The “God spot”
Does it prove that God is all in our heads?
The premier episode of the Science Channel’s Through the Wormhole series featured Michael Persinger, whose “God helmet” uses weak magnetic fields to stimulate the right temporal lobe to create the illusion of a presence with the person wearing it. The show claimed that everyone who wears the helmet, no matter from what religious background, has what he calls a “religious experience” when the “God helmet” stimulates their brain.
Some people argue that this proves that religious or ecstatic experiences are caused by neurons misfiring. A NPR story quotes neurologist Orrin Devinsky as saying that many neurologists suspect that religious founders were epileptics who had visual and auditory hallucinations: “Whatever happened back there in Sinai, Moses’ experience was mediated by his temporal lobe.”
This does not prove that theistic religions are false, but assumes their falsity and tries to explain them away. But does it follow that because prodding a certain place in the brain produces religious feelings, then all religion is therefore the product of the brain? At most, it suggests that religious experience can be counterfeited. To say that the “God spot” proves that God is in the brain is to confuse the medium with the messenger. To use the late philosopher and former atheist Antony Flew’s analogy, it is like people on a remote island who find a transmitter with voices coming from it, and think because they’ve figured out the workings of the transmitter, they’ve disproved the existence of the people whose voices are transmitted (see also my review of Flew’s book There Is A God as well as Brain chemistry and the fate of the personality after death).
Christianity in particular is not disproved by the God spot research; this is because Christianity is not dependent on ecstatic experience. Rather, Christianity’s core claims are about events that happened within history. For example, there are at least 17 factors that meant Christianity could not have succeeded in the ancient world, unless it were backed up with irrefutable proof of Jesus’ Resurrection in history.1 This “God Spot” claim doesn’t impact on this historical evidence in the slightest.
Also, the key event of the Atonement was something that happened objectively outside ourselves: Jesus’ sacrifice enabled our sin to be imputed (credited) to Him (Isaiah 53:6), and His perfect life enabled His righteousness to be imputed to believers in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21), so they are legally accounted as righteous. The subjective experience of believers’ sanctification, or righteousness infused into them, is predicated on this objective event of justification. Douglas Moo comments on Romans 5:
‘Paul is insisting that people were really ‘made’ sinners through Adam’s act of disobedience just as they were really ‘made righteous’ through Christ’s obedience. … To be righteous does not mean to be morally upright, but to be judged acquitted, cleared of all charges, in the heavenly judgment. Through Christ’s obedient act, people became really righteous; but ‘righteousness’ itself is a legal, not a moral, term in this context.’
And it doesn’t help atheists overcome the arguments from creation, e.g. the design in the living world and the universe as a whole.
So even if it were true that the “God spot” proved that all religious experience originated in the mind, and was solely in the mind, it would not affect the truth of Christianity’s central claims. The only real lesson from this is the danger of Christians relying on experientialism when witnessing rather than the propositional truth claims of Christianity and the evidence for them (see also Christians shaped by experiences rather than the ‘Bible first’ approach: There is danger in accepting ‘the physical reality’ of UFOs).
Furthermore, it would not even disprove the effectiveness of prayer, the importance of worship, etc. Rather, it would only mean that our feelings (but not our rational thoughts) when we pray, worship, etc., originate in our own minds. But even that’s not proven; again, that would be like saying that figuring out how a transmitter works explains away the voices that come through it. One could even argue that a Designer who wants a relationship with His creatures would build them in such a way as to be readily able to communicate with them. In the naturalistic understanding, there is no God, and this ‘God spot’ has been somehow produced by evolution. But would it not have been a distinct disadvantage to the survival of our alleged primitive ancestors for them to be predisposed to believing in ‘presences’ that were wholly imaginary?
This whole idea smacks of the genetic fallacy: the error of trying to disprove a belief by tracing it to its source, or alternatively, the fallacy of Bulverism, explained in Is Belief in God a case of Christian wish fulfillment? The “God spot” does not prove that religion is “all in our heads”; at most, it shows that a certain spot in our brain interacts with religious feeling in some way, and that religious feeling can be counterfeited in certain situations. Neither of those things should come as a surprise to Christians.