135. Dr. Andrew Newberg on God of the Fundamentalist Atheist

Neurotheology researcher, physician and author, Andy Newberg explains how fundamentalists Christians and Atheists share a minority view of God.

neurotheologyJoin Skeptiko guest host Steve Volk for an interview with Dr. Andy Newberg. A distinguished researcher at Thomas Jefferson University Medical College, and professor in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Newberg discusses his latest book Principles of Neurotheology:

Steve Volk: One thing that’s disappointing to me in these debates between believers and atheists is there’s usually a very narrow conception of God that’s on the table for discussion. It’s the Fundamentalist conception.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: I’d second your opinion. So often we say, “I believe in God,” or “I don’t believe in God,” and we assume that everybody knows what we’re talking about. Usually just the opposite is true. Oftentimes people who do feel very strongly one way or another do wind up with a very limited view about God.

A lot of times the Atheists look at God in a very anthropomorphic way, kind of mimicking the very doctrinal, Biblical kind of perspective on God. As you mentioned a few minutes ago, that sometimes is the problem in the debates between Atheists and religious individuals. Atheists have this very defined and very limited view about what God is or what they think other people think God is. If you have a religious person and an Atheist and both are arguing about the existence of God, you’ve got to figure out exactly what that means in the first place, because if our definition of God is that God is the universe, then everybody may say, “Yeah, sure, God exists.” If God is a being that created the universe, people are going to have different views. If God is a man in the clouds, you’ll have even more different views.

So it’s really important for a lot of these things. God, belief, religion, faith, soul, mind, brain, all of these things are things that we need to try and determine and define, at least within the context of whatever conversation we’re having. Even though another point that I try to make in my work is that whatever definitions we have today are most likely going to be dynamic and changeable and are going to evolve as our information changes, as our scholarship changes, as our research data grows, and we going to have to realize that none of these concepts are really very static.

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Hi everybody. Steve Volk here again, guest hosting for Alex Tsakiris on Skeptiko, where my guest today is none other than Dr. Andrew Newberg. A veteran of many years at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Newberg continues on there as a professor but has added a position as Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital here in Philadelphia.

He is a radiologist by training but what he’s famous for and what drew my attention to him in my research for Fringe-ology is his work as a neurotheologist with his co-researcher, Mark Robert Waldman. No doubt Dr. Newberg will share with us his definition of neurotheology, but in simple, practical terms. Neurotheology is the study of the relationship between spiritual experience and the brain.

Newberg’s research in this territory has produced several books, including Why God Won’t Go Away and two with Waldman, Born to Believe and How God Changes Your Brain, but his latest solo work is Principles of Neurotheology, in which he attempts to lay a proper foundation for this new field of science.

Dr. Newberg is here to take a nuanced position. He will not tell us that God is in Heaven and everything is all right with the world but he will also not be telling us that all spiritual experience reduces down to brain function and there is no God. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that feels to me like a cool, refreshing, and rational breeze because sometimes it seems in media portrayals that Fundamentalist belief and Fundamentalist non-belief are the only two choices available to us.

So let’s get started and find out just what position Andrew Newberg is advocating. Dr. Newberg, welcome to Skeptiko.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Thanks for having me on your program.

Steve Volk: So look, let’s get right to it. Skeptiko focuses on interviews with leading researchers and skeptics on paranormal topics. As we know, all paranormal topics end up getting tied up in a discourse with thoughts about God. These days it seems, maybe more than ever, a lot of skeptics are very vocal about linking all paranormal and supernatural beliefs with negative effects on society and the individual.

Your research seems to directly contradict that position. You’ve found that thinking about God, that belief in God, can have some highly positive effects on our brains. So please, if we can just start here and tell us a little bit about the mechanics of how you’ve studied this and generally what you’ve found?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Well, the research that we’ve been doing over the past two decades has really been to focus on brain function as it relates to a variety of different religious and spiritual practices and experiences.

We’ve used different types of imaging techniques, including single-photon emission computed tomography or SPECT imaging, positron emission tomography or PET imaging, and functional magnetic resonance or FMRI to peer into the brain and to see what exactly is going on in the brain when people engage in practices like meditation and prayer and have different kinds of experiences associated with them.

So what we’ve been able to show is a variety of different changes that go on in the brain in terms of how the emotional areas and the cognitive areas of the brain turn on or turn off when people are engaged in these particular practices. I think that with regard to the notion of your question about the benefits or the detriments of these particular practices and experiences, what our research shows and what a larger body of research shows on a clinical level is that many different aspects of religious and spiritual ideas and phenomena can be very beneficial to people.

