The “God spot”
Does it prove that God is all in our heads?
Published: 17 August 2010 (GMT+10)
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.
Great article. Research like this guess can confuse some when you only hear the atheist interpretation and look at it broadly. However this article shows well that when you consider all the facts it is no real suprise and doesn’t conflict with our faith at all.
When you think about it, it seems obvious that our emotional response to spiritual/religious experience must originate from us.
Also, & I trust this doesn’t offend, but I seem to recall an experiment where stimulation of some region of the brain causing sexual excitement/orgasm,anyone conluding that sexual intercourse must be a myth would surely be universally ridiculed as a lunatic!
I couldn’t agree more Ian. I thought the experiment that demonstrated our ability to manipulate the part of the brain for that purpose was an excellent example that elaborates on the point from Antony Flew’s book made in this article. I truly enjoy accessing this website to glean so much from God’s creation which is equipping me the more for evangelism. Your crowns are indeed growing in their brilliance in heaven.
This article certainly reveals the logical fallacies underlying these claims. In regard to the issue of Moses at Sinai (as well as many other Biblical events), there were approximately 2 million Israelites witnessing and experiencing the presence of God. To equate this with incidental neural activity is to say that people can mass hallucinate the same vision at the same time which is really quite absurd. Evidently there must be some external and objective cause for multiple people to share an experience like that.
Maybe I’m not well informed, but if you say to me that the place you experience feelings/emotions is in the brain then you are just stating the obvious!
Congrats to these scientists who are able to mimic/reproduce these feelings. But isn’t that all it is? Just a reproduction of a feeling. Everybody knows that the mind can be manipulated: drug abuse, hypnosis “God helmet”.
My experience of love for my wife is in my mind, I guess therefore I don’t really love her. My experience of her voice, her smell, her touch, everything is “neurons in my mind”, I guess therefore my wife doesn’t really exists (It’s like the Matrix movie)
This article certainly helped me distinguish between truth and wishful thinking. The logic of understanding a transmitter when its designed purpose is known compared with hypothesizing its purpose and utility is very compelling.
Excellent rebuttal! Great discussion topic for our Sunday school class. Thankyou for producing this material and giving us the tools to help us explain the Biblical truths to young minds.
Thank you for this great article. You put into such clear words the feelings we have instinctively in response to this atheistic nonsense, but I feel so frustrated at not being able to cogently argue it like you have. I am so glad the Lord has given some of His people such clever minds who are able to address these ‘clever devils’ so effectively. Blessings to you.
Not only did I enjoy the article itself but I equally enjoyed the other comments that expanded on the concepts of emotional responses. If Moses’ (and Israels’) experiences were only an illusion then how did their illusion open the Red Sea and drown Pharaoh’s army? How did the walls of Jerico fall at the exact moment the Israelites blew their horns? How did the sun stop in the sky when Joshua asked it to? Of course, these questions are exactly why the atheists have been rewriting the history books and force feeding our children with the ‘new histories’!
Good point! Some misfiring synapses could theoretically explain visions that were nothing more than visions, but it doesn’t make sense of manifestations of God’s power that actually affect the physical world like those you pointed out.
The point is whether chicken is first or egg is first. Non-Christians might want to claim that the ‘God Spot’ could induce religious ecstatic experience. But the spot could be developed by having a lot of religious exercise such as prayer or deeper experience using spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues or prophecy and so on. If that region of our brain might be connected to the religious activities and is meant to be developed by the result of the activities, those religious people would end up having the particularly differentiated spot which is called ‘God Spot’. The issue is how we interpret it. I would rather think the scientific observation of God Spot may prove God’s wonderful creation where our mind is closely connected to our body. It reminds me of this verse. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-His eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
Actually, the case is even stronger than that. We know that the brain is extremely ‘plastic’, so that a person’s own habits can form the basis for some brain ‘wiring’. For example, I have played musical instruments all my life, meaning that my brain devotes a lot more space to certain types of hearing and coordination than someone who has never touched an instrument. A blind person uses the visual cortex to interpret other sensory stimuli (e.g. Braille reading), and a deaf person processes sign language in the area where hearing people process spoken language. See for example The brain—brainier than believed before. So someone who spends a lot of time in meditation and religious activity, like monks or nuns or priests, etc, or even someone who spends a lot of time in prayer, might have a very developed ‘God spot’, but that wouldn’t explain where the God spot came from in the first place. In an evolutionary view, it is really quite difficult to explain why a part of the brain which encourages a false (in the atheists’ minds) view of reality would be beneficial for the organism. I would, of course, argue that it was designed by the Creator so that He could communicate with us.