Neurotheology 1 - Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Religion

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God on the Brain was a BBC2 TV programme on neurotheology shown last year (17-04-03) in the Horizon slot. It lined up some of the usual suspects, Ramachandran, Persinger, Dawkins, plus others, and presumably represented the latest state of play on the interface between neuroscience and religion. [1]

In the 2 parts of this article, we depart from this site's usual practice of separating comment from summary. Here, we look at the BBC programme a section at a time, commenting as we go. As we have come to expect from the BBC in recent years, God on the Brain, was dumbed down and sexed up. Some of the comment that follows identifies spin in the narration.

1 Two TLE Visionaries

The programme starts with the testimony of two people who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). In the space of the narrator's initial contribution of less than 70 words, we get 3 typically sensationalising superlatives, incorporating usual appeals to the abnormal, the exclusive and the controversial, presumably needed to dissuade the punters from switching channels:

  • TLE is one of the strangest of all brain disorders
  • It provides a unique insight into faith and the human mind
  • It prompts one of the most explosive questions of all.

Less dumbed down, the explosive question is whether the nature of our brains predisposes us to belief in God.

The two TLE sufferers, a male atheist and a female Catholic, both report religious hallucinations with Christian content. According to the narration, this is the kind of evidence that is prompting the explosive question.

Religion shapes the visions

Let's say at once that this site interprets the evidence very differently. What the two testimonies really suggest is that the content of hallucinations caused by TLE are culture specific. In other words, in these cases, religion shapes the visions rather than being shaped by them.

The reason that the two subjects had Christian visions is not that the brain is naturally Christian, but that their particular brains just happen to be culturally Christian, to some greater or lesser extent. Some brains are culturally Christian because they have developed in a culture that is to some degree Christian.

One of the two featured TLE sufferers may be an atheist, but we can conclude that, to produce a hallucination with Christian content, he must have absorbed some Christian ideas on his way through life. For example, if he went to school in England, his schooling should by law have included religious education and a daily religious assembly.

Look at it this way. Surely nobody will claim that a person with TLE born before the advent of Christianity could have had Christian hallucinations, or that anybody today can, who has never had the slightest exposure to Christianity. Consequently, the particular content of a person's TLE hallucinations must be drawn from their culture.

Erroneous claims

Once the two subjects' hallucinations have been explored a little, the narration goes back to the claim that TLE is turning out to be the key to understanding the origin of religion. It explains that:

  • divine revelation has been central to all the major religions,
  • belief systems that believers have based their lives on and have been prepared to die for have come from visions,
  • believers have been sure that such revelations were of divine origin, while atheists have dismissed them as the results of superstition and social conditioning.

We might forgive the erroneous claim that all major religions are based on divine revelation: this is true only if you define religion as being about the divine, specifically. Of course, that eliminates Buddhism, which cannot be right. Indeed, the programme itself features Buddhism later on.

Religious revelation confused with religious experience

But we cannot ignore the way revelation is made synonymous with visions. Confusion between religious revelation and religious experience turns out to be a fundamental error of the programme. For demonstrating a link between the temporal lobes of the brain and religious experiences is not the same thing as demonstrating a link between the temporal lobes and religious revelations.

The difference between a revelation and a religious experience, such as a vision, is that the former tells you something about the supernatural that you can pass on to other people, whereas the latter doesn't. Take a simple example. Seeing an angel is a religious experience, a vision, while receiving a message from an angel is a religious revelation.

You need only consider Christianity to see the problem. Its origin was certainly a matter of religious revelation, but that revelation had nothing to do with visions. Rather it came in the form of Christ's teaching and personal example. So you could prove all kinds of things about visions and still not throw any light on the origin of Christianity.

The essential point is this. Religions are based on their founders' teachings and institutions, not on their visions or other discrete religious experiences as such. To link the origins of religions with the temporal lobes of the brain, you would have to demonstrate that the teachings and institutions were associated with the lobes, never mind the visions.

