by D. Trull
Scientists, philosophers and atheists have long argued that God and spirituality are constructs of the human mind, although that opinion generally hasn't been a popular one. After centuries of bloody holy wars and fierce theological dispute, the controversy of the Creator's existence has taken a strange new turn: humanity may finally have uncovered tangible evidence that the phenomenon of religious faith is all in our heads.
A group of neuroscientists at the University of California at San Diego has identified a region of the human brain that appears to be linked to thoughts of spiritual matters and prayer. Their findings tentatively suggest that we as a species are genetically programmed to believe in God.
The researchers came upon these cerebral revelations in the course of studying the brain patterns of certain people with epilepsy. Epileptics who suffer a particular type of seizure are often intensely religious, and are known to report an unusual number of spiritually-oriented visions and obsessions. Measurements of electrical activity in the brains of test subjects indicated a specific neural center in the temporal lobe that flared up at times when the subjects thought about God. This same area was also a common focal point overloaded with electrical discharges during their epileptic seizures.
Could this heretofore unidentified part of the brain -- nicknamed the "God module" -- actually be some sort of physiological seat of religious belief? The scientists who discovered it believe it might be. They have performed a further study comparing epileptic subjects with different groups of non-epileptics -- a random group of average people, as well as individuals who characterized themselves as extremely religious. The electrical brain activity of the subjects was recorded while they were shown a series of words, and the God module zones of the epileptics and the religious group exhibited similar responses to words involving God and faith. No word yet on whether the brains of atheists and agnostics might flatline the monitors, but the parallel results among the strong believers are considered impressive.
"There may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion," the research team announced at a conference for the Society for Neuroscience. "This may have evolved to impose order and stability on society."
Anthropologists and Darwinian theorists have frequently speculated that religion may have developed as a self-policing mechanism as cooperation with others became useful. With their intelligence and skills at making weapons, there was little to stop early humans from slaughtering each other like wild maniacs, until they began to fear unseen beings even bigger and badder than themselves. This sort of adaptation has always been considered a purely psychological function, but now we have the first evidence that the religious instinct may be physically hard-wired right into our noggins.
Which brings us to the most intriguing conundrum posed by the discovery of the God Spot. It's a double-edged sword shoved right through the heart of the science vs. religion debate, bearing either good news or bad news for the faithful masses depending on how you answer the chicken-or-the-egg question: does it mean that God created our brains, or that our brains created God?
"These studies do not in any way negate the validity of religious experience or God," the God module's discoverers took care to note, plainly anticipating a reception of fire and brimstone from certain quarters. "They merely provide an explanation in terms of brain regions that may be involved."
No matter how inconclusive or sketchy they label their findings as being, these scientists will inevitably be denounced as heathenistic blasphemers doing the work of Satan. Yet at the very same time, other equally devout worshipers will praise this discovery as a beautiful and wondrous epiphany that spells out God's great plan.
So what'll it be? A sacred temple in the temporal lobes, or an incidental conflagration of the synapses? The Kingdom of Heaven confined to the insides of our skulls, or "I think of God, therefore He is"? Touched in the head by an angel, or brainwashed into belief by biology?
Believe what you want, but either way, I think those who draw any serious mechanistic or teleological conclusions from this research ought to have their heads examined, as well.
Sources: The Times (London); The Los Angeles Times
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