James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright

The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet

Review by Charles Demm, 2002

Ashbrook, James B.; Albright, Carol Rausch. The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1997.

In this work Ashbrook and Albright explore the interior reaches of the brain armed with the latest neurological discoveries of this most mysterious of creations in hopes that they can reclaim a sense of the sacred. While they accept Feuerbach’s critique that religion is necessarily anthropomorphic, they refuse to accept the argument that all religion is delusional. They reject modernism’s claim that the world is cold and meaningless. Although they resist this pessimism, readers looking to uphold their own na´ve religious beliefs face disappointment, too. Almost giddy with their self image as cutting edge theorists, Ashbrook and Albright claim that traditional Christian images of God as a big being existing outside creation who can, and does, miraculously break into the natural world, must be supplanted by new imagery. Surely the latter claim is correct, and The Humaning Brain constructs a new route to reclaim a sense of divinity that is plausible with 21st century knowledge.

For Ashbrook and Albright all roads to the divine lead from one place: the brain. For it is the brain, or the ‘mind’, that necessarily humanizes reality by projecting a sense of order and meaning onto the world. But, the authors step beyond Feuerbach by claiming that since the brain is the most highly evolved thing in the universe, it necessarily reflects the nature of the universe. Since the brain is the most evolutionary complex entity, it’s own dynamic tendency towards adaptive self-organization reflects the inherent way that the universe functions. So, if our brains perceive religious phenomena this ‘proves’ that they exist in reality and that there exists a similarity between the nature of God and the workings of our minds.

Therefore, Ashbrook and Albright conclude that a correlation exists between our religious language and the mystery of the universe. Our religious language points to the “ultimate significance” that exists beyond all language. This claim leads the authors to posit that Jesus Christ exists as a clue to what is ultimately important in the world for people.

This last point is unsettling, however, and raises one of many questions. How universal is this claim to Christ’s normative role for humanity? Shouldn’t there be some discussion about the origins of religious, ethics and culture? After Durkheim this should be obvious, but it is an area left untouched in The Humanizing Brain. A second question relates to their view of the brain as a complex entity. How do the authors account for entropy in the universe? What if the universe is ultimately fated towards inertia?

One positive note should be mentioned. For the general public Ashbrook and Albright present the complex functions and development of the brain (from reptilian to the frontal lobes) in a very readable fashion. For those with more advanced knowledge of the inner workings of the brain, this work may not offer anything new, but for the novice (like myself) it is a good introduction to the world of neuroscience, even if the theological claims they try to advance are less acceptable. But The Humanizing Brain deserves credit for attempting a new anthropological portrait in light of emerging science.