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From Brain Imaging Religious Experience to Explaining Religion: A Critique

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Recent functional neuroimaging data, acquired in studies of religious experience, have been used to explain and justify religion and its origins. In this paper, we critique the move from describing brain activity associated with self-reported religious states, to explaining why there is religion at all. Toward that end, first we review recent neuroimaging findings on religious experience, and show how those results do not necessarily support a popular notion that religion has a primitive evolutionary origin. Importantly, we call into question an assumption—key to that account of religion—concerning a conceptual relation between 'religion' and 'religious experience'. Then, we examine the conditions that must be met in order to explain religion on the basis of brain imaging findings. Moreover, we list principled reasons to be sceptical of explanations of religion in terms of the neural underpinnings of experiences. We conclude that the data from neuroimaging studies are not suited for an explanation of religion.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii, Hilo, HI, USA; 2: Department of Philosophy, University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands

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