It does depend to some degree on the exact circumstances, but most studies have shown that when people are religious or spiritual that they derive some meaning from that; they lower their levels of depression and anxiety from that; and these ultimately lower our stress levels so that people ultimately wind up doing somewhat better, at least in terms of a variety of different physical and mental health measures.

With regard to the brain studies that we do, we can see evidence that helps to support how those different practices do affect the brain and particularly how they may affect the areas of the brain that are involved in our ability to cope with different issues-to deal with stress, that have something to do with anxiety and depression, and ultimately the areas of our brain that help us to make meaning in the world and give us something to think about and look for in the future.

Steve Volk: I want to back up a step and ask what got you involved in this line of research? What was your motivation to explore a subject that most scientists, particularly when you first started this, have demonstrated not all that much interest in?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Well, I guess for me personally it’s just been kind of a lifelong pursuit trying to get to the answers of some very tough philosophical and theological questions, like some of the ones that you mentioned at the beginning of the interview. Is there a God? How do we know that there’s a God? If there is a God, what form does God take and how do we understand that?

And of course, I was always so intrigued by the fact that there are so many different religious and spiritual belief systems that all seem to have truth claims on the nature of the universe, the nature of human beings, and the nature of God. How do I make sense out of all that?

I was always asking those questions as I was growing up as a kid. As I went into my training for college and pre-medical school, I was fortunate to not only take a lot of science courses but to begin to take a lot of courses in philosophy and religious studies. They were absolutely fascinating to me, especially some of the courses on Buddhist thought and Hindu thought, which was obviously very different than anything that I had been brought up with. I’m more of a Judeo-Christian perspective.

Then when I got into medical school, again very much immersed in the whole medical school process, but after my first two years of a lot of didactic and just studying work, looking at how the body functions, I was able to take an extra year of research in which I did two different things.

One was that I had the opportunity to work with a gentleman who was a leader in the field of nuclear medicine, which is a way of studying the brain and the body but by using radioactive materials we could begin to investigate a wide variety of neurophysiological processes. We used that to study psychiatric illnesses and neurological problems and even just natural conditions of the human brain, using these imaging studies.

At the same time I had the opportunity to connect up with a gentleman named Eugene D’Aquili, who is a psychiatrist associated with Penn who had been asking a lot of these same kinds of questions since the 1970s. He and I started a collaboration back around 1991 where we were really trying to understand exactly how and why different religious and spiritual practices like meditation and light prayer could actually have an impact on us.

All of the work that Gene D’Aquili had done at that point was mostly theoretical, based on animal models and what we could know at that point with regard to how the brain works. But when I was involved in that kind of work and also doing the imaging studies, I realized that it was a wonderful way of bringing those two things together–that we could actually use the imaging studies to evaluate these religious and spiritual phenomena.

That was what really propelled this whole field of neurotheology forward in terms of trying to do our best to study these phenomena and to get a much better empirical sense of what was going on within the brain and within the body when people engaged in these practices, to help either support or refute or modify the original ideas and theories that we had been developing. So that was what led me into the whole process.

Then over the next two decades, we’ve done a number of studies looking at a broad array of different kinds of religious and spiritual practices and a variety of different traditions from Christianity to Buddhist and Hindu thought.

And of course, as you mentioned in the introduction, the Principles of Neurotheology book really tries to take on a lot of these topics more directly about how we develop our research studies; what are the methods and issues that we need to think about? And also what are the broader implications for theology and philosophy, which were some of the questions that I started out being interested in.

So that’s really the long version of how I got involved in all of this. To me it continues to be an ongoing journey of discovery and inquiry, trying to figure out exactly who we are as human beings and trying to figure out what this religious and spiritual side of ourselves seems to be. Is it good that it’s there? Is it bad that it’s there? Either way, what does it ultimately mean about us as human beings? And what does it mean about our universe that we have to live within?

So to me it’s very exciting work and it’s something that I have a great passion for. I hope we may get a little closer to some of the answers to those big questions down the road.

Steve Volk: I have to digress here for a second because as you know, of course, in research for my book I sat in on your class, and I would recommend that everybody fly to Philadelphia…[Laughter]…and sit in on as many as…

Dr. Andrew Newberg: I won’t have room in my classrooms anymore.

Steve Volk: …and sit in on that class as they can. For me as an observer it was truly an amazing experience because…

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Thank you.

