Good books tend to spawn sequels, and The Illusion of God’s Presence is no exception. I briefly mention the sequel in the preface and refer to it throughout the book, but here I explain how it came about and what it contains.
I never intended to write two books on this subject, but two books took shape as I was writing. They mirror the two distinct kinds of question biologists ask when they are trying to understand a behavior. From chapter 9 of The Illusion of God's Presence:
Biologists try to understand behavior by asking two kinds of question: “How does this behavior arise?” and “Why does this behavior arise?” If we want to understand bird song, for example, we can examine the bird’s windpipe to see how and where the vibration is produced. We can follow the nerves from that structure back to the brain, and trace the neural circuits that generate singing. If we raise chicks in isolation, we find that each sings a different and abnormal song as an adult, but that all of these “isolate” songs share a few syllables characteristic of their species’ normal song. This shows that there is an innate drive to sing and that a few syllables of the song are genetically specified in a crude way, but that most of the details of the normal song must be learned by listening to other birds sing. Experiments of this kind are concerned with how birds sing.
But if we examine the behavior in its natural context, we can also ask why birds sing. In some species we find that only males sing, that their singing coincides with the breeding season, and that it serves to establish territories and attract mates. Why questions are concerned with the evolution of the behavior and its role in the animal’s reproductive success.
And from chapter 12:
Both kinds of question are valid, and they complement one another. But when the behavior is complex and subtle, it usually makes sense to start with the why questions. The answers to those questions delineate exactly what it is we are trying to explain, and they help us to formulate better how questions. In this book I have so far been concerned mainly with why questions about religious thought, emotion, and behavior in humans. As to why God is often perceived as unconditionally loving, yet also vengeful and judgmental, I have emphasized two distinct biological roots of religion: the neonatal and the social, respectively. Each of these encompasses many other why questions, but I have concentrated on the neonatal ones as the most promising way to understand the sensation of God’s presence.
Most of the scientists interviewed by Hagerty are asking how the brain produces spiritual experiences, sometimes without any clearly defined hypothesis to test. The methods of neuroscience have just barely reached a level of sophistication and resolution adequate to begin addressing such questions. At this point it may be more productive to test the answers to why questions, using mainly behavioral, psychometric, and twin studies. Even so, some of the answers to those questions imply fairly specific predictions about the answers to how questions, many of which fall within the province of neuroscience.
I explore those neuroscientific questions in the sequel to this book.
I had always planned to have two chapters about neuroscience in The Illusion of God’s Presence. One of these (ultimately chapter 14) would make the neurobiological case for mind-brain unity and against dualism and all that flows from it: an immortal soul, reincarnation, and any kind of afterlife. The other (ultimately chapter 12) would be about the neuroscience of religious experience, including what is known in the popular press as neurotheology.
Chapter 12 was the real bugaboo. I felt I had to say something about what had already been done on the neuroscience of religious experience, but much of this literature was, in the words of neurologist Alasdair Coles, “an embarrassment.” There was no agreement on what constitutes a religious experience, no finding that was consistent across studies, and the experiments often used too few subjects or inadequate controls. I felt, however, that there was a deeper problem with this research: it was premature. The practitioners of neurotheology were asking how questions before the relevant why questions had been answered.
What a difference the placement of one letter makes! The strategy of neuroethology is to start with the why questions. Only after we understand the purpose of the behavior — its role in the animal’s reproductive success, the problem it solves, the selective pressures behind it, and its likely evolutionary history — are we ready to start asking how questions about the neural mechanisms that generate it. Some of the why questions about human religious behavior had already been scientifically addressed, but mainly at the level of its role in our social behavior. This is an important aspect of religion — what I call its “social root” — but it does not account for the intuitions behind the God of unconditional love, the intense longing for that being, prayers of desperate supplication, or the sense of a benevolent and divine presence. The attachment theory of religion, pioneered by psychologist Lee Kirkpatrick, was the only empirically-based research that had addressed these aspects of religion at the level of why questions, and neurotheologists had evidently overlooked it. Moreover, attachment theory alone might not suffice. As I explain in chapter 6, there are some holes in attachment theory that are nicely filled by the innate model of the mother I propose in chapter 4. That idea takes the source of the illusion of God’s presence all the way back to earliest infancy, and it predicts that the neural basis of an infant’s interaction with its mother should be essentially the same as that behind the feeling of a divine presence.
The overarching hypothesis is that some of our most powerful spiritual feelings and experiences arise from the neural circuitry of neonatal emotion and expectation. The desperate helplessness that precipitates the comforting sensation of God’s presence, and the crying of a newborn for the comforting arms and breast of its mother, share a common neural mechanism. Similarly, the satisfaction and enfolding love experienced by an infant at its mother’s breast, and the feelings that typically constitute spiritual experience — unconditional love and ecstatic union with a divine presence — also have a common neural substrate. The correspondence of these infantile and adult mental states should be evident in similarities of localization in the brain, of neuronal activity, and of sensitivity to drugs. If that correspondence cannot be found, then the hypothesis is wrong.
