The more we evolve, the less we need God. That’s the proposition up for debate in a recent Intelligence Squared event. And if that phrasing wasn’t enough to raise the eyebrows of Christians, the pro-God side is represented by Deepak Chopra and Anoop Kumar, who share a concept of God that seems more pantheistic than personal. Of course, no two people could represent the full range of religious beliefs, and in many other comparable debates or dialogues one or a few Christians wind up standing for all believers of all faiths. So personally, my concern is not with Chopra or Kumar, but with the binary nature of such debates. Both sides are supposedly given equal hearing, but in reality this is not a topic with just two sides. God obviously means a variety of things to people of different faiths, not all of which have even have a single God. For that matter, there are plenty of skeptics, agnostics and atheists who don’t feel that Michael Shermer speaks for them either.
I mention that contemporary debate because it reminded me of this week’s chapter from When Science and Christianity Meet, not least because Jon Roberts’ essay opens with an account of a debate from a century ago. At the center of “Psychoanalysis and American Christianity, 1900-45” is Sigmund Freud, who promoted the idea that religious beliefs were part of humanity’s childish ways and need to be put aside if we are to mature. Freud’s argument was rooted in his understanding of the human mind, how it works and how it develops. Interestingly, although it is not apparent in the proposition, the mind is central to the Intelligence Squared debate as well. Chopra and Kumar put consciousness central to their thinking about God, about the universe, about medicine, and really everything. The other debater arguing for the proposition that we are evolving beyond God was neuroscientist Heather Berlin, whose view on the question is also informed by her understanding of the human mind.
As Roberts’ notes and as both history and current conversations indicate, the intersection of neurobiology, psychology, psychiatry, and Christian thought is complex. Freud may not have looked favorably on religious belief, and so religious believers did not all look favorably on Freud and his ideas, but the study of the mind was and remains relevant to Christians. I actually wished that the history in this chapter went beyond 1945, as I was curious how some of the threads advanced. For example, psychology and counseling became quite prominent in some Christian circles and ministries, probably most notably through James Dobson and Focus on the Family. How does that late 20th century development connect to the early 20th century conversations? I’ll admit that’s an area where my knowledge of the history of science and religion is wanting.
Adding to the complexity is the evolution of language about the mind and related concepts. The Bible talks about minds, souls, and spirits, although defining and differentiating between the three is not entirely clear. The Greek terminology of the New Testament makes it challenging to separate the words from what Greek philosophers wrote about them. Those philosophers inform our understanding of the meaning of those Greek words. For that matter, in present day English there is still a variety of ways to think about minds and souls and consciousness, providing sufficient ambiguity for a wide range of interpretations of the relevant Bible passages. Again, you can get a sense of that ambiguity in the Intelligence Squared debate. Chopra and Kumar have such an expansive view of consciousness that it encompasses everything. Some may see that as powerful flexibility, while others might feel that it lacks the specificity needed to be useful.
Or maybe I’m just projecting my own uncertainty about how to talk about the mind and the brain. It makes sense to me that the mind is not fully reducible to the brain and its activity, and that mental states are causally meaningful. At the same time, it makes sense that the mind is mediated by the brain, arising from the numerous interactions of nerve cells and other biological entities, possibly as an outgrowth of sensory perception turned inward. Consciousness seems like an important and meaningful phenomenon, and unconscious emotional reactions and cognitive biases also seem crucial to fully understanding how we arrive at certain conclusions. Treating mental health concerns medically and pharmacologically has benefits, and improving mental health can improve physical health also, although there is also a need for psychological solutions to psychological challenges and physical solutions to physical ailments. I think, but am not certain, all of those ideas might put me closer to Berlin’s perspective than Chopra’s or Kumar’s, yet at the same time I retain a belief in God. Even if there is some neurological basis or even bias pointing me toward such a belief, the specifics of Christian theology and history are still counterintuitive and contrary to my impulses in a way to suggest that they aren’t purely the path of least neurological resistance.
Since I’m uncertain, I’d love to hear from you. How do you think about minds? How do you interpret what the Bible says on the topic? How do you interact with current neuroscience and psychology? How do you interact with the idea that consciousness is the fundamental element of the universe? Chime in below with your thoughts.
We’re going to have one more video chat to wrap up our discussion of this book. I hope you can join us in two weeks on 4/25 at 7:30pm Eastern.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichÃ©d notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.