Steve Volk: Yeah. You could see that the students were locked into this class in a way. I mean, it’s not so long ago that I was in college-I can still remember it, anyway. They were locked in and they were gripped by it. There were one or two faces that I saw maybe feeling a little threatened at different times but for the most part they seemed invigorated by it, excited by it, and it was really at the end kind of a transformed group, I felt like.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Yeah, I think so. I look at the class as a way of taking people on a bit of a journey. One of the things that I always appreciate the most–and I do tend to get these comments a fair amount from my students–is that I think one of the things they really appreciate is that we were able to touch on some very, very difficult issues and topics. And very personal issues and topics in a way that was safe in a way that everyone was respectful of other people’s beliefs and other people’s ideas.

Even those people who didn’t believe, those people who believed something different. That to me is a real critical part of what neurotheology is all about is this idea that we all can ask questions. There’s something in it for all of us, whether we agree with it or whether we agree with religious or spiritual beliefs or not, or specific ones or not. We all can contribute to the dialogue and we can all try to better understand what these beliefs are all about.

To me, I guess it comes back to the big question of how do we as human beings understand our reality? And we’re all in the same boat whether we’re an Atheist or a deeply devout religious individual or a Communist, Socialist, Capitalist. Whatever we are, Republican, Democrat, all of our brains are doing our best to try to make some sense out of the world.

That’s really what I think this is all about, is to try to better understand ourselves. That’s going back to the classroom. That’s part of what I really try to challenge the students with-to have them challenge their own belief systems and to have them develop a deep respect for people with other belief systems. I do hope that they come away with that.

Steve Volk: I have to say, that comes through in your class and it comes through in the new book, Principles of Neurotheology, which I guess is the first attempt anyone has made to organize this new science. You’ve clued me in here, obviously, to a little bit of what that book is about. To what degree do you feel like you’re in a position now or the field itself is in a position that it needs this foundation? It needs a book like this to herd the cats, so to speak. I realize there’s only ten people doing it but at the same time, this is a very ambitious attempt on your part to take the lead.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Well, I’m not sure if taking the lead was so much my goal as just putting together a whole bunch of thoughts that have occurred over the last two decades as to how this research might best precede the various issues and biases and problems that we all face as we do this research. I think there’s probably more than ten people doing the research, but…

Steve Volk: But didn’t you say there are five to ten?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: I was specifically thinking in terms of like the brain imaging studies and stuff. I think there’s a lot larger number of people who are just thinking about these issues and starting to write about them.

Steve Volk: I didn’t mean to imply that you printed ten copies on a printing press. [Laughs]

Dr. Andrew Newberg: [Laughs] Right, right. I’m running them off in my basement.

No, I think part of it, too for me, part of the reason for doing it was that the topic, neurotheology, the term neurotheology, is a rather problematic term. A lot of people were attributing the term to myself and I guess my late colleague, Gene D’Aquili.

I felt that even though it did not originate with me but it is something that certainly has become an important part of a lot of what I do, I felt that there was a certain obligation I guess I had to try to make a little bit more sense over what this term really means. If people were going to attribute to some degree this term to the work that I do, that at least I take some responsibility for trying to define it a little bit better and make it something that works, at least from my own perspective, that I’m more comfortable with.

Part of the interesting thing is just thinking about what the right term should be. We’ve talked about psychospirituality and neurospirituality and psychoreligion and there are a variety of different variations on that theme. I think that all of them may have a certain value. I guess in part, neurotheology just seems to be the one that’s kind of stuck a little bit, at least with regards to the mass media and maybe even within the academic world. So I’ve tried to do my best to make that work.

But as far as I’m concerned, the concept of neurotheology really works primarily if you greatly broaden both the neuro side of that and the theology side of that. So if the neuro side includes not just neuroscience but psychology and sociology and anthropology, and all of the different aspects that go into how we understand the human mind and the human brain, then I think that makes it work a little bit better.

I think if we expand the theology side and not just be theology proper, which is a very specific discipline, but to include religious and spiritual practices like meditation and prayer, different types of experiences, mystical experiences, as well as theology and philosophy itself, then I think we’ve got a field of study that is very broad and also very inclusive in trying to really understand how we work as human beings and how we engage these particular ideas and topics.

This is really what I was focusing on in the context of The Principles of Neurotheology, which is how we really think about this topic in its broadest sense and what are the issues and problems with the definitions that we use, with the methodologies that we use, and ultimately with the interpretations that we make and the implications that come out of this work to ourselves as human beings. That’s really where I hope to see this whole field go. That was ultimately my goal in putting some of these principles together, at least based on the experiences that I’ve had in doing research in this area to this point.

Steve Volk: I think I might have been projecting my own thoughts upon you, too, because the idea of you taking the lead, it doesn’t seem to be in your general makeup to do that, and yet it just seems that you are in writing this book and doing the amount of research that you’ve done.

