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Can Neurotheology Explain Religion?

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Neurotheology is a fast-growing field of research. Combining philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and religious studies, it takes a new approach to old questions on religion. What is religion and why do we have it? Neurotheologists focus on the search for the neural correlate of religious experiences. If we can trace religious experiences to specific parts of the brain, chances are we can reduce religion as such to that grey soggy matter as well. This article predicts neurotheology will not be able to locate the neural correlate of religious experiences. As we cannot decide phenomenally what makes an experience religious, neurologically we cannot find its correlate either. That is, if there are fixed neural correlates to begin with, because their existence is still a matter of debate. In addition, religious experiences seem to be a kind of experience, like emotional or relational experiences, making them indistinguishable from similar nonreligious experiences. Even if one manages to trace the neural correlate of religious experiences, neurotheology will still not be able to account for the rise of religion without resorting to theories from other disciplines. In the end, we do not know enough about consciousness and the way it relates to the brain to make conclusive claims about the search for religious states of consciousness. It seems, however, that even though neurotheology could provide fascinating insights in the workings of the religious brain, on its own, it will prove unable to explain religion fully.

Affiliations: 1: Religious Studies, Department of Religious Studies, University of Amsterdam Oude Turfmarkt 145, 1012 GC Amsterdam the Netherlands, Email:


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