'Neurotheology': A semantic trap set by pseudo-science for the unwary scientist



Milind N. Ovalekar

Principal Investigator

Centre for Neuroscientific Studies, Vasai


There is no scientific rationale for the nouveau term "Neurotheology". Researchers working on topics relating to religion must stick to the conventional Behavioural and Social Neurosciences categories.


The following essay is of 2006 Vintage; yet, it is important for the reason that it demonstrates the basic principles underlying the evolution in the thinking on the Consciousness project handled by Dr Milind Ovalekar.




"Neurotheology" is a term that has recently entered the public domain in a prominent manner, particularly since its detailed coverage by the mass media, co-inciding with the publication of some mass-market paperbacks on that topic. While this term ostensibly relates to traditional peer-reviewed research into the interaction between the "spiritual" and the human brain, its real purpose seems to be more in the nature of commercial exploitation than any actual intent to make a worthwhile contribution to the advancement of science. Now, one does hate to interfere in the sound business practices of professionals from the book publishing industry, especially given the gross decrement in their sales since the burgeoning of the internet and the satellite media. On the other hand, there exists an equally insistent reason to draw the line at some point, given the stakes involved in propagating real science.

Much of what I say in this article is based upon our institution's experience in researching the neural basis of spirituality over the past decade. It has been a severely humbling, even if entirely illuminating experience, and others will do well to heed the pitfalls that we discovered in this process. Not for a moment do I wish to deny the various book authors touting the merits of "neurotheology" their place in the sun. My only humble request of them is that in doing so, they ought to be more careful about according priority to the protestations of the empirical method, that claim precedence over the material prospects of instant access to their hallowed "fifteen seconds of fame" slot.

It has been recently observed that researchers working on topics exploring the neural basis of spiritual phenomena, especially using fMRI, seem to leap at the first opportunity onto the boat of "neurotheology", because of the good press it has received, without bothering to grasp the implications of their move. One must remember, "Neurotheology" as a term was first coined in a philosophical, quasi- scientific or pseudo-scientific context.

It is all too fine to declare that "neurotheology" studies the "neurological and evolutionary bases for subjective experiences such as spirituality", but the critical question to ask is, "is there any need for such a new discipline?" Or, is there anything lacking in the present disciplines covering this subject that the new fangled category of "neurotheology" is de rigeur?

One must remember that behavioural neuroscience is well-equipped, together with social neuroscience, to study either the individual or the group phenomena associated with spirituality. The danger in using "neurotheology" is that the "neuro" element is often conveniently elided, and "theology" is all that remains to rule the roost, with unforeseen complications. Let us examine further how that takes place.



Recently there has been a plethora of pop science articles, especially in the mainstream media, regarding "Neurotheology", co-inciding with the initial burst of researches using the newly developed technology of fMRI. To be sure, there is little to dispute about either the validity of using fMRI as an investigative tool, or about the design of those nifty experiments. The problem arises once the discussion starts, because this is where sound science and the "neuro" ends, and "theology" rears its well, not ugly but certainly unwelcome, head. The whole exercise then degenerates into what is akin to opening a Pandora's Box of unwarranted philosophical intrusions into the hallowed grounds of science.

The dangers when prowling around the environs of religion are the mine-fields of dogma and well-developed philosophies; wherein, even a single point of scientific validation is instantly hijacked into a full-fledged validation of some esoteric philosophy or system of faith. Thus, there is the all-pervalent stench of quasi-science sticking to all your efforts. In this context, exploring the neural basis of spirituality is more akin to wading through muck in a malaria-infested peat-bog, than any romantic exploration of the unknown that the researcher fondly imagines at the outset.



When dealing with any matters pertaining to religion, the reason why most science was reluctant to even come close to a barge pole that seemed proximate to religion, is the perhaps justified fear of a hidden agenda motivating the proponents of religion undertaking the scientific exercise. A nefarious instance of this is the issues of creationism and intelligent design that afflict the biological sciences in the USA.

But, even when such motivation doesn't exist overtly, there is no denying the "good press" that any establishment of religion so loves, especially when it comes to validation from science. While theologians will produce theories that philosophise about their distance from science, yet, there is nothing like a pat on the back from science to get those ancient juices really flowing. In fact, it wouldn't be entirely amiss to state that the real driving factor for any establishment of religion that co-operates rather too willingly in such research endeavours is its deep desire to bask in the gentle glow of adulation brought on by the injection of the vitamin of scientific validation.

