IBCSR director gaining recognition for religion and science work
- Published on 15 February 2011
- Written by Connor Wood
- Hits: 1715
Religion and science is a hot topic in the media these days, and scholars who work in the field sometimes find themselves the object of attention for journalists and reporters. Dr. Patrick McNamara, one of the Founding Directors of the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion, has been experiencing exactly these in recent months. As his book The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (2009) has gained the attention of readers and reviewers, more people have come to think about the connection between religion, evolution, and the brain. Several recent interviews have highlighted this interest in Dr. McNamara's work.In January, the group blog Religion in American History featured an interview with Dr. McNamara by Randall Stephens, a professor of American religious history at Eastern Nazarene College outside Boston. The interview, which can be found here, focuses on Dr. McNamara's interest in developing a rigorous science of religion, incorporating research and data from anthropology, neuroscience, history, and religious studies. Among the topics covered are the tendency of scientists to dismiss theology and the humanities as being "soft" or even frivolous disciplines, along with the reverse tendency for the religiously inclined to denigrate science as too reductionistic or two-dimensional. The conversation also touches on the difficulty of explaining – or even understanding – consciousness, as well as Dr. McNamara's ongoing interest in ecstatic religious experiences and entheogenic (ritual psychedelic) spiritual rituals.
More recently, the Boston Globe interviewed Dr. McNamara regarding his opinions about the relationship between religion and science, the neurological bases for religious experience, and the evolutionary role of religion. Dr. McNamara, acknowledging that religious experience is rooted in the brain, suggests that religiosity is linked with the most complex structures within the brain and that it almost certainly has had adaptive functions throughout human evolutionary history. The conversation also briefly touches on his work with Parkinson's disease patients at the Boston University School of Medicine, where he and colleagues found that PD patients' levels of religiosity differ depending on which side of the body they first experience onset of the disease.
Patrick McNamara's hope, expressed in both these recent interviews, is for a new, more highly nuanced scholarship of religion to emerge, one that takes seriously the insights gained from science without attempting to "explain away" religion. At the same time, the perspectives of the humanities and theological disciplines will, according to him, offer genuinely useful tools for understanding religion as not only a biological or evolutionary phenomenon, but as a uniquely human one.
See the video interviews archived at IBCSR.org here.