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Does neuroscience disprove God? Northwestern professor responds

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Unsplash/Robina Weermeijer

A professor of philosophy has tackled neuroscientific objections to miracles, visions and the existence of God.

Brad Sickler, associate professor of philosophy and program director for the Master of Arts in theological studies at the University of Northwestern, looked at how some researchers have tried to use neuroscience to explain away religious experiences.

“Some attempt to create experiences that feel to the subject like an encounter with a divine or supernatural being by manipulating the brain through physical or chemical means,” wrote Sickler in a piece titled “Is God All in the Brain? Weighing Objections from Neuroscience” published by the popular theology website DesiringGod.org.  

“A notorious example of this is Robert Persinger’s ‘God helmet.’ In this experiment, a snowmobile helmet fitted with solenoids is placed on the subject’s head, exposing the brain to low-level magnetic fields.”

Sickler noted that because the sensations experienced in the Persinger experiment were “similar to encounters with divine persons reported in religious traditions," many people concluded "that such reported encounters are due to nothing more than unusual configurations of brain states. No god is needed.”

“It is widely agreed that there is no ‘God spot’ in the brain, but there is broad consensus among some skeptical neuroscientists that there must be something about the brain that accounts for religiosity. God is all in the brain, they say,” continued Sickler.

However, Sickler stressed that there should be no concern among Christians, noting that there were obvious contrasts between the Persinger experiment and “the experiences recorded in Scripture [that] are nothing like those studied in the lab.”

“Nothing produced under controlled conditions resembles them, and there is simply no indication that experiences like them can be manufactured,” he wrote.

“Neuroscience’s studies of religious experiences shed little or no light on them at all, and have certainly done nothing to subvert their genuineness.”

Persinger, a neuroscientist at the Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada, conducted experiments in the 1980s aimed at stimulating spiritual experiences in the brain by using magnetic fields.

In 2004, Pehr Granqvist of Uppsala University led a group of Swedish researchers in a double-blind version of the Persinger study, in which neither the experimenters nor the participants knew who was getting the magnetic fields in their helmets.

As a result, according to a report by Nature, the Swedish researchers found no connection between the magnetic fields and religious experiences, appearing to refute Persinger.

“[Without the double-blind protocol] people in the experimental group who are highly suggestible would pick up on cues from the experimenter and they would be more likely to have these types of experiences,” stated Granqvist, as reported by Nature in December 2004.

For his part, Persinger told Nature at the time that he disputed the results of the Swedish study, saying that they failed to properly replicate his research.

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