Eugene d’Aquili; Andrew B. Newberg

“The Neuropsychological Basis of Religions, or Why God Won’t Go Away”

Review by Susan Scully Troy, 2008

d’Aquili, Eugene G.; Newberg, Andrew B. “The Neuropsychological Basis of Religions, or Why God Won’t Go Away.” Zygon 33 (June 1998): 187-201.

“The Neuropsychological Basis of Religions, or Why God Won’t Go Away” by Eugene G. d’Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg, is a concise and clear explanation of the authors’ findings that religious experience is part of normal brain function and results from specific neural activity which they identify. The authors answer the question posited in the article’s title, “Why Won’t God Go Away?” The answer is found in the activity of the human brain and therefore “God” continues to appear in human history no matter what social/ historical conditions prevail. Their conclusion as stated in this article is that “essential elements of religion are hard wired in the brain (198).”

D’Aquili and Newberg are prominent researchers in the area of religious experience and neuropsychology/neurophysiology. At the time this article was published in 1998 D’Aquili was a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Andrew Newburg was a Fellow in the Division of Nuclear Medicine and an Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the same hospital. Both were Directors of the Institute for the Scientific Study of Meditation. As demonstrated in this article, the authors’ scientific study leads them to claim that sources of religious experience can be discovered through a thorough understanding of brain function, and the specifics of neurophysiology and neuropsychology are given.

They are some among those working in this field, like d’Aquili and Newberg, that see religious experience as thoroughly understood through neurobiology. They do not examine the larger social and psychological context of religious experience; discuss religion as always embedded in a cultural matrix. The reader of this article is left wondering about these alternative contexts. The authors are quite single minded in their approach. Their focus is the brain to the exclusion of all else. “We are proposing that gods, powers, spirits, or in general what we have come to call personalized power sources, or any other causative construct, is automatically generated by the causal operator [part of neural function] (191).” But the reader who is concerned about a broader understanding of religious experience, and the “truth” of these experiences or of their own religious experiences, is not abandoned by the authors.

 After a lengthy explanation of the neurophysiology of the brain and its functioning, the issue of the “reality” of religious experience in light of this scientific knowledge is dealt with very satisfactorily. Stating that “baseline reality (e.g., chairs, tables, love, hate), can also be reduced to neural blips and fluxes of brain chemistry,” the authors’ postulate that those whose religious experience is “the most extreme hyper lucid unitary state, that of AUB [Absolute Unitary Being]” consider these experiences as “more real (199).” The authors suggest, therefore, that we can have the same surety in the “reality” of religious and spiritual experience as we have in the “baseline reality” of concrete objects and emotional experience in our world and in our daily lives.

 D’Aquili and Newberg divide this article into three parts; 1) Religion as a Problem, 2) Religion as Control of the Environment, 3) Religion as Self-Transcendence. They begin with a look backwards to the Enlightenment of the 18th century when it was felt “religion as a form of profound ignorance would simply vanish with higher education (187.)” This obviously didn’t happen, and in the 20th century the trend is in the opposite direction towards greater degrees of religiosity and spirituality. They begin by providing a very welcome, short, historical retrospective on the status of religion and religious phenomenology since the Enlightenment.

Having asked the question “Why God Won’t Go Away?” d’Aquili and Newberg begin with a discussion of neurophysiology and brain function to answer the question. They propose that there are “two classes of neurophsychological mechanisms that underlie the development of religious experience and behavior (190.)” What follows in this article is a concise, but accessible, explanation of the neurobiology that supports their proposal. These two mechanisms are the “causal operator” and “holistic operator.” The first neural mechanism is the “causal operator” that, to put it very simply, responds to the experience of disunity and works to create order from chaos, wholeness from disunity. The development of “supersensible forces and powers to control the environment (190)” is the reason we continue to find “God” or other forces that control our human environment.

The second neural mechanism, the “holistic operator,” produces distinct “mystical” phenomena or “altered states of consciousness” where a transcendent “other” is perceived as ultimate. This leads the authors into a discussion of the neurophysiology of the sympathetic and parasympathetic brain systems and their energy-expanding and energy-conserving neural properties. The authors’ conclude that the stimulation of the holistic operator always results in experiences that are described as “religious or spiritual in varying degrees (195.)” The most important mystical state achieved via the functioning of the holistic operator is described as Absolute Unitary Being, or AUB. Such experiences are often described as perfect union with “God” or an ultimate transcendent “other.” According to D’Aquili and Newberg all these experiences involve self-transcendence and they see this as the “second manifestation of religion.” The two manifestation of religion are 1) control of the environment and 2) mystical manifestations.

The discussion of brain function, of brain physiology and of the neurotransmitters is scientifically rich. Its full import is probably only available to those with a background in neurobiology. However, it is quite clear that the authors believe that the weight of modern neurological science supports their thesis that the human brain is the source of religious experience. Their findings are obviously part of a burgeoning amount of scholarship in the area of scientific study of religious experience and others in the field will have to evaluate their science and the conclusions that they make.      

Accessible to all readers is the authors’ conclusion that the “truth” of religious and spiritual experience is as cognitively real and foundational to human life as is the everyday reality of our objective world. According to d’Aquili and Newberg, the constancy of religion and religious or spiritual experience in human history past, present and future is due to the simple and outrageously complex fact that the phenomena of religion (control of environment, self-transcendence) is neurologically based, and part of human cognition at its most highly developed level.