So one of the intriguing things to me about you is that you’re one of the most often mentioned figures. Your research is among the most often referenced in the current culture wars. When people discuss science and religion, your name, your books with Mark Waldman come up, and yet I haven’t seen you in any of the debates between skeptics and believers. So when Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens show up to debate Rabbi David Wolpe or Deepak Chopra, Dr. Andrew Newberg is not there. Have you been invited to any of those debates?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: I have not yet. I’d certainly love to be. I did have some correspondence before switching my affiliation with Michael Shermer a little bit about participating. I appreciate your thoughts about having me be there. I would hope that I’d bring a little bit of a middle-of-the-road kind of approach. Maybe that’s been part of why I haven’t been included as much, because I tend to not be really fully supportive of either side and also not rejecting of either side.

Maybe I would make a good referee in the context of those debates. But I do try to be open to both sides. I think because of that I guess some of the work is accessible and usable by both sides. That may be in part why some of the work that I’ve done has become a part of both groups in terms of their ideas about the nature of these experiences and what they mean for us.

I would love to be part of those conversations. I’ve been part of a few here and there but not as much with some of the real adherence of one side or the other. I would certainly look forward to doing that at some point.

Steve Volk: I really think what you just said there speaks to one of my pet peeves, which is that whether you’re an institution that’s organizing a public debate and selling tickets to it or you’re a magazine write– which I happen to be so I don’t mean for that to be a pejorative-generally speaking, though, you’re looking for polar opposites. Conflict is what drama arises from, but it really doesn’t get us any closer to the truth and it doesn’t represent the great vast number of possibilities that exist between these polarized opposites.

So in that spirit, to open the door there-not to put you on the spot-but I’m sort of curious off-the-cuff. What do you think? They always make an opening statement at these sorts of gatherings. They take 30 seconds or a minute or whatever it might be to just give a few thoughts on the topic at hand. Do you have any idea what your opening statement would be?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: I think I would probably make a statement somewhere along the line that when we look at religion and we look at science, you’re looking at two of the most influential and powerful forces in human history. And to think that either one of them by themselves is going to answer all of the questions that we have about the world, I think ultimately is very limited in terms of our approach.

At least until we’re sure that we exclude one side or the other, we really need to embrace and look at both sides and look at both perspectives, even though they may not necessarily make full sense to us. They both have a lot of contribute and offer in terms of how we understand ourselves, how we understand the world, and how we understand our relationship to that world. Again, if we go down one path or the other, if we just go down the science side or we just go down the religious and spiritual side, we really miss some very, very important things about ourselves as people and about our world.

That’s really where I’ve been trying to come from is how do these two integrate? How do we find ways of bringing them together and bringing them together so that we really can understand? If that understanding ultimately leads us to exclude one or the other, that’s fine. But I think we really need to make sure that it’s time for us to exclude one or the other. I just don’t think we’ve gotten to that point just yet.

Steve Volk: I think another thing that’s been disappointing to me in these debates is that there’s usually a very narrow conception of God that’s on the table for discussion. It’s the Fundamentalist conception. For me in researching Fringe-ology, one of the most poignant things I ran across for me was your study of people’s drawings of God. I wonder if you might talk about that a little bit.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Sure. I’d second your concerns about the nature of how people define God. In fact, in The Principles of Neurotheology one of the things that I start out with is definitions and the importance of definitions and the problems with definitions. So often we say, “I believe in God,” or “I don’t believe in God,” and we assume that everybody knows what we’re talking about. Usually just the opposite is true. Oftentimes people who do feel very strongly one way or another do wind up with a very limited view about God.

Now, what you were talking about is research where we actually asked people to draw an image of God. A picture of God based on whatever it was that was their conception of God. It was very interesting. We had hundreds of drawings that we go and people from a variety of different religious and spiritual traditions-actually a fairly good representative, at least of the American population.

And it was very interesting how people drew God. This is actually a very important issue because when Sam Harris talks about God or a deeply devout nun or a priest talks about God, there’s a certain vision or an image that they hold within their brain that they’re talking about. When we asked people to draw a picture of God, we got several general categories, I would say, of different kinds of images.

One of them, of course, is the more classic one that everybody thinks about, which is the man with the white hair and the beard in the clouds kind of thing. I would say that we certainly saw a fair number of those. But when we actually tallied it all up, it was only about 15% or 20% of people who drew that kind of an image.

Many people-I would say about 60% to 70% of the people-drew some kind of either nature scene with mountains and stars and things like that or something very abstract, swirls and different patterns and so forth that was their representation of God. That was certainly far and away the more common and many times very complex. Even Atheists often would draw some very intricate patterns that they really referred to more as this is just kind of the universe that many people wind up calling God, for example.

