All theology is inherently dangerous

religiousnessBrain researchers and theologians in search of God

"Of course religion arises in the brain because the religious practice of believers is an achievement of the central nervous system. Where else should it arise - if not in the brain?"

"Religious processes are really processes that relate a lot to people - think of the sitting posture while meditating, you fold your hands during prayer or something, you speak loudly, voice, from the physical to the very cognitive meta-levels are all there somehow involved. So it seems to me to be difficult to discover religion in the brain. "

The question of whether religion arises in the brain is controversial. Natural scientists, theologians and religious scholars argue about it, and sociobiologists, cognitive scientists and philosophers are also involved in the debate. Religion and the brain - what is the connection?

Charles Darwin was already concerned with that. The British natural scientist from the 19th century not only founded the theory of evolution, but was also a trained theologian. In his work "Descent of Man" he thinks about how religious processes are related to the human brain.

Break between the natural sciences and the humanities

Then there was a break: the natural sciences and the humanities split up. This also temporarily put an end to the natural scientists' thinking about religion. The religious scholar Michael Blume from the University of Jena explains it this way:

"Religion was seen as a matter of the humanities and the body, including the brain, as a matter of the natural sciences. And throughout the 20th century we tended to either reproach or not talk to one another between them Science disciplines. "

The turning point heralded the end of the 20th century, said Blume.

"It already begins in the 80s, the first pictures, where brain scans are used to address religiosity. People are looking for the so-called God button - that is initially still very popular science. But at least the debate begins with that. And off In the 1990s, the first scientists began to deal with it more intensively. "

A functional magnetic resonance tomograph - fMRI for short. The device measures the oxygen content of the blood flowing through the brain. The individual brain areas are supplied with oxygen to different degrees. Brain researchers assume that those parts of the brain that are supplied with a particularly large amount of oxygen are also particularly active.

Which areas of the brain are particularly active at the moment - that depends on what we are doing and how we feel. For example, if we think logically or analytically, then the blood oxygen content is high in the frontal lobe, in the front part of the brain. When we are afraid, there is increased activity in another part of the brain, namely the amygdala, a complex in the cerebrum.

Brain scans for the search for religiosity

The magnetic resonance tomograph shows which parts of the brain are particularly active. It produces what are known as brain scans: colored images of the brain. The areas that are abundantly supplied with blood oxygen - in other words: have a higher level of activity - are shown in yellow and red. The magnetic resonance tomograph and its images have played an important role in brain research for around 40 years. Where is the courage in the brain? Where is the fear? All of this was located with brain scans. At least it was tried. Certain areas were also assigned to religiosity.

But the thesis that belief only takes place at a certain point in the brain is no longer consensus, according to religious scholar Michael Blume:

"It is absolutely true that you cannot say that there is a God module or God button in the brain. That was a long thesis where brain researchers have said that if we find the button, that is the area, and activate it, for example, then people have religious experiences. And today's researchers see very clearly that completely different areas of the brain are active. "

What is consensus today: It is not the case that religious practices and experiences only activate a single and very specific part of the brain:

"If the neuroscientist says, for example, that this is used to cope with fear, then we can actually see: Yes, brain areas are activated and exercise their functions that were there before to cope with stress, but that with others, for example start a new concert. "

In order to describe the connections between the brain and religion, research today uses three categories: religiosity, spirituality and magical thinking.

Spirituality as a kind of delimitation experience

Religiosity describes the belief in higher beings. Spirituality, on the other hand, is a kind of delimitation experience. People experience themselves as a unit with the universe or nature. It can be religious, but it is not necessarily so. In the third category, magical thinking, humans establish connections between events without the connection being empirically verifiable: for example, when believing in lucky charms.

In the religions, these three categories appear in mixed forms, explains the religious scholar Michael Blume. And it goes even further: whether someone has a religious, a spiritual or a magical experience can be read on brain scans:

"In fact, we can see that very different areas of the brain are involved. In religiosity, for example, social cognition is activated, ie the same areas that are activated when you think of a loved one, for example means: Prayer is based on social cognition. "

In the case of spiritual experiences, on the other hand, increased activity is measured in another area of ​​the brain. One of those researchers who have dealt intensively with spiritual experiences and their neurobiological foundations is the Salzburg religious educator Anton A. Bucher. According to studies, spirituality is becoming increasingly important as a modern form of searching for meaning in Europe:

"Even 30/40 years ago this term was still associated with an ancient one, perhaps to nuns who pray the rosary in secluded monasteries - whereas the term spirituality has become very popular at the moment."

