Project on Religion and the Brain

Where God and Science Meet

This project has resulted in Where God and Science Meet, a three-volume series edited by Patrick McNamara, that uses various approaches to explore religion and religious experience. For more information or to purchase Where God and Science Meet, visit Praeger Publishing or Amazon.com.



In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the human neurocognitive system exhibits specializations that support or mediate religious experience of various kinds. Therefore, it seems less and less likely that religions, or at least some core aspects of religious behaviors/experiences, can be considered mere byproducts of an all-purpose big-brain or cognitive system. To the extent that specializations for religiosity find experimental support, it becomes more plausible to argue that religiosity itself is an adaptive neurobehavioral system. But these are all highly controversial claims.

That the brain somehow mediates some aspects of religiosity is a less controversial claim than those outlined above. Just how the brain manages that feat and what, if any, the implications are for biological anthropology, the neurosciences, theology, and society are another matter altogether.

The project on religion and the brain is designed to help us answer those questions.

The project has so far resulted in publications of 3 volumes in Dr. Harold J. Ellens’ “Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality” Series of Praeger Publishers, Greenwood Press, and Debbie Carvalko, Acquisitions Editor. The series of 3 volumes feature essays by over 36 experts on the topic of neuropsychological and evolutionary approaches to religious behavior. The volumes ‘offer innovative ideas, provocative considerations and useful beginnings’ to better understand the neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology of religious behaviors.

Brain-based and evolutionary approaches to the sciences of religion can and have revealed fundamentally new insights into both the destructive power and the beneficient effects of religious behaviors. One of the beneficient effects of religion, for example, turns out to be some amount of protection against certain types of mental and physical ill-health (see review in Koenig, 2002) and this power of religion has very likely contributed to its evolutionary success.

The widespread attention to the new science of religion is understandable given the stakes involved. As recent terror attacks on America and subsequent American attacks on two Islamic countries thought to harbor terrorists has demonstrated, understanding religious behaviors is vital to our survival. Many lethal conflicts around the globe, furthermore, are sustained by religious ideologies and animosities. In addition, religious beliefs and behaviors exert a profound impact on mental and physical health, dietary habits, mating preferences, and even economic behavior. For millions, religious beliefs influence who they marry, how they raise their kids and who they comport with in their day to day lives. Clearly, religion is central to understanding human social psychology. The new neurologic and evolutionary sciences of religion offer a fresh perspective on old problems of religion and religious behavior. They give us interesting and workable accounts for both destructive and constructive aspects of religious behavior. They point the way to new approaches to constructive inter-religious dialogue and may even help to reduce religiously-inspired forms of violence.

Primary teaching affiliate
of BU School of Medicine