We also saw a fair number of people who drew nothing. That was interesting, too, because we asked people in addition to the drawings to describe what their drawings were. We did this for everybody. And when we looked at the blank ones, we found two very dichotomous perspectives on what a blank picture of God look like.

For the religious individual, they would say, “God is just completely unknowable and undrawable so there’s nothing that I can draw. There’s nothing that I can put down that would say what God is.”

On the other hand, the Atheists who drew nothing said, “Well, there is no God, so clearly there’s nothing to draw.”

So very interesting how people envision what God is and what God means to them. And of course, this has an impact on how they think about God, how they talk about God, how they feel about God, the emotions that they have.

Clearly, when people have a vision of a man in the clouds who is looking over and guarding over them, it could be very positive that this is a father figure. It could be negative because it could be a very punishing kind of figure.

Those who have more abstract ideas about God tend to view God either as more distant or perhaps just as this kind of benevolent spiritual power or force that goes throughout the universe.

So a lot of really interesting issues come up when we just try to understand what we mean by the arguments that people are making and by the concepts and terms that they’re taking up.

Steve Volk: I’m curious. Who were the people who most often drew this-I’ll call it the Fundamentalist conception of God, although I have no idea if it was Fundamentalists who drew it or not?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: You know, it was kind of a variety of different categories. It tends to be a little bit more in the younger populations that people have a bit more of a concrete view about God. I guess that’s to some degree what we’re raised with a lot of times in the Judeo-Christian cultures. As people get older they tend to have a more abstract and kind of stylized view about what God might be. But also those people who are a bit more Fundamentalist tend to have a bit more of an anthropomorphic view about what God is. So there are certain patterns, I guess. It was difficult to really tease them out for sure in the context of the data that we had.

Steve Volk: I seem to remember reading in your book that it was young people and Atheists who often drew that.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Atheists, too, yes. A lot of times the Atheists look at God in a very anthropomorphic way, kind of mimicking the very doctrinal, Biblical kind of perspective on God. As you mentioned a few minutes ago, that sometimes is the problem in the debates between Atheists and religious individuals. Atheists have this very defined and very limited view about what God is or what they think other people think God is. Again, I think this is one of the things that’s so important in any of these debates, whether I’m in them or not, is for people to at least start out saying what they’re talking about.

If you have a religious person and an Atheist and both are arguing about the existence of God, you’ve got to figure out exactly what that means in the first place, because if our definition of God is that God is the universe, then everybody may say, “Yeah, sure, God exists.” If God is a being that created the universe, people are going to have different views. If God is a man in the clouds, you’ll have even more different views.

So it’s really important for a lot of these things. God, belief, religion, faith, soul, mind, brain, all of these things are things that we need to try and determine and define, at least within the context of whatever conversation we’re having. Even though another point that I try to make in my work is that whatever definitions we have today are most likely going to be dynamic and changeable and are going to evolve as our information changes, as our scholarship changes, as our research data grows, and we going to have to realize that none of these concepts are really very static.

Steve Volk: What touched me about that study, reading about it, was the idea that you may have this 20% of people spread across the young, some Fundamentalists, and some Atheists who are not really engaging with the idea of God in their own imaginations to come to some understanding of what a God might look like or be like.

But 80% are. It seems 80% are engaged in an active sort of relationship with the question, if that makes sense. And seeking out their own symbols and meanings for what this incomprehensible figure would look like.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Right. Well, I’ll go back to your are there ten neurotheologians in the world or are we all neurotheologians? I guess to some degree we all are. We’re all interested in these questions at some level. Hopefully all of us have at least spent some time thinking about these issues and coming to some kind of idea about them. When we think about it in the context of who we are as a person and in how our mind thinks and how we approach the world, we ultimately all need to think about these issues.

I agree, unfortunately there’s a fairly good percentage of people out there, I guess, who still really struggle to engage in those ideas and questions and challenging themselves. They’re scared or they don’t want to do it or it gives them a headache or something like that. But I think the large majority of people really do want to get some greater sense of the world and greater sense of who they are as people.

I think that’s where neurotheology may ultimately come into play. It provides people a new perspective. It helps people to look at religion and spiritual from not just purely a doctrinal perspective but from a biological one and a scientific one, a theoretical one, a philosophical one. And really try to engage it in ways that can be fascinating and really open up what people think about the nature of religion and spirituality and ultimately our own reality.