When dealing with religion, science has to steer between the Charybdis and Scylla of either on the one hand condemning religion, which is nothing new [and a blanket condemnation might actually prove unscientific]; or, on the other hand, providing some comfort to religious theories, which, given the history of their convoluted relationship, is quite a disquieting matter for the scientific establishment. To compound this woe, there is the other tendency on the part of establishments of religion to use small validations as beachheads into the realm of scientific validation, and to extrapolate these finite observations into an infinite verification of the tenets of their faith.

Thus, while science would wish to crawl one tiny step at a time, like a snail, intent upon exploring its environs, using the empirical method as the only reference point; for religion, science is merely a stepping stone, and the empirical method a launch pad for soaring, like an eagle from a high cliff into the sky, into the greater glory of self-righteousness that accompanies the wholesale justification of entire philosophies, just on account of a few good words from science.

An integral part of this problem seems to be the discomforting relationship shared by spirituality with science. As part of the theological establishment that, when faced with a diametrically opposed worldview, did everything in its power to fight it and to suppress it, when possible with every bent and skewed tool in its material possession, spirituality has, by association, been granted an unenviable heritage of conflict with science. The further developments after this conflict, with spirituality retreating in a shell, shirking all contact with science, and cosying up with metaphysical constructs of philosophy to side-step the yawning gaps in reality that science exposed did no good either.

The result is an intermediate mass that is more a mess of temporary constructs than any real empirical formulation. Perhaps, there is a Freudian tinge to the "theology" in Neurotheology, a hint of resignation to the fact that intercourse with metaphysics and philosophy, all anathema to science, is inevitable somewhere down this road. This, in short, essentially forms the substance of "Neurotheology".

As an exemplary demonstration of the Art of Illusion, "Neurotheology" can well be imagined in a classic dead heat race with that magical convenience of pre-Einsteinian physics, the notion of "Luminiferous aether". This "aether" device was an useful means for understanding the propagation of light through empty space within the ambit of the prevalent views on the nature of light in those times. Yet, further study in the following decades exposed its mythical nature, and irrelevance to physics.

We are in a similar situation today. The black box is just opening up and revealing its secrets, and on each occasion we try to decipher the new bits of information that prop up with some hypothesis that we believe is utilitarian in explaining the truth as we know it. Unfortunately, in taking recourse to "neurotheology", at the expense of the conventional categories, we face the peril that what we conceptualise isn't the whole truth, and is all to likely to lead us into some black hole of theorising like "luminiferous aether". No doubt, in time we will have the real solution just as physics received its epiphany. But, to try "neurotheology" as a stop-gap measure till that occurs, is to merely delay the dawning of that new theory.

There's a tale about the legendary Hollywood director, Alfred Hitchcock. Seems he and a couple others were in a train to Scotland. Noting some weird contraption in the fellow traveller's luggage, he asked him about it. "That's a McGuffin, its used to catch lions." Came the reply. "But, there are no lions in Scotland," he protested. "Well, then," came the unruffled answer, "it isn't a McGuffin either."

Seems our fellow-travellers in the Neurosciences domain are indulging in some McGuffin stuff of their own. Only, its termed "Neurotheology", and it is used to study topics like "meditation", "levitation", "out of body experience" and the like using Neurotheology as a pliable tool. Objection! For, there's no foundational basis in the Neurosciences for stuff like that within the strait-jacket of theology wherein "Neurotheology" wants to confine them. Is the [theo-]scientist with the hidden religious agenda ruffled by this? Not one bit! Well then, he says, there's no need for too much science in "Neurotheology" either, once the root issue of single entry validation of some religious concept is solved. Its plain and simple.

But, where does that leave the honest scientific worker?! Though "Neurotheology" purports to be an union of religion and science, this analogy exposes the cross-purposes that function beneath the surface. While the scientist would like to advance science bit by bit in exploring these facets of religion/ spirituality, religion is only looking for a beach-head into science. Once that is obtained, there is the wholesale extrapolation and the invasion of philosophical arguments, metaphysics, and what have you into the domain of sound science.

