February 23, 2009

Book Review: Why God Won't Go Away

I had read of it on several occasions, so I was glad to come across a copy of Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg, MD with Eugene D'Aquili, MD, PhD, and Vince Rause.

On the one hand, this is a very interesting book, and I recommend it to everyone who thinks they might be interested in the topic, as well as to anyone who is serious about prayer and meditation. On the other hand, I had some problems with it. The book is brilliant when the authors are writing as scientists, but falls apart when they try to write as theologians.

Newberg and D'Aquili report on their experiments studying the brains of people engaged in the religious behaviors of prayer and meditation. They discover that these practices do make a difference for the brain, and go on to conclude that the human brain is "wired" for what we religious folks would call spiritual experiences. The go on to show how such experiences of what they call "Absolute Unitary Being" are actually healthy and adaptive, and how they are distinguished from the religiously oriented delusions of the mentally ill. Thus the authors discount the scientific prejudice that dismisses religious behavior as delusional or maladaptive. They even propose scenarios for the origins of mythology and religion in light of their findings.

The great conclusion of the book is to say that the experience of what we would call "God" is just as real for the brain--and, by extension, the self-conscious mind that derives from it (in the authors' assumption)--as any experience of the material world. They are to be commended eternally on their repeated caveat that this doesn't say anything about the existence of God one way or the other.

This whole discussion is very interesting. Again, it's worth the read, which is consistently accessible to the lay reader.

My only issue with the book comes when the authors move into what I would call a theological reflection. In this, particularly in the final chapter, they take up what I think is one of the great errors of our time. The book suggests that whatever it is we human beings experience in prayer, meditation, and religious ritual, this "Absolute Unitary Being" as they call it, is the referent for "God." They then arrive at the commonly stated theology of religions which states that all religions reach out to this one mystery, experience it, and then try to describe it with different sorts of inadequacy. This is the "many paths" to one spiritual something-or-other kind of thinking that one often encounters.

I have written about this before, and I have even heard this "theology of religions" from Catholic teachers and preachers. Indeed, in some ways I think this is the operative super-theology of many people, religious and otherwise. But I believe it to be a grave error. Even when we bracket off its incompatibility with the data of divine revelation, this meta-theology fails on at least a couple of counts.

First, it suggests that God is utterly unknowable. But God is not strictly unknowable, but cannot be comprehended. This is a very different thing. Faith and religion present a God who, in fact, desires to be known and revealed. To present God as a mystery that is utterly unknowable in itself, toward which any number of "religions" reach out in vain, is to invent a neo-gnosticism that is comfortable and tolerant but ultimately says nothing. (And this is precisely why it is comfortable and tolerant, and fulfills the "pastoral" need of some to appear tolerant and feel comfortable.)

Second, this framework suggests a genus called "religion" into which many different human behaviors and phenomena have to be indiscriminately stuffed. So very different things like Christianity, Hinduism, transcendental meditation, neo-paganism and who knows what else end up lumped together as one sort of thing called "religion." Of course there is a sense in which Islam and Judaism are the same sort of thing, but this not the same sense in which Christianity and Buddhism are the same sort of thing, etc. As Professor Woody used to rant at us in the college philosophy seminar: "Yes, there 'is a sense.' There 'is a sense' in which a bear and a pig are the same thing, but the point of philosophy is for you to tell me what that sense is, not to tell me that there 'is a sense.'

Ranting aside, the authors are to be forgiven on this point. They are scientists, not theologians. Again, when they write as scientists they do so with great objectivity on a topic for which feelings and prejudices run pretty high. If you pray or care about religion, check out the book.

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