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Religious Practice, Brain, and Belief

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It is a common assertion that there is a fundamental epistemological divide between religious and secular ways of knowing. The claim is that knowledge of the sacred rests on faith, while knowledge of the natural world rests on the evidence of our senses. A review of both the psychological and the neurophysiological literatures suggests, to the contrary, that for many people, religious experiences provide powerful reasons to believe in the supernatural. Examples are given from reports of mystical or transcendent experiences to show that those experiences are taken as evidence in support of religious belief, both by those who have the experiences, and by those who are connected in various ways to the believer. A large body of research shows that such experiences can be linked directly to particular neurophysiological events, but it is argued that this is not sufficient to support a simple reductionist analysis. Studies are described that make it clear that anomalous experiences do not become meaningful until interpreted through the lens of prior belief, and that existing religious doctrine is the most common source of that interpretive framework. It is argued that religious systems tend to promote practices that increase the likelihood of religious experiences that are easily interpreted as evidence in support of core beliefs of the tradition. There is thus an evolving synergy between the experienced and the doctrinal, but it is a synergy that is at bottom supported by ordinary processes of induction and deduction, operating on distinctive kinds of evidence.


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