Religion: A Mental Construct?

Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith  -              By: Douglas Groothuis      I’m in the middle of reading Douglas Groothuis’ massive work, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011).  I aim to write a review of it at some point next week (DV), but for now I want to say that I’m very much enjoying it thus far.  Here are a few paragraphs I recently read about neuroscientists trying to root the origin of religious beliefs in the brain.  I appreciate how Groothuis interacts with this (it is a bit longer than my usual posts here, but it is worth reading!).

“In recent years a host of brain researchers have been exploring and conjecturing as to the biological basis for religious beliefs.  The basic thesis of many of these opinions is that beliefs in God or the sacred can be explained on the basis of certain functions in the brain.  That is, neuroscience gives the answer to why we have religious beliefs, and it has nothing to do with any objectively real state of affairs that we perceive or discern.  Most of these accounts presuppose materialism and so beg the question philosophically: Since we know there is no God and no sacred realm (all is material), we need to explain (and explain away) why so many have religious experiences.  Of course, this is not an argument, but a presupposition not argued for.”

“However, it is no threat to religious belief if certain brain states correlate with certain religious beliefs or experiences.  We are material as well as spiritual beings.  The mind interacts with the body, as Scripture teaches and our experience confirms.  The threat to religious belief only appears when this correlation is understood as a reduction of the spiritual to the material (see chapter 17).”

“There is another problem for this reductive view: it works as a boomerang against itself.  If religious beliefs can be explained away as illusory simply because their neurological components (physical states) are identified, we must, by the force of the same argument, explain away as illusory the belief that religious beliefs are illusory (there is no God) because they too are merely neurological states.  This kind of reduction and refutation would extend to all beliefs that can be identified with brain activity.  But this conclusion results in an epistemological nihilism that is unsupportable logically and existentially.”

“It speaks volumes to note that while millions of dollars in grant money goes to explaining the neurological basis of religion, nothing goes to explain the neurological basis of atheism or skepticism.  Apparently, atheism and skepticism are innocent until proven guilty, whereas religious beliefs are just plain guilty.”

“In conclusion, all the advances in the knowledge of the neurological workings of the brain and its relation to religious beliefs and experiences in no way refute the truth of these beliefs.  That would be the work of philosophy.  Here, as in so many other areas, naturalistic science (i.e. materialist explanation) is an unaccredited usurper of intellectual authority.”

I especially appreciated paragraphs three and four.  FYI, this excellent quote is found on page 384 of Christian Apologetics by Douglas Groothuis.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 thoughts on “Religion: A Mental Construct?”

  1. a few questions…

    what specific religious beliefs are associated with certain brain functions?

    what specific religious beliefs are not associated with certain brain functions?

    are these brain functions associated with beliefs only, or with direct experience that results in specific religious beleifs?

    the quoted text, while making a good point that the analysis begins in a presupposition of materialism, doesn’t dig far enough into analysis from a different presupposition.

    if an atheist has no specific religious beliefs, does he/she experience the same brain functions?

    who is measuring this, and how?



    1. Lamont: thanks for the questions.

      Those are the ones we should be asking as we think through this topic. I have to apologize – I don’t have the time (or energy!) to answer all those questions here, but I can point you to some further reading. First, Groothuis’ book quoted above, chapter 16, deals with this issue and others similar to it. Second, for a pro-neuroscience view, see Alper, “The God Part of the Brain.” For a pro-Christian view, see Paul Copan’s article, “Does Religion Originate in the Brain?” Those are a few starting points.

      Thanks again,


  2. ” Professing to be wise, they became fools” ( Rom. 1:22). It is amazing that, year after year, the worldling gets more and more foolish the more they think they know! Sounds like a great book, Shane. I always love your critiques.


  3. I was excited to read your long quote after your high recommendation, only to be disappointed. The logic at the end is faulty and the self-pity of study bias rather deceptive. Research on visual and auditory illusions of the brain has helped improve visual and audio effects of technology. Seeing the illusions the brain spins does not mean that all thoughts impressions are faulty. Concerning research: The Templeton Fund is hard at work funding studies to prove the “spiritual” side of things too.


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