This is probably the single most important reason for doing the “neuro” part of neuroethology. It casts our understanding of the behavior into highly specific mechanistic terms, raises new questions, and makes detailed and testable predictions. We have not yet reached that level in our understanding of human religious emotion and behavior, but I wanted chapter 12 of The Illusion of God’s Presence to be a step in that direction.
A great strength of this approach is that it suggests specific experiments not only in humans, but also in nonhuman animals. If religious experience is a uniquely human phenomenon, as is widely assumed, then we are limited to those experimental techniques that can be used with human subjects. If, however, the neurology of the sensation of God’s presence is intimately related to the neurology of infantile crying and mother-infant bonding — behaviors that occur in nearly all mammals — then many new experimental possibilities appear, and a large body of existing research becomes relevant to the problem.
As I began writing chapter 12 in late 2011, I quickly became engulfed by that large body of literature and almost drowned in it. The manuscript grew far beyond the proportions of a single chapter, as I resisted the urge to over-simplify and kept finding interesting studies to describe. Within a year I discovered that I had another book on my hands. I knew it could be a nice sequel, but only after I had finished the main attraction. I put the neurobiological sequel onto a back burner, whittled a copy of it down to its four most interesting points, and inserted that as chapter 12 of The Illusion of God’s Presence.
Although the sequel is nearly finished, there are a couple of chapters that could use some fleshing out, and I’d like to incorporate additional scientific findings that have emerged during its years on the back burner. I have a tentative title for the book, but that could change, so for now I’ll keep it to myself.
The sequel is mainly for readers of The Illusion of God’s Presence who would like to see additional testable predictions of the ideas presented there and who are especially interested in the brain. Most readers will find it significantly more challenging than its predecessor, mainly because the brain is a complex thing, and there is no way to avoid that complexity and still do the subject justice. Although the sequel is still in the works, I can sketch it for you in broad outline.
It is shorter than The Illusion of God’s Presence and divided into two parts. The first half is a journey through those parts of the brain where various aspects of the innate model of the mother appear to be implemented. That discussion comprises five chapters, each of which deals with one aspect of the innate model as follows:
innate knowledge and feelings
the appetitive longing for mother
the sensed presence
For each of these I describe evidence that associates the behavior or sensation with various brain regions. Where relevant I also discuss the role of these neural networks in some adult behaviors, such as maternal caregiving, adult sexual pair-bonding, or drug addiction. My goal here is to try to explain, mainly through examples of experimental results, what these parts of the brain do and how they do it. Although it is mainly infantile experience that guides us to these places, the rationale for exploring them is that these are the parts of the brain most likely to be involved in spiritual emotion and experience.
The story that emerges is that there is probably not a specialized part of the brain dedicated exclusively to neonatal behavior. Nor is it the case that those parts of the cortex that are least developed at birth — and that do not fully mature until adolescence — play no role in neonatal cognition. Instead it appears that the innate neural model of the mother is the seed around which crystallizes the social brain — those neural networks that we use as adults to read the minds of others through facial expressions, body language, gestures, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues, and that generate socially appropriate emotions and behaviors in response. This is consistent with behavioral and psychological evidence that the mother-infant bond is the template for adult social relationships.
Throughout development, however, that neural seed probably remains intact and distinct, partly by virtue of the unusual sensory stimuli and conditions of infancy to which it is attuned, but also because of the way innate information is represented in the brain. It is this innate neonatal kernel of the social brain, activated in an abnormal adult context, that is the proposed neural substrate for the illusion of God’s presence. When seen from this perspective, however, the illusion also appears remarkably similar to one that has long been familiar to neurologists: the phantom limb of the amputee, spawned by the expectation of the patient’s brain that the limb should still be there. Near the end of part one, I argue that the innate neural circuitry that expects the presence of mother can spawn a phantom divine presence in much the same way.
The second half of the book re-examines some of the findings of neurotheology from the new perspective developed in part one, and it meanders into related research not specifically aimed at religious experience. Important themes include embodiment; the sense of agency; insights from neuropsychiatric illness; specialization of the left and right hemispheres; and the role of memory, expectation, and attention in conscious perception — both real and illusory. The book concludes with a discussion of predictions that may be empirically testable.
My best guess is that the sequel might appear sometime around late 2017 or early 2018, but a lot will depend on the success of its predecessor. Meanwhile I'll leave you with one more fragment of the sequel, a lovely epigraph from its opening pages:
"Mythology is not invented rationally; mythology cannot be rationally understood. Theological interpreters render it ridiculous. Literary criticism reduces it to metaphor. A new and very promising approach is opened, however, when it is viewed in the light of biological psychology as a function of the human nervous system, precisely homologous to the innate and learned sign stimuli that release and direct the energies of nature — of which our brain itself is but the most amazing flower."