Michael Hughes was 22 years old when he had a mystical experience at a Maryland Catholic church. "It was almost as if I had wandered into the magical place," he recalls. "I sat down and felt a really strong sense of sacredness." He said he encountered "Something"—"an intelligence to be sure, but it felt like an intelligence that imbues everything."
That this religious experience was prompted by Hughes's ingesting some psychedelic mushrooms gets to the heart of the issues Barbara Bradley Hagerty discusses in Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (Riverhead). Do mystical experiences point to God or to mere brain chemistry?
Hagerty, an award-winning religion correspondent for National Public Radio, wrote the book because she wanted to understand her own spiritual experiences. The ex-Christian Scientist began asking questions like, "Is there a spiritual world every bit as real as the phone ringing in my kitchen?" and, more specifically, "Are spiritual experiences simply electrical storms in the brain, or do they indicate contact with a spiritual world?"
She pursues this self-admittedly ambitious topic by interviewing mystics famous (like writer Sophy Burnham) and not, and scientists who study genes, the brain, and spiritual experiences. She says she wanted to research this like an investigative reporter who backs up "every line of every story … with hard evidence," but it's clear that her personal passions at times reign supreme.
For example, in trying to discern whether genes play a role in spiritual sensitivity, Hagerty interviews Dean Hamer, author of The God Gene. She notes that many scientists severely criticized Hamer's 2004 book for being "shallow, sensational, and published without ...1