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COMMENTARY
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 10  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 25-27

Neurotheology—The Triad of Religion, Spirituality, and Neuroscience


1 University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
2 Department of Food Science and Nutrition, College of Agricultural and Marine Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman
3 Research & Policy Department, World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), Qatar Foundation, Doha, Qatar

Date of Submission21-Nov-2019
Date of Acceptance25-Nov-2019
Date of Web Publication25-Feb-2020

Correspondence Address:
PhD, MBA M. Walid Qoronfleh
Director, Research & Policy Department, World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), Qatar Foundation, P.O. Box 5825, Doha
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/ijnpnd.ijnpnd_76_19

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   Abstract 


Religion and spirituality are fundamental to the human condition and play a role in our mental health and wellbeing. Initially, religion and science thrived in a complimentary relationship, only to be polarized with the aggressive secularization of science. Neurotheology is an exciting new approach that may help bridge our understandings of religion, health and the overall human condition. However, we need to recognize the limitations of this approach and, hence, cautiously interpret any findings.

Keywords: Brain, mental health, neuroscience, neurotheology, psychiatry, psychology, religion, spirituality, wellbeing


How to cite this article:
Al-Nuaimi SK, Essa MM, Walid Qoronfleh M. Neurotheology—The Triad of Religion, Spirituality, and Neuroscience. Int J Nutr Pharmacol Neurol Dis 2020;10:25-7

How to cite this URL:
Al-Nuaimi SK, Essa MM, Walid Qoronfleh M. Neurotheology—The Triad of Religion, Spirituality, and Neuroscience. Int J Nutr Pharmacol Neurol Dis [serial online] 2020 [cited 2020 Aug 4];10:25-7. Available from: http://www.ijnpnd.com/text.asp?2020/10/1/25/279181



Neurotheology” in Wikipedia is defined as a neologism that describes the scientific study of the neural correlates of religious or spiritual beliefs, experiences, and practices. Other researchers prefer to use terms like “spiritual neuroscience” or “neuroscience of religion”. A more scientific definition, Neurotheology is an emerging field of study that seeks to understand the relationship between the brain science and religion. It has also been referred to as spiritual neuroscience.[17]

Religion is intimately woven into the fabric of people across the globe, both in the past and present. The same can be said for science in the broad meaning of the word, as the roots of science can be traced back to 3500–3000 BC.[7] It can be argued that religion and science not only co-existed but thrived in a complementary relationship. This can be seen during the Golden Age of Islam, where advances in the natural sciences, mathematics, philosophy, and medicine were all made under an Islamic framework, as Islam itself implores us to study nature, to reflect on God’s creation, and gain knowledge.[19]

As a case example in our discussion of the neurosciences, one can look to the evolution in the relationship between religion and our understanding of mental illness within the fields of psychiatry and psychology. The idea that religion and psychiatry/psychology have always been at odds with one another seems quite prevalent in our modern time. However, this idea is quite misguided most of the times on varying levels. The first mental hospital was established during the Golden Age of Islam in Baghdad during the 8th century under the Abbasid Caliphate.[16] Muslim physicians and thinkers, such as Ibn-Sina (known as Avicenna) and Muhammed Al-Razi (known as Rhazes), are said to approach mental illnesses as an organic disease that required compassionate treatment and therapy. The Quran in Chapter 4 Verse 5 provides guidance on treating mentally ill individuals with compassion and to safeguard them with special legal protections.

From the Christian perspective, Vandermeersch[23] and Hayward[9] confront that the foundational myth in psychiatry enlightened psychiatrists liberated people from religious superstitions of demonology and witchcraft. Further, Kroll[12] describes how natural causes of mental illness were proposed as well as largely accepted in the Middle Ages, and that the emphasis on witch-hunting occurred after the Middle Ages. This does not mean that there were no injustices, such as the killing of mentally ill persons during the Inquisition, but to state that religion is foundationally at odds with mental well-being and treatment seems absurd.

