Faith in the Synapse

David Brooks’ thoughts on Neural Buddhism have been getting a lot of attention. He argues that trends in neuroscience no longer support radical materialism, but seem to support a kind of mysticism. This has implications:

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day.

I’ll check out his reading recommendations, but I’m not even sure Brooks is right on the science. Just because neuroscientists can describe what an ecstatic experience looks like and verify that believers are not lying when they say they are having such an experience doesn’t mean there isn’t a simple material explanation for it.

On the cultural side, I don’t agree that “neural Buddhism” represents some new great challenge to religious belief. It will undermine the faith of people whose spirituality relies exclusively on their ecstatic feelings – and that is a good thing for religion. If science can describe those feelings, it is likely that it can soon induce them in people. Belief that the Holy Spirit is the immediate cause of these feelings will cease, just as belief that God is the immediate cause of drought has ceased.

Ecstatic religious experience could become a part of spa treatments, or some kind of new therapy. Hot stones, deep tissue massage, then the transcendental-therapeutic mask. I find this silly and interesting, not threatening.

If neural Buddhism comes, it will be an invitation for American religion to move away from its emotionalism (and obscurantism) and back to serious theological reflection. I can’t wait.