Starting to read Mike McHargue’s (Science Mike for those who listen to ‘The Liturgist’s podcast) debut book has been on my to do list for awhile. I’m quickly discovering that not only is the book an engaging read, it seems perfectly suited to our times with everyone talking about the rise of the religious ‘nones’.
A fascinating excerpt:
‘The human brain is the most intricate and mysterious arrangement of matter in the whole known universe- at least according to human brains. Your brain is 86 billion neurons and trillions of supporters called glial cells. (We know this number because a team of researchers used chemicals to dissolve brain tissue without damaging the nuclei of neural cells). Our 86 billion nerve cells create connections to one another via dendrites, which are like tiny organic wires that allow neurons to send and receive electrical signals.
These signals, along with corresponding chemical messages, are the stuff all your thoughts and feelings are made of. Every song you’ve sung, every dream you’ve had, and every conversation you’ve lost yourself in originated as a burst of electrical activity in the trillions of connections among billions of neurons in your brain…
Biologically speaking, human brains are also really ‘expensive’. Your brain can’t move, but it consumes up to 20 percent of your nutrients and 25 percent of your oxygen. This is why humans’ brains are hidden inside thick, dense skull bones. Your body is designed with the purpose of protecting and supporting its most important organ.
Ancient people believed that our heart and bowels were the seat of our thoughts and emotions, but today we understand that our thoughts and feelings originate and transpire in our brains. There is nothing that is more ‘you’ than your brain. No other organ has the capacity to shape how you perceive the world or how your inner experience unfolds…
People tend to view their minds and spirits as being distinct from their brains, but research doesn’t support that idea. If you break your arm, you don’t change much- a cast and some inconvenience usually are the extent of recovery. A heart attack is terrifying, but those who survive are shaped more by their fear and recovery than they are by the actual injury. But if you injure your brain, you change dramatically…
Henry Moliason, Phineas Gage, and Charles Whitman all are members of a long procession of unfortunate people who have shown us how important our brains are. Everything that makes you who you are happens in your brain. Your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, dreams, hopes, and fears all are held ethereally in a pattern of organic ‘wires’ and chemical bonds.
You are your brain, and your brain is you. And that means spirituality and religion are rooted in the brain in the same way that thoughts and feelings are.
Scientists know there is a part of the brain responsible for anger and another part responsible for affection. Your brain has a ‘spot’ for language and a ‘spot’ for vision, so some neuroscientists naturally wondered if the brain also had a ‘God spot’, a part of the brain that’s responsible for religious experiences. Despite several published findings, no scientific consensus has been built around the idea- there doesn’t seem to be any one part of our brain responsible for God.
Still, whatever you know about God and whatever spiritual experiences you’ve had are held in your brain. More-sophisticated brain-imaging technology has shown that people’s beliefs about God aren’t anything like a ‘spot’ it instead arise from a complex network in our brains. The more someone thinks about God, prays, or has other spiritual experiences, the more developed this network becomes.
This is why belief in God is so robust in the minds of many Christians. God is not something we believe in as much as something we feel and experience- and this is why the faithful and the skeptical find it so difficult to understand one another. In the brains of atheists, God is a noun, a noun no more real than tooth fairy or unicorn. But believers have a rich neurological network that encapsulates God through feelings and experiences that are difficult to articulate with mere language.”
So, 125 pages into Science Mike’s book and I very much recommend the read. I think this is one of the only books I have encountered that doesn’t pit believers and atheists against one another in regard to a cheap version of a cultural war but more invites an understanding and dialogue between the two camps. After all, Science Mike was a Southern Baptist turned atheist turned mystic Christian and has been on many sides of the debate himself.
You can order the book here.