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Hagerty on 'The Fingerprints of God'

altWe’ve all seen images of brain activity linked to spiritual experience, but what do the patterns of light and color in those images mean? Are they simply the record of the neural activity that generates these anomalous experiences, or are they somehow more than that? According to a new book by NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagert, neuroscientists are witnessing the “fingerprints of God” – the manifestation of a transaction or communication between the individual and divinity.

Hagerty is careful to say that the alternative, materialist explanation of regional brain activation patterns during spiritual experience is just as logical as her ‘fingerprints’ explanation. She also points out that the materialists are not as generous as she is in their interpretation of the event. For them, the regional brain activation patterns produce the experience itself instead of mediating it. Aside from containing a lucid discussion of debates between materialists and dualists and theists, this book is an engrossing tour through the major findings in the new field of the neuroscience of religious experience.

Many of the leading players in the new field are interviewed and their findings are accurately and clearly summarized. The roles of the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes receive sustained attention. We also get vivid descriptions of the personal and transformative spiritual experiences of dozens of people, and, as Hagerty points out, these sorts of experiences are simply not well understood by the cognitive scientists or neuroscientists.

Despite William James’ groundbreaking work on these experiences over a century ago, little progress has been made in really understanding them. Hagerty points out that most of the scientists who have pursued studies of religious experiences have done so without institutional or other support, despite the centrality of religion in the lives of billions of people worldwide. Remarkably, though, even in the face of opposition from established authorities in the cognitive- and neurosciences, research has really taken off and is producing a wealth of new findings.

Summaries of much of this new and exciting research can also be found here at, but it seems that neither the materialists nor the theists know quite what to make of the findings - at least not yet. Hagerty’s new book is an engaging and intelligent guide to these findings and to the debates over their meaning for the scientific study of religion.

For more information on Hagerty’s Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (Riverhead Books, 2009) see here.

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