Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/07/2009

Call me Epileptic, but I don’t believe Neurologists and other Voodoo practitioners

The Dallas Morning News, dying on the vine like other mediocre newspapers, plays weekly games on line to attract readers. The religion editor, for example, poses a question and asks a group of religious luminaries to answer it.

Hildegard - What is Man that Thou art mindful of him

Hildegard - What is Man that Thou art mindful of him

Recently his question was prompted by the national health care reform debate:  In thinking about health care, have we gotten to the point that we put too great a premium on our biological lives? As we have become more secularized, have we lost sight of the transcendent?

One response includes “We have to provide life-sustaining methods of treatment so that persons with diabetes, epilepsy, and other complicating conditions can achieve their full human potential.” (It is, I think, the first time I’ve ever seen in print a church leader acknowledge that epilepsy is a condition that is worthy of the notice of the church.)

(Skip to “MY RESPONSE” to read what I really think of all of the following “scientific” nonsense.)

A web search for “epileptics/spirituality” yields bizarre “hits.” The abstract for the first one is, “The personalities of people who are involved with spiritual practices like prayer, meditation and ceremony are shaped by the altered-state experiences their spirituality creates. The part of the brain that manages our states of consciousness, the temporal lobes, is a little busier in these people than most, producing personality traits that appear over and over among spiritually oriented people.” (Todd Murphy, “The Spiritual Personality”).

Another top hit is from National Public Radio (NPR), May 19, 2009, titled, “Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head?” by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She talks to some heavy hitters in neurological research: Orrin Devinsky, who directs the epilepsy center at New York University; Jeffrey Saver, a neurologist at UCLA; Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University, where Todd Murphy works.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty says, “If you’re looking for evidence that religion is in your head, you need look no further than Jeff Schimmel.” He’s an authority because, after having brain surgery, he began having vivid “religious” experiences.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty says, just before she gets wired up by Dr. Persinger to stimulate her temporal lobe in order for her to see God, “This made me wonder: If God uses the temporal lobe, can neurologists make God come and go at will. . . .what about summoning God? Could a scientist manufacture a spiritual experience by manipulating my temporal lobes?” I guess she found God. (Please see my comment in the “comments” section below regarding the questionable nature of the work of Michael Persinger.)


We epileptics are, of course, normal people with ABnormal views of the world. The church (and others) not only needs to make a place for the (often) heightened religiosity of some epileptic persons, but it could also benefit by learning something of humility from epileptics. When the “ego” disappears into a seizure, and one has difficulty discerning exactly how one’s biological life and one’s mental or spiritual lives are connected, one has a precious view of reality. The ego is gone (at least momentarily), and the self is all that remains. It is, of course, a frightening experience until one begins to understand one’s special place in the scheme of things—not from pride, but from gratitude for the possibility of knowing for sure who one is before the Creator of the Universe (or God, or the Big Bang, or the laws of physics, or whatever YOU, in your bizarre spirituality, want to call your religious experience). Epileptics are, like all persons with illnesses, especially illnesses of the brain and mind, powerless over their illnesses (unless induced by Dr. Persinger). In the case of epileptics that powerlessness can provide one with a marvelous understanding of how little attention we need to pay to our biological existence.

The Dallas Morning News respondent hit the nail on the head: “We have to provide life-sustaining methods of treatment so that persons with [epilepsy]….can achieve their full human potential.”

If scientists are looking for “religious experience,” or the “transcendent,” or even “God,” they should stop playing God. Treat my epilepsy for its debilitating influences in my life. Find out where in the brain religious experience happens if you want. Do whatever scientific thing you want to do, but leave God out of it. That’s not science, and it’s not religion. It’s as ridiculous as Creationists’ believing the world is 6,000 years old. You start with your presupposition—in this case that the brain manufactures religious experience—and try to prove it. Or you work the opposite way. Either one is not helpful to anyone—and does not advance “truth” one bit.

It’s voodoo. Plain and simple. One does not “conjure God.” One either has a relationship with whatever one thinks is transcendent in one’s life (or even in the entire universe), or one doesn’t. And one either understands neurology, or one doesn’t. If my neurologist starts talking religion to me, I’m outta there. Are you listening Dr. Agostini?


  1. I’ve come across this train of though among scientists a few times and it puzzles me because all they have done is show where and how in the brain the God slot is perceived and like people playing with hallucinogens, have tried to reproduce experiences.Now using mindaltering substances has always been the remit of shamen and medicine men, but if you read enough about this, you also discover that those who take the drugs without the training, experience a very poor substitute for the experience/results that true medicine people have; usually a bad trip is the end result.
    So they can poke a wire and make a frog’s legs twitch? Doesn’t make them God .


  2. Please see a review of:
    Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, “The spiritual brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul” (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 358 pages. $25.95, hardcover. ISBN 978-0-06-085883-4.

    The review is in the journal POLITICS AND THE LIFE SCIENCES 27.2 DECEMBER 2008. The review is by: Angus J. L. Menuge, Professor of Philosophy, Concordia University Wisconsin

    An exceprt from the review:

    Promissory materialism encourages scientists to presume at the outset that RSMEs are illusions and not deep insights into reality. In chapters two to four, Beauregard and O’Leary explore the proliferation of naturalistic attempts to explain away RSMEs [religious, spiritual, and/or mystical experiences]. Matthew Alper proposed a ‘‘God’’ part of the brain and Jeff Saver and John Rabin argued that RSMEs are abnormalities associated with temporal lobe epilepsy. While such
    speculations are uncritically reported by a naive or biased media, they have been clearly refuted by modern brain scans (which show that many parts of the brain are involved in RSMEs) and by national surveys showing that RSMEs are experienced by 20–49% of individuals in the United States, Britain, and Australia (p. 71), and so should be assumed to be psychologically
    normal. This makes it all the more odd that there are so few studies of the psychology and neurology of atheists, who make up a much smaller proportion of the population. What, besides materialistic bias, makes scientists
    assume that atheists are psychologically normal, without any empirical investigation?

    Again, Dean Hamer’s claim to have discovered the ‘‘God gene’’ dissolved under scrutiny. Hamer admitted that many genes are involved and that they account for only a tiny amount of variance in ‘‘self-transcendence,’’ which, as Carl Zimmer wryly noted, can mean anything from belonging to the Green Party to believing in extrasensory perception (p. 52). And Michael Persinger’s ‘‘God helmet’’ experiments, purporting to show that RSMEs can be generated by magnetic fields,
    were very likely influenced by suggestion and could not be replicated by Swedish researchers. According to Beauregard and O’Leary, the media are quick to trumpet such flimsy science because they are ‘‘skeptical of any idea that spirituality corresponds to anything outside ourselves, but surprisingly gullible about any reductionist explanation of it’’ (p. 91).


  3. I’ve tried atheism; I couldn’t get the hang of it.
    I don’t know why people like Richard Dawkins are trying to imply that religious people are somehow less intelligent than atheists. It doesn’t make sense to me.



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