I don’t remember back far enough to remember a time that I wasn’t “aware” of God. Instinctively, perhaps, I knew that God *was*, and that the purpose of my life was to find Him; if I did that and nothing else, my life would have meaning; if I did everything else and not that, my accomplishments would be so much dust to be blown away. I think that my SOUL was “hardwired” rather than my brain.

  • caritas ad totus

    I think he has it backwards. Our trinitarian God is a community, a family. We are created in his likeness. Therefore, built into our being is this affinity for community. So why would it be surprising that serotonin kicks in when we worship in community?

    On the other hand, what explanation is there for those who love God in isolation, like hermits? Masochism?

  • Joe DeVet

    I am amused at the way science keeps “discovering” things we already know by Christian faith and the natural law.

    If we are created in God’s image, and we are bodily creatures (as well as soulful ones), then how breathlessly surprised should we be to discover that we have brains whose functioning is receptive to God?

    The amusement comes from observing how even Christians seem ready to finally really believe something that we have from faith when it is finally “discovered” by empirical science.

    One of these days science will “discover” how healthy it is for human beings to love one another. Once again, we’ll all look on in wonder and surprise. The problem is not new. Jesus remarked many times at the lack of faith even in his closest adherents.