By John Gillman, Ph.D, BCC
Andrew B. Newberg, Principles of Neurotheology. Ashgate Science and Religion Series. Burlington, VT: Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2010, 276 pages. Softcover, $29.95.
An associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, Andrew Newberg has dedicated much of his research to exploring religious experience from a neuroscientific framework. In this volume he sets forth 54 principles for “neurotheology,” which he defines as the field of study linking the neurosciences with religion and theology.
He asserts categorically that “all religious beliefs and all religious systems can be considered from a neurotheological hermeneutic.” Since the brain is necessarily involved in assent to religious beliefs, religiously motivated behavior and the processing of religious experience, this principle, while offering a relatively new approach for theology, merits serious consideration.
Newberg challenges readers, from the materialists to the idealists, to question their assumptions in light of new data, particularly from the study of brain processes. At the same time, he acknowledges that the brain by itself cannot definitively determine truth about the world or truth claims made by theology.
Also a lecturer in religious studies, Newberg is well versed in the views of major theologians and religious thinkers. He also occasionally cites the catechism of the Catholic Church. In chapter nine he specifically offers reflections on major topics in theology.
Since one of the standards for the certification of chaplains is the ability to “incorporate a working knowledge of psychological … disciplines” (302.2), those in our profession would be well served to be aware of the research being conducted on brain activity as it relates to religious experience and beliefs.
It would have been helpful had the author applied Occam’s razor (“plurality should not be posited without necessity”), which he discusses, to the proliferation of principles, thus yielding a reduced number with a more focused content specific to neurotheology. Also, I found it curious that the majority of the principles are formulated as duties or obligations (“should” or “must”) rather than as fundamental truths or propositions. Finally, although the study is well footnoted, it lacks a bibliography.
This volume presents a new approach toward the relationship between religion and science that has significant implications for chaplains who would like to broaden their understanding of the neurological component of spiritual experiences.
John Gillman is an NACC and ACPE supervisor at VITAS Innovative Hospice Care in San Diego, CA.