Spiritual Practices and Their Effects on the Brain

One of the most important spiritual practices is meditation. In the 1990s, among others, the American neuroscientist and religious scholar Andrew Newberg researched what happens in people's brains during meditation. He examined the brain areas of Tibetan monks while meditating. The result: while you are immersed in meditation, the activity of the brain is greatly reduced in one place: namely in the parietal lobe.

"The parietal lobe or the lateral lobe is responsible for the fact that we have an awareness of where we are, where our body limits are, our time awareness is also there. And that explains the experience reported from most spiritual traditions Body boundaries dissolve, so that the ego is no longer so important, or that one literally merges with being or with the divine, or - as the traditional name is - that one experiences the Unio Mystica with a divine. "

Processes similar to those of the meditating Buddhist Tibetans can also be demonstrated in the brains of Christian religious women, absorbed in prayer. For Bucher it follows that what happens in the mind of a meditator is always the same - regardless of the spiritual tradition of the meditator, regardless of their culture.

The differences lie at most on the level of content - in the case of the experiences of God: intensely meditating nuns have more of an experience of Christ, Buddhist monks have an experience of Buddha. So the images are different, but the processes going on in the brain are pretty much the same.

Religious and spiritual experience is thus reflected in the brain. But does that also clarify the question of the origins of religion? Does religion originate in the brain?

"The coherent answer to this could be: yes, but. It arises in the brain, but anyone who thinks it is a degradation of the idea of ​​religiosity would be wrong."

Robert Benjamin Illing heads the neurobiological research laboratory at the University Medical Center Freiburg and teaches cognitive neuroscience. Illing is certain: religion is the result of a long development. Over the millennia, the brain has repeatedly adapted to new situations. During a lecture in Münster, Illing pointed out the extent of this development.

"Just as the skeleton of hominids has changed over millions of years, so too have their skulls and brains changed. An external sign of this is that the brain has more than tripled its volume within five million years."

The human skeleton and organs have adapted to their environment - and so has the brain. One of these adaptive functions of the brain: It gave rise to religion, says Illing. His theory is based on this thesis. He names three causes to which the emergence of religion can be traced. He speaks of three pillars.

Three pillars of religion

"These 3 pillars would be, on the one hand, our thinking in causal contexts. The other pillar is our well-established system for the formation of theories of other psychics, which means that we have to constantly think about what is going on in our fellow human beings in order to know how we move sensibly in a social context. So constantly the generation of images: What are the intentions in others? And third, the possibly terrible discovery at some point in human history when people became aware: We can die, we can fall ill, we are perishable, at some point we no longer exist. These three things together create a basis from which thoughts of the afterlife can arise, which can be seen as the origin of religion. "

According to Illing, the causes for the emergence of religion are:

  1. Our habit of constantly questioning the causes of an event. That's what our thinking is like, says Illing. We establish causal connections between different events, even if they do not exist at all.
  2. Our habit of pondering what the other person might think, want, intend. We kept making assumptions about it. This, too, is a quality of our way of thinking.
  3. our fear of death.

The neurobiologist sees it this way: When humans became aware of themselves and developed a relationship with time, they realized that they were mortal. This discovery created fear, says Illing. A fear that you couldn't run away from, like wild animals or other threats. People could not counter this fear with their usual instruments. So man had to find another way to meet her.

"People create images for themselves, which are then formed in various religions in any detail, but originally they create images and hopes that the end, which seems to be death, is not final. If they didn't - and many people have probably not been able to develop this idea - if one would literally perish from existential fear and a crisis of meaning. The animals and our early ancestors did not have the problem because they did not yet have this awareness of it. "

For the neurobiologist, one thing is certain: religion, belief in higher powers, is the result of human creativity. It acts as a kind of self-consolation. And be a wonderful method of fear management, possibly a survival benefit that has proven itself over the long period of human development.

The brain as the origin of religion?

Criticism of this concept of the emergence of religion comes from Dirk Evers, for example. He is a Protestant theologian and a member of various research societies. He has dealt intensively with the relationship between theology and the natural sciences. The theory of the neurobiologist Robert-Benjamin Illing about the origin of religion in the brain is conclusive, admits Evers, but cannot explain everything.

"It is not enough to say: Only in this fear management together with the hyperactivity of cognitive modules does what we call religion arise. It is an important aspect of the cognitive in religious ideas, but I would not consider that to be the origin and understand the root of religiosity. "

For Evers, the root of religiosity lies in the coexistence of people. In togetherness and in the reflection of this togetherness. Religion arises there.

"What does family mean? What does community mean? What does the foreigner mean? How do we orient ourselves in our world as individuals, as a community? This also creates an interplay of religious ideas. Think, for example, of the established religious ideas in ancient Israel and the prophets who repeatedly warned and spoke against it. "

In ancient Israel, prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah publicly questioned contemporary religious ideas and customs in order to change them. Evers explains that religion is not just fear management, dealing with one's own mortality, but also an expression of joy in life.

