Bioethics Blogs

The Ambiguity of "Neurotheology" and its Developing Purpose

by Shaunesse’ Jacobs

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics. Shaunesse’ is a dual masters student in Theological Studies and Bioethics at Emory and her research interests lie in end-of-life care and religious practices surrounding death and dying.

Are religion and spirituality authentic belief systems that have thrived for millennia because of their truth? Or are they simply constructs of the brain to help humanity cope with the unknown? With the advancement of science, can religion and science work together to understand humanity? What do religion and science have to say collectively that has not been said individually? These questions continue to be asked with each scientific advancement, and even more so now that neurotheology is beginning to develop as a sub-discipline of neuroscience. Neurotheology is generally classified as a branch of neuroscience seeking to understand how religious experience functions within the brain. The field has recently taken off and continues to grow thanks to the research of Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, but its aims were first pursued by James Ashbrook.
For Ashbrook, the goal of neurotheology is to question “and explore theology from a neurological perspective, thus helping us to understand the human urge for religion and religious myths.” These definitions seem very similar, but one implies that neurotheology is subordinate to theology and the other presents neurotheology as subordinate to neuroscience. This ambiguity becomes more muddled by Newberg in his work Principles of Neurotheology, where he supports the notion that competing and open-ended definitions for terms such as “religion,” “theology,” “spirituality,” and “neuroscience” are acceptable.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.