The inspirational role of visions

The role of visions and the like in religions is essentially inspirational. They are taken to be signs of divine intervention, energising visionaries to commit themselves totally to what they see as God's work and persuading others to commit themselves to what the visionary has to offer: teaching and institutions, leadership, example, healing power.

What is more, none of this occurs out of the blue, but in the context of and in keeping with some existing religious tradition. Visionaries receive and interpret their own experiences in terms of a tradition and others accept them the same way. Thus, visionary phenomena among Catholics tend to be quite different from those among Protestants. You don't get Our Lady appearing to Protestants urging them to tell people to pray more or Catholic visionaries receiving divine approval to clear up some vexed point of Biblical interpretation.

Neurotheological reductionism

It is possible to see religion as essentially bound up with visions only if you understand religion in Protestant minimalist terms, as being ideally about the personal relationship between the believer and God. In this understanding, religious doctrines and associated institutions, i.e. religious organisations, rituals and practices, are seen as obstacles in the way of the essential personal relationship. See on this site Protestant Minimalism.

It is clear that neurotheology has for its own convenience adopted an exceptionally narrow and actually a specifically religious view of religion, that of Protestant minimalist, rather than any broader understanding that encompasses doctrines and institutions. Really, all it is engaged in doing is explaining something it has itself arbitrarily defined, knocking down its own Aunt Sally. We label the activity neurotheological reductionism.

Spiritual elitism

An important expression of Protestant minimalism is William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Elsewhere on this site, see Spiritual elitism, we point out that James divided believers into two groups, a small elite who have direct experience of the supernatural and a large majority who don't, whose religious life he dismisses as second-hand. He supposes that religious psychology is exclusively about the religious experience of the elite and totally ignores questions about what draws the vast majority of believers to religion and keeps them there.

Neurotheology can be seen as accepting the William James view of religion lock, stock and barrel, merely updating it a 100 years on with a bit of neuroscience. It assumes that religion can be explained by accounting for the exceptional experiences of a tiny minority of religious leaders and that what motivates the overwhelming majority of religious believers just doesn't matter.

The soul is naturally Christian

A further early claim of the narration is worth quoting for its misinformation:

What neither side [i.e. believers and atheists] has ever thought is that religion might actually be as fundamentally part of us as the desire to eat, sleep or have sex.

Passing quickly over this first of the programme's two gratuitous but presumably obligatory references to sex, let's emphasise that it is just not true that nobody till now has ever considered that we might be naturally religious. The early Church Father, Tertullian, pronounced that the soul is naturally Christian and 1700 or so years later Protestant religious theorist, Rudolf Otto, came up with an updated version of that in The Idea of the Holy (1917), where he suggested that humans have always had a capability to recognise in some way what he called the numinous. Without a doubt, lots of other religious theorists, both Christian and otherwise, have down through the ages expressed similar ideas.

2 Ellen G.White

As an example of a founder of a religion who had visions and who arguably had TLE, the BBC programme comes up with Ellen G.White, the c19th American leader of the Seventh Day Adventists. If she is the best that proponents of the TLE theory of religion can offer, then the theory must be regarded as tenuous in the extreme.

Let's start by noting that the programme began by referring to all the great faiths, but when it comes down to it, the example chosen of a religion supposedly inspired by TLE experience is an offshoot of a branch of a branch of a major religion: Seventh Day Adventism being an offshoot of Methodism, a later branch of Protestantism, itself a branch of Christianity that came after 1500 years. What was needed to justify the initial sensationalism of the programme was a demonstration that Christianity itself was based on TLE experience.

A Protestant example

It was pretty inevitable that a Protestant example was chosen. Basic Protestantism lends itself to the formation of new churches based on visionary leaders, on account of its understanding of religion as being about the personal relationship of the believer with God and its distrust of organised religion.