Steve Volk: One of the other hot topics in academia, the science journals, and here on Skeptiko actually, is consciousness research. There are those who think consciousness is simply an epiphenomenon or product of the brain and ultimately unimportant. Some even call it an illusion-we only think we’re thinking. Do you have a position here?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Well, I don’t know if I have a specific position in the context of what consciousness is but I guess what I would say is that I think neurotheology has something to say about the topic. Especially when you look at how specific religious and spiritual individuals who engage in practices like meditation and prayer in a very deep way can alter their consciousness or can explore their consciousness in ways that other people are not typically doing.

So to me, it is a wonderful probe, if you will, or a wonderful avenue by which we can study consciousness in a more detailed way because we can take people who are extraordinarily facile at being able to modify and alter their own state of consciousness and by studying them, by using brain scans and so forth to be able to study what’s going on in the brain, when that consciousness shifts or when consciousness is altered into a different state, then we might be able to provide some additional information, at least in the overall discussion about what the nature of consciousness is.

Whether consciousness ultimately is a biological phenomenon, an epiphenomenon, something that is imbued within us by a God or a Creator, or whether it is just the overall fundamental nature of the universe itself, I think that neurotheology may help to contribute to that because it seeks to try to understand what all those different possibilities are. Certainly there are spiritual traditions that think that the entire universe is consciousness.

That may have a great deal of impact in terms of how we try to understand what the nature of consciousness is. Maybe it’s not just a biological thing but maybe biology is derived from consciousness. On the other hand, if we’re all going to be scientists and look at consciousness as deriving from the material world, then we need to understand how that happens and how it shifts and how it changes and whether or not we have it at all in the first place, as you mentioned.

So I don’t know. Another one of those great big questions. I certainly hope that neurotheology has the ability to offer some additional and new kinds of information that by integrating the spiritual perspective on consciousness and the scientific one, that we might get to a little bit better understanding of what the nature of it is.

Steve Volk: I have to say it seems to me far more entertaining, and if I may venture out on a limb, scientifically fruitful to entertain all the possibilities of what consciousness is that you just outlined than to pick one of the positions and defend them.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: I think so. I agree. I mean, if you say that it’s just a biological epiphenomenon and then you go and do studies to try to find that, you’re probably going to do a pretty good job at finding it. But it may completely ignore a whole spiritual domain of what consciousness is and what it means to us as human beings. Therefore, you may completely miss the larger picture of what consciousness is. So I agree with you.

Steve Volk: You’re 20 years down the road now of this research. I’m curious. Do you personally feel any closer to understanding the big question:  Is there a God or is there not?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: I don’t know if I’m closer to getting to the actual answer but I think what I can more safely say is that I have a better appreciation of all the different issues that are involved with trying to get to that answer.

I think I’ve also learned an awful lot about not only myself but about people and about the nature of reality and how we are to live in that reality. I hope that ultimately we’ll have some practical implications, either for me or for the world in general. So part of the answer to the question is I don’t know if we ever really need to have the answer, although obviously it would be really nice if we did. Even if we don’t ever get to the answer, I think if we can learn to all try to get to the answer a little bit more together, then if I can be idealistic for a moment, I hope that’s what makes this world a little bit of a better place.

That we realize that we don’t just have to close ourselves off and take those oppositional perspectives and get into these heated debates without really listening to what the other side has to say. But that we actually learn from each other, can learn from our different perspectives, and try to come to some greater understanding, even if that understanding isn’t absolutely the true nature of reality. Maybe we’ll get a little bit closer to the true nature of how we understand that reality and maybe that’ll be of value to us.

Steve Volk: Maybe that’s the best we can do.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Maybe that’s the best we can do. Obviously I’m still shooting for the big one. Hopefully we’ll get there and I still hold out the hope that we will. If there’s a truth out there then theoretically we should be able to find it somehow, I would think. But of course it’s going to take a lot of effort, a lot of time, and a lot of different perspectives, I think. I just think it’s so limited when people try to get at it from only one very narrow perspective because the universe is awfully big and awfully infinite and infinite in many directions and time and everything.

For any of us to presume that in our very finite and mortal and limited way that we can get a real definitive view on that, I think we’re really making some big mistakes. I think this is hopefully where neurotheology can really contribute by saying hey, this is the nature and structure of our brain. This is the limits of what it can do, and we’d better be real careful in terms of how we begin to engage in the big questions about who we are, the nature of consciousness, the nature of spirituality, whether we have a soul or not, whether there’s a God or not, whether there’s a universe or not.

All of these questions are really just fascinating ones that hopefully everyone can enjoy pursuing and learning a little bit more about who they are. Maybe that will make us all a little bit more tolerant of each other. If that’s the least that we can do, maybe that’s a good thing.