Toward the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century, negative attitudes in the psychiatric community toward religion became prominent. Not only were views prominently negative, Western psychology went as far to simply ignore the spiritual dimension of a human being by defining “the total personality of every individual as only having physical and psychological”.[14] The secularization of the sciences was aggressively pursued.

It is only more recently that attitudes toward religion and spirituality began to change and be more receptive in the scientific community. Research is revealing robust beneficial roles of religiosity and spirituality in many health-related outcomes such as in cardiovascular health, chronic pain, cancer, length of hospitalization, mortality, and overall wellbeing.[10],[11],[13],[15],[22] There is also strong evidence in the literature describing the favorable role of religion and spirituality in mental wellbeing. Religiosity and spirituality have been associated with lower rates of depression, less symptoms of post-traumatic stress, improved individual coping capacity with life stressors, and are protective factors in reducing risk of suicide.[1],[3],[5]

This brings us to a relatively new and emerging field of study that seeks to understand the relationship between the science of the brain and religion: neurotheology.[17] Neurotheology is an interesting discipline in its own right; it is truly multidisciplinary in nature. It connects and recombines several scientific concentrations even transcends them. It is an area that crosses traditional scientific boundaries by including the fields of religion, theology, philosophy, and anthropology, in addition to the neuroscience fields including cognitive sciences and psychology.[20] This approach helps build contributions in a multidirectional way, collectively enhancing our knowledge and understandings in a sensitive manner. Neurotheology can be an important method for better understanding of the already described associations between religiosity and health. In fact, several studies and experiments have been conducted on brain regions showing changes and affecting several spots after religious or spiritual experiences. Neuroimaging studies reveal how brain activity is affected by prayer and meditation, and more interestingly, there are differences in brain activity between secular meditations compared to religious-based practices.[2] Other neuropsychology and psychopharmacology studies performed corroborate these findings or purport stimulation activities.[6],[8],[18]

However, a cautionary note. Neurotheology can be a very fruitful approach in enhancing our knowledge, but some proponents of it seem to be more interested in using it to explain away religion. That believing in God, the concept of the soul, or having spiritual/religious experiences are simply the result of underlying neurological processes that can be explained from an evolutionary perspective.[4] The neuroscientific reductionistic approach disapproves of religious phenomena as irrational and not scientific. Since religion/theology is not scientific, a scientific surrogate is required, such as neurotheology. On the other hand, atheists can argue that neural occurrences are a result, not cause, of genuine religious phenomena.[21]

It is important to take a step back and reflect on the fundamental nature and process of science in our modern time. The most powerful method of acquiring scientific knowledge has been the development of the rigorous, empirical, and skeptical scientific method. There is no doubt that the scientific method has played a major role in advancing human thought, experience and civilization. Without getting into too many details, the scientific method ultimately is a tool designed by humans. It is built on certain axioms, has a specific design and achieves certain goals. This forms the methodological basis of neurosciences, including neurotheology. However, just like any other tool we design, utilizing it outside of its intended use can be detrimental.

The challenge that is posed is how can a reductionistic, materialistic scientific method be the tool to conceptualize, measure, and evaluate an immaterial, divine concept such as a soul? Has truth been reduced to only what the scientific method and science can determine?

In Islam, science is ultimately a fundamental part and extension of religious endeavor, thought, and practice. Since God is the source of all knowledge and absolute truth, there can be no conflict among divine scripture and other truths, whether they are from science or other methods. Re-engaging religion and spirituality into science is an important step in reconnecting with the human condition. However, all results of such an endeavor needs to be cautiously interpreted and within the context of their religious framework. The appropriate understanding and linkage between the brain and faith has an enormous implications on mental health and wellbeing in terms of policy recommendations, policy making/guidelines, and final successful implementation.

Financial support and sponsorship

Nil.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.



 
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