"I believe that human existence is not simply functional at all. In other words, reducing humans to a survival machine, which has advantages because it has this great cognitive apparatus in its head, that seems to me to be far too short."

And yet, the theologian admits, what the neurobiologist Illing describes as the theory of the alien psychic is an essential factor in the emergence of religion.

"So this ascription of intentionality, this, one calls the Theory of Mind, this assumption of the alien psychic, is something that we can also find again in the production of images of God. That is absolutely correct."

No state of the debate

Brain research and theology - one cannot speak of a so-called state of the debate, says Dirk Evers, Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at the University of Halle. Which theologian speaks to which brain researcher: That is the question in each case. Because there is also a disagreement within the disciplines, says Evers. Even among brain researchers.

There are two groups among them. A faction wants to prove in the brain that religion is an illusion.

"That this actually represents an illusory hyperactivity of certain cognitive modules, behind which we sometimes cannot go back, as with optical illusions, but science shows us: There is no god in the volcano. And they use it critically. Then there are others who do it completely differently who, conversely, make the argument out of it, who say: Here you can see that religious ideas have proven their worth, our brain is downright set up to produce religious ideas, and that shows that God has made us into recognizing him. And then they are happy religious people, partly Christian people, yes. So you see the facts are the same, but the interpretation is very, very different. And at the moment I don't see that this is really converging. "

The religious scholar Michael Blume assesses the current state of the debate differently than Evers. Until a few years ago, believing and unbelieving researchers would have faced each other with irreconcilable positions and the arguments were literally thrown at each other. Most researchers would have understood by now that brain research does not research God, but the human brain.

Therefore, the methods of research cannot prove that God exists - but just as little that God does not exist.

Brain and religion. The more recent research approaches also include the question of how does religion affect the human brain and its behavior? The number of studies on this has increased significantly in recent years. A special journal on this research field has been created - the title: "Religion, Brain and Behavior" - "Religion, Brain and Behavior".

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins attracted worldwide attention at the beginning of the 21st century. He was sure that religion is an illusion, but not only that: it is also harmful. In his book "Der Gotteswahn" Dawkins writes: Belief in God has a negative effect on society.

The anthropologist Lionel Tiger and the neurologist McGuire published an opposing position. They too assume that religion is an illusion. Unlike Dawkins, however, they find it useful. Religion helps the "brainpain" to heal brain pain. A pain that arises from the fact that the brain is underutilized.

Positive or negative effects of religion?

It is predominantly positive effects of religion that are discussed in today's research. And which suggest that spirituality and piety can be understood as beneficial products of evolution, so to speak. Michael Blume:

"You can now see the functions. And there you can see, for example: With spirituality we have health advantages. People who have spiritual experiences can deal better with stress, can better cope with fears, have certain health advantages. On the other hand. On the other hand." : In religiosity, that is, religious people form much stronger communities through their common belief in gods, in higher beings, stick together more closely. That can be positive or negative. But above all, they have significantly more children on average. And that is then of course interesting again for biologists at the latest. "

Religion connects, forms groups and identities. That can be positive, says sociobiologist and philosopher Eckhart Voland from the University of Giessen. Religion is an illusion, but it is of great benefit to believers:

"It has been shown time and again that pious people, believing people, by and large, cope better with the obstacles of life than the enlightened rationalists. They cope with personal catastrophes more easily. The hospital stay is a little shorter after the cancer operation Unemployment is dealt with differently. The divorce of the marriage, which for many is a great drama and a trauma, is evidently more successful. "

Religion gives people security, a basic trust that does not seem to exist to the same extent among non-believers. But as always: this medal also has a downside.

"Just think of the ability of religion to bind communities together. Anyone who has a common interest, political or ideological, is supported by their beliefs. Human groups define themselves precisely through their beliefs. We know today from the events of this World, however dangerous that is. "

How is that related: belief and brain? One tries today to answer such questions with the help of empirical research and modern technology. Much has been studied and calculated. It is precisely through this research, however, that a question is becoming more and more conscious, a question that research is miles away from clarifying, explains religious scholar Michael Blume. Ultimately, a philosophical question: the question of the connection between spirit and matter.

"We can see, for example, that societies that are doing well over a long period of time are becoming less religious. We can calculate the percentage of the probability that someone is religious in the country. We are already really good at it from the outside, so to speak But if you were to ask me directly, so to speak: Yes, but - how does it work, how can it be that the firing of neurons then gives rise to this thought or this certainty, which in turn affects my entire life? I would say, what I'm doing right now: Well, there we are at a limit that may have always existed in one form or another, but which we may not yet be able to crack with our current view of the world. "