Steve Volk: That would make for a fabulous ending, so listeners should consider this next part the epilogue, right?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Okay.

Steve Volk: Because I want people to have a take-away. I kind of use your research in this way within my own book. There is a great take-away for people here. There is truly something they can move on with to better their lives.

So if someone came to you and said, “This research sounds great. I can change the neural circuitry of my brain and enhance my experience of life in various ways. Maybe reduce the amount of fear and anxiety I experience in a given day. Maybe even increase a feeling of peace or well-being. That sounds great but this idea of meditation is a little foreign to me. I’m not sure exactly how to start.”

What’s your advice? I’m sure you’re asked that question quite a bit. What’s your advice there?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Well, unfortunately I don’t think there’s a simple answer to the question. What I usually tell people is a couple of things. One is that certainly one should try to focus their mind and focus their energies on more compassionate ways of being. If that includes meditation practices or spiritual pursuits or scientific pursuits that look to augment our positive nature and the compassionate side of who we are, then that’s going to be a very positive thing for the individual as well as society as a whole.

I think that people also need to really embrace what I like to call “the passion for inquiry.” I think we always need to challenge ourselves and to ask questions and most of the research in terms of our brain function shows that the more we engage things, the more we actively ask questions, try to find answers, talk to our friends, talk to the people who don’t always agree with us, that stimulates our brain. That makes our brain work better and work sharper.

For those people who are interested in pursuing practices like meditation or prayer, whether for secular or for religious reasons, as long as it’s consistent with their belief systems-as long as it makes sense to them and as long as it’s something that they find works for them and works for them in a positive way-then usually that’s going to be a pretty good way of thinking about things. Again, that’s excluding people who find that being destructive is the good thing for them. Something that should have a benefit for themselves as well as for society in terms of how we are as people and how we try to treat other people in an open and tolerant way.

Those are the kinds of practices and belief systems that probably make our brain feel the best, help to improve our cognitive processes, help to lessen our feelings of anxiety and depression as much as possible. So I don’t think there’s one meditation practice or one spiritual tradition that would work for everybody.

People have to explore a little bit, starting with what they know and trying to find people and ideas and teachers that would resonate well with them and help them come up with a program that really works best for them to make them feel the most comfortable, to help them contribute best to our world and our society and to help keep them questioning and trying to explore and understand the world as best as possible. That’s usually what I try to recommend to people.

Steve Volk: And you know, when you say we’re all neurotheologists, it’s funny because your advice here strikes me as almost recommending that, right? It requires a willingness to experiment. If the first thing you try doesn’t seem to be working for you…

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Then you try something else.

Steve Volk: Exactly.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: And you’re absolutely right. Maybe there’s only ten of us who are doing brain imaging but everyone can do it. Everyone can explore their own mind, their own thoughts, and their own emotions. Think about the idea of God and what is that in their mind? What does that do for them? Does it make them feel good? Does it make them feel bad? Does it make them throw up?

What are these different things doing for people and try to find the things that work for them. Try to understand why people feel differently and really try to appreciate and try to make some sense out of all of those different belief systems so that the belief systems you ultimately decide to hold are the ones that work best for you at the moment.

One really important thing is having a certain degree of flexibility to realize that the belief systems that you hold today may change and may be different tomorrow if you wind up getting some new piece of information or a new piece of data or a new discussion. So there’s a lot for all of us to learn.

Steve Volk: I just thought of a final question. Tied up in all this, in meditative practices or contemplative prayer at any rate, there’s this possibility of the ecstatic experience that has been described through the centuries. You obviously have studied that state. I’m just curious if there’s any take-away you have for people about the pursuit of that.

I know there are some people that that’s the goal for them. They want to have that kind of experience but then I read a lot of times from people who are more experienced at it that they dismiss in a sense the ecstatic experience. It’s not the important thing. It’s the day-to-day benefits you get that we’ve discussed so much. Do you have any thoughts there?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: I guess I’d say something somewhat similar. First of all, part of the problem with ecstatic experience is that you really can’t try for them. You can have them as an over-arching idea and goal but you can never control when they actually happen. So you really have to just continue to go down the path that you think works best for you. If it ultimately leads you to an experience like that, then that may be terrific and that may be great.

But to exclude all of the other things on the path along the way I think is also a mistake. That’s where, as you were alluding to, where a lot of what we can really learn about ourselves and about the world comes into play. For the meditators who are trying to get to those experiences, it’s also the meditation along the way that helps them with their anxiety and depression and meaning and all that. If they happen to have that mystical experience, then all the better. But it’s very difficult to make that the goal because people can get very frustrated if they don’t get to that goal. That would really shortchange the process of trying to get to that goal.