Perhaps it is not just a co-incidence that the topics relating to "neurotheology" are the ones in which nothing much is known to science, and everything is ver well-known to philosophy. Consciousness, for one. Now, I do not claim that the philosophical speculations on this subject are entirely pointless. Yet, there are so many of them. And, in the end, it will be scientifically accurate to state that while one of them can plausibly expand its wings and claim consonance with the scientific hypothesis in the end, the others will bite the dust as empty speculations. Yet, "Neurotheology" will have all of them, even the scientifically wrong ones, on a pedestal. So, where does that leave science if it desires to be the handmaiden of "Neurotheology"?!

Its a bit like the Arab in the tent feeling for the Camel out in the desert chill. The honest scientist is the Arab, who, through his single entry research displaying some validity in a minute aspect of religion/ theology feels for the establishment of religion that is the camel. Only, with the all aspect extrapolation from a single point, and wholesale validation, religion acts like the camel, and shoves the poor Arab out of the tent of sound science.



In saying all this, I don't mean to dishearten you or to suggest that you stay away from religion located research. Not one bit, since its a fertile ground for much further study, and we now have precision tools for our investigation. After all, though spirituality may purportedly deal with the ethereal, its motivations, effects, and consequences are entirely located in the material domain, hence eminently subjectable to empirical scrutiny.

Indeed, it is all too evident that given the real-world effects of religious practices, especially those that involve the human brain, there is a material facet to spirituality that is amenable to reductionist deconstruction. Correspondingly, with the advent of non-invasive techniques like the fMRI, the brain no longer poses as a mysterious black box that is resistant to scrutiny. Thus, we have a twin-pronged opportunity available for the first time in science since civilisation began, for a rational analysis of spirituality.

On the one hand, there is an awareness in science about the parameters of the spiritual, and at the same time there are tools available to science for assessing the functioning of those parameters in the real world; in a duplicable context. It would be a pity to have such a grand opportunity, and then to fritter it all away by cosying up to philosophical constructs hand-in-glove with metaphysical constructs, that have a hidden agenda of their own which may actually be detrimental to science.

Therefore, there is an insistent need to maintain a solidly, impeccably high index of suspicion; especially when one is interacting with establishments of religion. Caveat emptor, let the researcher beware when stepping into the arena of religion. It is like a mine-field that could consume him and his work. Or, like a crocodile gulp him down to invigorate itself. The only way to maintain this probity is by sticking to the straight and the narrow, to the hitherto well-defined subject categories of classification, and to firmly resist any and all temptations of linkages with scientifically imperfect hypotheses based upon philosophies, especially when the latter promote an all-aspect worldview and an utopian vision.



In conclusion, let us reaffirm that "Neurotheology" as a nouveau scientific term is absolutely bereft of rationale. Researchers wishing to study such arcane phenomena would do well to restrict their foundational bases to the time-tried concepts and categories of conventional behavioural and social neuroscience, before venturing into the quicksand of newly minted hypotheses that are sadly more in tune with commercial vigour than scientific rigour. Else, they stand exposed to the peril of having their solid empirical research hijacked by ancient dogmas often motivated by a reactionary agenda.


Copyright, (c) 12 March 2006, Milind Ovalekar, CNS.


Given the inevitable evolution in the state of the relevant art, I present a 2013 Post-Script of sorts to this 2006 Essay:

If Neurotheology endeavours to be an academic discipline, it must possess a chain of causation linking from its data through its mode of inquiry down to its inferences, wherein every link needs to be durable.

Ultimately, what is the strategic vision behind developing "Neurotheology"? If it is to organise and concentrate a body of research and researchers that were scattered across disparate disciplines, then there needs to be some larger scientific goal that is tied down to societal realities, i.e., that is translatable into actionable change at the community level that alters the latter for the better.

Lacking this organisation, if the links in every Neurotheology work's chain of causation, especially those involving the mode of inquiry, are viable, then they would fit into any extant domain, without the need to manufacture a new entity. If not, if a link is fragile, frail, then why sanction pseudo-science with a "neuro" prefix that only serves to mortify the legitimate neuroscientific work?! In fact, some extreme shenanigans have made not just the academicians, but even the general public wary by now of any content with a "neuro" prefix.

Therefore, the onus is now on the "Neurotheology" organisations that have formed, to develop scientific rigor in the body of work they have amassed; and to shape the larger vision for the future that would not just demarcate them from the other neighbouring "neuro-" disciplines, but would provide some concrete outputs for positively moulding the course of humanity as per those findings.