By contrast, Catholicism, though it has always had visionaries, does not support the argument of the programme. This is because of the Catholic emphasis on the mediation of the one true Church in the relationship between the believer and God and because of the centralised nature of the Church. In this model, visionaries do not found new churches, but rather new forms within the Church: devotional cults, such as the Pilgrimage to Lourdes that arose from the mid c19th visions of St Bernadette, or new religious orders.

How it all began

It's spin when the narrator burbles:

Locked within the archives of the church lies the story of how it all began, with the revelations of a young woman called Ellen White.

That makes it sound as if Mrs White created something brand new out of thin air, whereas what she actually did was give basic Bible Protestantism another new interpretation, with distinctive features like having Saturday as the Sabbath and stressing healthy living.

Locked within suggests that the Church is nowadays trying to keep her involvement in its early days a secret, which just does not seem to be true. You might just as well suppose that anyone who locks their front door is hiding dark secrets. In any case, Ellen White published her revelations in books etc. Perhaps the BBC is confusing Ellen White with the English female prophet, Joanna Southcott, from nearly a 100 years earlier: her box of revelations remains locked to this day, in the care of the Panacea Society.

We may note also the appeal to girl power in this media guff: a young woman called Ellen White.

A shattering diagnosis

With so much spin around, we should not be surprised when the claim that Mrs White's visions were inspired by TLE turns out to be merely speculative. The programme produces an expert professor who, at a distance of a 100 years and more, supports the claim. But one swallow doesn't make a summer: to establish reasonable probability, we would need a consensus of professors.

The narration claims regarding the professor's findings:

This is a shattering diagnosis for the Seventh Day Adventist Movement who still insist that Ellen White was divinely inspired.

But this again is a sensationalising misrepresentation. For one thing, claims that Mrs White's visions derived from the results of a childhood head injury, the cause of her alleged TLE, are nothing new: so the professor's diagnosis cannot possibly be shattering.

Divinely inspired

For another thing, to say that Seventh Day Adventists

still insist that Ellen White was divinely inspired

significantly overstates their attitude. The standard independent reference book, David V.Barrett's The New Believers: Sects, Cults and Alternative Religions (2001), the source of this page's information on White and Seventh Day Adventism, remarks:

Seventh-day Adventists attach some weight to Ellen G.White's books, but do not in any way regard them as scriptural, or even as infallible. [p 177]

The author explains that the Church regards the Bible as its ultimate authority and over time has pulled back from Mrs White's ideas into mainstream Protestantism.

100,000 pages

We may observe that the confusion noted earlier between religious revelation and religious experience continues in this section. The narration tells us that Mrs White wrote around 100,000 pages of teachings on her religious beliefs, as well as lectured, and also recorded in detail 100s of visions. Now even if it were proved beyond doubt that the visions were associated with TLE, that would still not account for the pages. It is impossible to believe that the pages came more or less verbatim from the visions at an average of at the very least a 100 pages per vision.

A final consideration regarding the Ellen White theory is this. There have been - and still are - innumerable other religious visionaries, with whom there is no suggestion whatsoever of TLE or anything comparable. For example, the female Messiah, Ann Lee, who took the Shakers from Manchester to New England in the later c18th, had powerful visions and had even been confined to an asylum for a while, but nobody argues that the visions were associated with seizures of any kind. Similarly for the slightly later Joanna Southcott.

Evan Roberts

Or take the case of the Welsh Free Church Protestant, Evan Roberts (1878 - 1954), the prophetic figure who triggered the Welsh Revival of 1904 - 1905 and who reported 21 visions. Various contemporary commentators, with various axes to grind, immediately came up with various psychological explanations, ideas of the subconscious etc being somewhat new at the time and William James's book on religious psychology, referred to above, having recently caused a stir. Roberts was even interviewed by a French psychiatrist. But despite the intense scrutiny, there appears to have been no suggestion that the visions were connected with seizures. [2]

No doubt this sort of example could be multiplied ad nauseam. So even if the BBC programme had succeeded in demonstrating conclusively that Ellen White had TLE, that would not have proved that there is any necessary link between TLE and religious visions. Statistically, any conjunction between the two in her case would look like no more than a coincidence.