To me, you have to embrace the journey, irrespective of whether you get to your ultimate destination. If you do get to the destination then I guess that’s just an added benefit, an added plus. The destination may actually not be as interesting as the journey itself.

Steve Volk: I want to push you for just one second here. In the past you talked about why that ecstatic experience is particularly interesting to you as a scientist. I didn’t want to lead you there necessarily, but you’re forcing me to.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: [Laughs] Certainly those experiences are enormously powerful to people who have them. They are transformative. They are life-changing. So one can understand why it would be an interesting target for people to have. And they can be, those kind of powerful experiences, and that’s why we try to study them, because they are the most powerful experiences that people seem to have.

Steve Volk: And they tend to be similar across cultures and religions, right? There’s a similar sort of…

Dr. Andrew Newberg: There are similarities and there are differences. We ran an online survey of thousands of different experiences where people wrote in about their different experiences. What was interesting was how people described them differently. In fact, when we actually did a content analysis of the words and phrases that people used about their spiritual experiences, we found the words used most often were only used about 10% to 15% of the time. Some people experienced an energy, some people a force, some people a God, some people Jesus, and some people a power.

One of the questions that we don’t know then is whether or not each of those experiences were fundamentally different and that’s why they got described differently or were they fundamentally the same and people just did the best that they could to describe them in a way that made sense to them.

Steve Volk: I feel compelled to interrupt here because that’s a little different than when we’ve talked about it in the past. Dr. Edgar Mitchell, who’s a NASA astronaut, who had the epiphany in space actually described that at length. In the book I spent a long time with him. He says that people had this same experience but they interpret it differently. Among the NASA astronauts, in the space capsule. I have to say that hearing you saying some people said it was an energy, some people said it was a force, some people said it was God, it’s very easy for me to see how Dr. Mitchell’s position might be correct there.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Yeah, Uh-huh (Yes).

Steve Volk: People had the exact same experience; it’s just that some people see that as energy, some people call it-let’s go Star Wars for a second-it’s a force. Some people immediately see it as God. But again, it seems to be the same experience.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Certainly there are elements that are similar across the board, but we have to take the fact that they are describing it differently as whether or not there are fundamental differences in them. Maybe they are picking up on different elements of the experience that are the most important to them.

Maybe it’s part of how we asked the question. The reason I say that is that one of the things that was always interesting to me and my late colleague, Gene D-Aquili, was the realness of those experiences. Very few people in their narrative descriptions of their experiences discussed the reality of their experience, but when we asked them a specific question about it-when we said, “Did it feel real or did it feel more real,” most people, like 80% to 85% said that it felt more real than our everyday reality experiences even though that wasn’t part of the description.

So there are a lot of interesting methodological issues that come about in terms of trying to tease out what the nature of these experiences are. Are they really the same? If we said, “Did you see this, did you see that,” and really go through a whole checklist, that we get to some sort of core components that make up these experiences or are people really feeling different things? Is somebody seeing a light and somebody doesn’t see a light? Is there a difference in the experience if somebody sees a light versus somebody who doesn’t see a light? If somebody hears music is that different from somebody who doesn’t hear music?

So there are elements that may be very disparate and then certainly there are elements that are the same. Of course, of the elements that are the same, the realness of the experience, the sense of oneness and connectedness and unity that occurs in the experience, these do seem to be some very common elements across the board. But people do have a pension for describing them very differently. The onus is on us as neurotheologians, I think, to continue to explore which answer is really correct about those experiences.

Steve Volk: And the unanswered question you’ll be left with is the data they’re taking in when they reach that state, the information they’re taking in accurate or no?

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Of course. Going back to your questions about consciousness, we don’t really even understand what the nature of that state is. Is it outside of consciousness? Is it within consciousness? Clearly it is not the usual state of the brain so your question is well taken.

We don’t even know if people are-most of the descriptions that you get of these experiences occur after the fact. So what are they feeling in the moment of the experience? The problem, of course, is that’s a hard thing to get to unless you’ve actually had the experience yourself.

A lot of great questions, a lot of real big things for us to think about into the future. I’ll hopefully have at least another 20 years of good work to do.

Steve Volk: Well, we hope you have at least 20 years, Dr. Andrew Newberg. Thank you so much for appearing on Skeptiko and actually for taking on what you’ve taken on. I do think you’re a refreshing voice in the media landscape these days.

Dr. Andrew Newberg: Well thank you very much. Appreciate it.