Neuroscientists Must Not be Afraid to Study Religion

Patrick McNamara et al in Nature: Around 85% of the global population identifies as religious. Decades of work in the social sciences have found that religious or spiritual beliefs and practices can improve people’s health and well-being; increase social cohesion, empathy and altruistic behaviour; and protect people against cognitive decline or substance abuse1. But also, throughout history, religion and spirituality have amplified conflict, polarization and oppression24.

Despite the manifest importance of faith as an influencer of human behaviour, neuroscientists have tended to steer clear of studying how people’s beliefs affect their brains and vice versa. This includes investigation of the effects of beliefs in supernatural agents or miracles, practices around worship or prayer and participation in rituals. Such avoidance probably stems in part from centuries of powerful religious institutions resisting scrutiny and interrogation. But researchers and funders are also fearful that any investigation of religiosity or spirituality could be seen either as promoting a particular religion, or as flat-out unscientific.

In 2021, researchers at the Public Health, Religion, and Spirituality Network searched the records of more than 2.5 million project proposals submitted to the US National Institutes of Health since 1985. They noted that spirituality-related terms appeared in only 0.05% of abstracts and 0.006% of titles, whereas religion-related words appeared in 0.09% of abstracts and 0.009% of titles (see go.nature.com/3jtez5q).

To better understand the human brain — as well as religiosity and spirituality and their effects on human life — this needs to change. We call on scholars from diverse disciplines to help establish a rigorous field: the neuroscience of religion. Our goal is not to debunk or promote religion or spirituality, but to understand the neural mechanisms underlying their effects.

What’s known

Over the past century, but especially during the past two decades, researchers in anthropology, psychology, religious studies and other fields have investigated and defined the diverse beliefs, behaviours and social systems associated with religious and spiritual practices around the globe. In the late 1960s, for instance, the US anthropologist George Murdock documented rituals directed at supernatural agents, or beliefs in magical powers or supernatural agents in 168 cultures5. Such works provide knowledge and tools for neuroscientists.

Take, for example, the challenge of defining a particular belief or practice as being religious or spiritual. Psychologists have been using the Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ) for around 55 years. Updated in 20126, it was originally developed in 1969 by the US psychiatrist Walter Pahnke, who used a classification of mystical experiences derived from thousands of religious narratives mainly collected between 1900 and 1950. Using the MEQ, researchers note whether self-reports of an experience mention a positive mood or ‘blissful state’; inner peace or connectedness with others or with nature; a transformed sense of self; and so on. Each factor is scored according to certain criteria. Experiences with a high score are deemed religious or spiritual.

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