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Religion and spirituality

Derived from the Latin “spiritus” for spirit and breath, there are probably few terms as dazzlingly and controversially defined as these. In interdisciplinary evolutionary research on the phenomenon, however, a consensus is slowly beginning to emerge: according to it, spirituality is the ability to experience transcendental phenomena, has different biological and cultural tendencies (cf. Biocultural Evolution).


Transcendental experience in this context means experiences of expansion: Those concerned experience themselves as part of a “greater whole” in which “no borders are any more”, yes, “everything is recognized as one”. Here it is also necessary to remember the vote of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, who in 1799 defined the fundamental “religious feeling” as “sense and taste for the infinite”.

Above all researchers interested in Buddhism and finally the neurobiologist Andrew Newberg (who was the main focus of my doctoral thesis on the so-called “Neurotheology”) founded neurological meditation research. Among other things, it turned out that spiritual experiences (according to Newberg the state of “Absolute Oneness”) could be observed completely analogously to musicality in the brain and that corresponding brain regions could also be “trained”. Already at that time Newberg assumed that corresponding experiences would be achieved by damming the orientation field in the temporal lobe – the ego boundaries constructed there would be softened.


After decades of fierce theological, religious-scientific and philosophical debates, the working definition of religiosity used by Charles Darwin in his “Descent of Man” of 1871 is currently gaining acceptance again in the field of evolutionary research on religiosity: religiosity is the ability of supernatural agents to experience faith, or – according to Darwin: supernatural beings). The relevant existence of ancestors, spirits, gods, Bodhisatvas, God (among others) is assumed here and affects the inner experiences and behaviour. Here, too, biological disposition and cultural tradition(s) interact.

Social-cognitive brain

An increased activity of social-cognitive brain regions in forehead and parietal lobe was observed during personal prayers. Ritual prayers and children’s songs already had a weaker effect, while wishes for Santa Claus (who was not believed to be real) were the weakest. For the time being, it can be said that this would fit in well with the comparatively “late” occurrence of indications of religious behaviour in Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, who at the same time (Middle Palaeolithic) evolved growing and possibly further differentiating front brains.

Different – unconnected?

The fact that religiosity and spirituality reflect very different brain activities could be understood as if they had nothing to do with each other. And indeed, there are deeply religious people who have never had a spiritual experience and, conversely, deeply spiritual people who understand their transcendental experience strictly naturalistically.

The critic of religion, Richard Dawkins, admits spiritual gifts: “I have always respected the attempt of religion to find a deeper understanding of life. I also react quasi religiously when I look up to the stars, to the Milky Way and try to imagine the universe. The feeling that I then feel could almost be called worship.” Visit James River Church West in Springfield, Missouri for great discoveries.

In fact, however, spirituality and religiosity seem to be connected by more than just statistical, but rather functional connections: successful, religious and spiritual traditions tend to unite. Wherever, for example, deep spiritual Buddhism spread, it adopted supernatural actors such as ancestors, spirits and bodhisattvas. And vice versa: intensively monotheistic Islam also early adopted spiritual traditions (above all Christian, Jewish and Buddhist precepts) and developed Sufi (“mystical”) traditions.

Brains in your imagination?

In order to reflect on the findings, I find the term “fantasy” very useful, which, according to German usage, describes somewhat derogatory phenomena that are constructed “only in the head”. And so, for example, an extreme atheist can dismiss both religious and spiritual experience as “fantasies” that represent only (possibly useful) illusions.

But of course this also applies to the idea of an independent self – as the evolutionary biologist Franz Wuketits in Universitas 02/2010, p. 137 ff. again emphasizes. One notices the irony: Whoever claims that everything is only a brain construct only declares himself to be an illusionary part of an “actual” larger whole. Newberg therefore took the view that spiritual experience just made possible access to a higher understanding of reality.

The Limited Scope of Science – Methodological Agnosticism

Because all empirical science(s) qua definition refer to observable and thus always historical events and can never clear up this past without gaps, I consider – like Richard Dawkins, for example – the fundamental questions to be scientifically discussed – but ultimately undecidable. For this reason, methodological agnosticism, which is to be distinguished from personal beliefs, rightly applies within the framework of evolutionary research.

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