Usually when a major newsmagazine runs a cover story about religion, it's by the magazine's religion editor or similarly titled specialist (Time's David Van Biema, U.S. News's Jeffery Sheler, Newsweek's Kenneth Woodward). But when a magazine decides to hand off the assignment to someone else, it's very rare for that religion editor to publish a rebuttal in the same issue. That's exactly what happened in this week's Newsweek, as Woodward gets a page to deflate the eight-page piece on "neurotheology."
In that cover story, senior editor Sharon Begley, who specializes in science stories for Newsweek, explores "the neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experience." Neurotheology researchers, she says, are
uncovering the neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experiences—for discovering, in short, what happens in our brains when we sense that we 'have encountered a reality different from—and, in some crucial sense, higher than—the reality of everyday experience' … Although the field is brand new and the answers only tentative, one thing is clear. Spiritual experiences are so consistent across cultures, across time and across faiths, … that it 'suggest[s] a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain.'
Begley is quick to throw in plenty of disclaimers that researchers aren't clear whether the "spiritual" brain functions are the cause or effect of spiritual experiences. "It's no safer to say that spiritual urges and sensations are caused by brain activity," she quotes one researcher as saying, "than it is to say that the neurological changes through which we experience the pleasure of eating an apple cause the apple to exist." But ...1
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