How God lights up the brain
Scanning technology puts a human face on the 'God spot'
Scientists have long speculated that there must be a "God spot" in the human brain, a distinct area responsible for spirituality.
But now a Danish neuroscientist and his team are saying that talking to God is pretty much like talking to a friend or neighbour, neurologically speaking.
Uffe Schjodt and his research group at Aarhus University used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the brains of Christian believers.
What they found was that when their subjects prayed, four regions in the brain lit up — those activated when we "relate to other humans."
Schjodt modestly tells us he is just a scientist whose interests lie solely in the physical world. But he is also steeped in evolutionary theory and believes that the human brain evolved to adapt "to the challenges of the natural environment."
As he sees it, "the brain did not evolve to communicate with invisible supernatural beings."
So when firm believers pray, their brains must first "process" God as a concrete person. At least that is what his research is suggesting.
Working against nature
Now, for many people, even many believers, God might be a remote, incomprehensible and abstract being.
And just what regions of the brain light up when perplexed or unceremonious believers pray is not at all clear from this study.
But if we accept the implied argument here that, as a function of our evolutionary heritage, our brains have evolved to respond to the presence of God as a real, concrete person, then many of those people struggling to believe in an abstract deity are working against their very natures.
The evidence from this group in Denmark suggests that the more abstract the concept of God, the more unreal the experience is to the human brain.
That's why the idea of a divine intermediary, as Christians and Hindus believe, is such a powerful invention — for those who accept it, that is.
But when you don't or can't buy into that kind of belief system, or when you envision God as a remote proposition, then the notion of a supreme being can become very slippery.
God is dead, the philosopher Nietzsche famously announced in the 19th century, and it is we modern/secular humans who killed him.
As a result, so many of us seem to be waiting by the side of the road for some kind of sign — pace Samuel Beckett's iconic play, Waiting for Godot — as if installed in some doubting purgatory.
New perspectives on God and religion
You can hear more of this heady mental lifting in a very learned series by my colleague David Cayley on CBC Radio's Ideas last week.
The series was called After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion and it focused on five male professors, all Christian of one sort or another.
The God they struggle with often seems as remote as a disappearing quark or a piece of string theory. But struggle they do.
At times they make you want to shout at the radio and ask just who is this disappearing God and why do you spend your life in this futile pursuit?
But then they also fill the air with so much eloquence and poetry that the notion of futility can be suspended, in spite of the impatience.
According to many thinkers, we are religious creatures, even if the evidence is not completely forthcoming.
The 'logic of the impossible'
Now, such wrestling with God is not just a modern event. It only seems that way because, since the Western Enlightenment, the so-called Age of Reason, God has been banished into the realm of private experience.
The speakers on Ideas were all filled with a fondness for paradox, a feature of theologians for millennia.
For example, Richard Kearney, the author of Anatheism: Return to God After God, tells us that only after going through the purgatory of atheism can we reach a "higher" faith.
What this means is not at all clear. But he is so full of Irish charm and wonder that it makes for lovely listening.
Kearney is a poet as well as a professor, and in his rapturous telling God is the future, the sense of fruitful, unfolding possibility.
This God allows us to follow our spiritual longings and tune ourselves to the "logic of the impossible," as another speaker argued.
It is a conception of God that is pretty ephemeral, but it also makes Him seem quite human: He's the Divine Poet who imprints verses onto our hearts and into the echo chambers of the universe.
As well, in this Ideas series, we hear James Carse, a religion writer and former history professor at New York University, tell us that belief is "the enemy of religion."
"Beliefs come and go," he says. They are disposable. And he's disposed of his, pretty much.
What Carse appreciates is "tradition." By this he means that when someone experiences God, it isn't via some woozy, mystical event, but through participating in a community, along with other congregants.
Interpreting Carse, my friend Cayley describes God as a "conversation" (which is something that I can relate to as a talks producer).
By this he means the kind of conversations you have with people next to you in your place of worship or in a grocery line (or virtually, in your head).
So, we are back to Square 1. Even disbelieving or perplexed intellectuals, it seems, must seek their God in the guise of people, be they poets or community-minded professors.
God may be incomprehensible, the true and ultimate "other." But in the end, we seem to turn Him into a person. Perhaps that's only human.