Is the brain hard-wired to believe in God?

Is the brain hard-wired to believe in God?
Image: YouTube screen grab (via University of Utah Neuroscience Initiative)

Considering that the brain is increasingly being credited with having a role in everything we think, feel, and do, it was probably just a matter of time before it was postulated that religious belief has a neural substrate. The question of how the brain might be “hardwired” for spirituality has captured the interest of many investigators who have established careers in fields as different as neurology, theology, and neuroscience and spawned the new discipline of neurotheology.1

Neurotheology, neurons, and neurotransmitters

Neurotheologians argue that the structure and function of the human brain predispose us to believe in God. They claim that the site of God’s biological substrate is the limbic system deep within the brain, which has long been considered to be the biological center for emotion. Rhawn Joseph, a prominent neurotheologian, goes a step further to suggest that the limbic system is dotted with “God neurons” and “God neurotransmitters.”2

Among the limbic structures that have been associated with religious belief, the most frequently credited are the hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. Neurotheologians point to changes in functional MRI scans in these areas as research subjects engage in religious meditation. They reason that if thinking about God changes the way the brain works, there must be some inherent neural imperative to believe in God in the first place. In making this connection, neurotheologians are following the lead of neuroscientists who claim that changes seen in functional brain scans in persons who are happy, depressed, or obsessed demonstrate that these phenomena are brain driven.

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