Toning down its earlier sensationalism, the BBC programme concludes its section on Ellen White by conceding that the evidence is merely consistent with her having had TLE. It is, of course, typical of this style of programme to make sweeping claims initially in order to get viewers interested, only to draw back from the claims later on.

3 Moses and St Paul

To keep the audience watching, the narration now launches a new section of the programme with a Controversially. What is apparently controversial is the suggestion that other religious leaders may have suffered from TLE. This new section features Professor Ramachandran, who claims:

It's possible that many great religious leaders had temporal lobe seizures and this predisposes them to having visions, having mystical experiences.

The narration suggests St Paul, with his encounter with God on the road to Damascus, and Moses, who believed he heard God speaking to him from the burning bush. Ramachandran agrees tentatively that both cases might involve seizures: St Paul's experience sounds to the professor quite like those reported by patients; lots of Indian mystics may have had seizures predisposing them to beliefs like that of Moses, that he heard God's voice.

The truth about Moses

The narration now introduces a mild dissenter, Stephen Sykes, an Anglican bishop, who vaguely questions the evidence in these two cases: you certainly didn't get from him any sense that he was engaged in a controversy about an explosive question. The narration then concludes:

We may never learn the truth about Moses or St Paul.

That remark is actually outrageous: to make a claim that is impossible to verify, to offer speculation as evidence, then to say we may never know the truth for certain, as if there is indeed truth to be found, but we just can't get at it for now, though we may in the future. Let's be perfectly clear: unless somebody invents time travel or makes almost equally unlikely archaeological discoveries, we are never going to know more about Moses, assuming he really existed, and St Paul than we do now.

A familiar formula

There's a familiar formula being applied here. You take a subject beyond the reach of serious examination, say a person from the past about whom very little can be known for certain, and make any controversial claim you like, one calculated to make people pay attention and to promote your particular agenda. Then you admit that your claim can't actually be proved, which you knew all along.

Another religious example springs to mind, the charge that there was once a female Pope in the Vatican. This one doubtless corresponds to feminist, anti-Catholic, conspiracy-theory and other agendas.

In fact, it's possible to make any sensational allegation you like about any Biblical figure you like, offer highly speculative evidence, then admit that the case cannot be proved, adding regretfully that We may never learn the truth. No further instance is offered here, because that could be gratuitously offensive to those who believe in the Bible. Present readers can easily create their own examples by taking the claim A was really a B and filling in the blanks for themselves. [3]

Independently of all this, let's remind ourselves that neither Moses nor St Paul founded a major religion: they gave direction and added impetus to existing religions, respectively Judaism, whose first prophet had been Abraham, and Christianity, established by Christ. This means that their visions were in terms of existing religions, i.e. they were culture specific.


1 God on the Brain

16-07-11, the transcript of the programme is still available at Transcript, along with related weblinks etc. Of course, the transcript does not have the persuasive power of the actual programme, with the special voice of that particular narrator suggesting total conviction and with the rapid sequences of stock religious and scientific images giving an impression of complete authority.

Note that, for some reason, the transcript insists on spelling God with a small g. [Back to Article]

2 Evan Roberts

See Rhodri Hayward: From the Millennial Future to the Unconscious Past: The Transformation of Prophecy in Early Twentieth Century Britain in Bertrand Taithe and Tim Thornton (eds): Prophecy: The Power of Inspired Language in History 1300 - 2000 (1997). [Back to Article]

3 The Three Wise Men

A day or two after this paragraph had been written, a radio comedy show suggested that the Three Wise Man of the New Testament Nativity story could have been women. After all, they wore long robes that looked like dresses, gave perfume as gifts and - the clincher - they remembered birthdays. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2004