Douglas Groothuis: Religion, A mental construct?


“In recent years a host of brain researchers have been exploring and conjecturing as to the biological basis for religious beliefs.  The basic thesis of many of these opinions is that beliefs in God or the sacred can be explained on the basis of certain functions in the brain.  That is, neuroscience gives the answer to why we have religious beliefs, and it has nothing to do with any objectively real state of affairs that we perceive or discern.  Most of these accounts presuppose materialism and so beg the question philosophically: Since we know there is no God and no sacred realm (all is material), we need to explain (and explain away) why so many have religious experiences.  Of course, this is not an argument, but a presupposition not argued for.”

“However, it is no threat to religious belief if certain brain states correlate with certain religious beliefs or experiences.  We are material as well as spiritual beings.  The mind interacts with the body, as Scripture teaches and our experience confirms.  The threat to religious belief only appears when this correlation is understood as a reduction of the spiritual to the material (see chapter 17).”

“There is another problem for this reductive view: it works as a boomerang against itself.  If religious beliefs can be explained away as illusory simply because their neurological components (physical states) are identified, we must, by the force of the same argument, explain away as illusory the belief that religious beliefs are illusory (there is no God) because they too are merely neurological states.  This kind of reduction and refutation would extend to all beliefs that can be identified with brain activity.  But this conclusion results in an epistemological nihilism that is unsupportable logically and existentially.”

“It speaks volumes to note that while millions of dollars in grant money goes to explaining the neurological basis of religion, nothing goes to explain the neurological basis of atheism or skepticism.  Apparently, atheism and skepticism are innocent until proven guilty, whereas religious beliefs are just plain guilty.”

“In conclusion, all the advances in the knowledge of the neurological workings of the brain and its relation to religious beliefs and experiences in no way refute the truth of these beliefs.  That would be the work of philosophy.  Here, as in so many other areas, naturalistic science (i.e. materialist explanation) is an unaccredited usurper of intellectual authority.”

– Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, p. 384


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