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The Neuroscientist and the Theologian

Unique collaboration draws new insight into science and religion

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Wesley Wildman (left), and Patrick McNamara. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky and Vernon Doucette

Neuroscientist Patrick McNamara became interested in the scientific study of religion when he was working with Parkinson’s patients in the 1990s. In his earlier work with people with Alzheimer’s, McNamara, director of the School of Medicine’s Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory, had seen religion bring solace in the face of a devastating neurological condition. But his Parkinson’s patients rarely relied on their faith to cope with their disease.  Before their illness struck, these patients were no less religious than other people. Why, he asked, were they less religious after they were afflicted?

The question led McNamara, a MED associate professor of neurology and psychiatry, into the nascent community of researchers using science to study religion. He soon joined forces with Wesley Wildman, a philosopher and theologian for whom considering religion through the lens of science comes naturally. A School of Theology associate professor of philosophy, theology, and ethics, Wildman trained as a mathematician and physicist before becoming a scholar of religion, and he has continued to study and write about the intersection of the two fields.

“For me it’s just a habit to think about everything together at once,” he says. “If you have an insight into religion that comes from evolutionary theory, why not think it right alongside of the thoughts you have that come from the humanities or from reading beautiful poetry? It’s quite common for people to think there’s a sharp conflict, but when you put people who are experts in these fields together, the research is transformed, allowing for precision of understanding and for breadth and richness and depth of understanding as well.”

McNamara and Wildman first worked together as research collaborators and then, in 2007, as cofounders of the independent nonprofit Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion (IBCSR).

As befits a collaboration between a neuroscientist and a theologian, the institute’s mission includes both supporting the scientific study of religion and exploring the ramifications of that research through several outreach initiatives, including its website. Beginning next year, McNamara and Wildman will introduce the field’s first scientific journal, Religion, Brain, and Behavior, which they will co-edit with the University of Connecticut anthropologist Richard Sosis.

“Biological approaches—including genetics, neuroscience, the cognitive sciences, and the psychological sciences—are revolutionizing our understanding of religion,” McNamara says. “The institute is unique for trying to grapple with the wider implications of what science is telling us about religion.”

Those implications range from ethical and philosophical, to political and biomedical. McNamara’s research with colleagues at VA Boston Healthcare System, for example, led him to identify the area of the brain activated when people think or talk about religion. The finding has ontological implications in that it supports the theory that religion has an evolutionary history. It also has clinical import: knowing the brain circuitry involved in religious cognition could lead to more targeted treatments for people who suffer from certain psychoses.

In another project, Wildman and McNamara are working with researchers from Harvard University to seek quantitative answers to such questions as: What makes a religious group turn violent?

“We’re committed to high-level research, and we’re committed to the generous understanding of anything that’s as intricate and beautiful as religion,” says Wildman. “We’re also committed to the critique of anything that’s as dangerous and large as religion.”

Utilizing methods from evolutionary biology, they are studying Anabaptist sects of the European Reformation and modern Sunni Islamic groups of northeastern Afghanistan to try to identify the characteristics of a religious group that might lead it to violence. Eventually, they hope, their findings will provide policymakers with the intervention tools they need to prevent future bloodshed.

The two researchers hope in the coming years to expand the involvement of their Boston University colleagues—behavioral economists, historians, anthropologists, religious scholars, art historians and artists themselves, and specialists in any number of other areas—in the IBCSR’s work.

“It’s when you put these disparate subjects together that you get, I think, the deepest insights into the way religion works,” says Wildman, who also directs an interdisciplinary graduate program in religion and science within BU’s division of religious and theological studies. “To be evolutionarily and biologically conditioned to respond to the universe, to the world, to your experience in a particular way is directly relevant to why you believe what you believe, what you’re willing to die for, what you’re willing to kill for, what you’re willing to save.” 

This story originally appeared in the 2010 issue of Research magazine,


3 Comments on The Neuroscientist and the Theologian

  • Anonymous on 01.10.2011 at 6:58 am

    Sure, belief in a religion will effect a person as much as any all-encompassing belief would. If you’re going to study something, study the psychological conditioning that is required for the human mind to begin believing in a religion, for that surely is not its natural state.

  • Wayne Graefen on 01.10.2011 at 9:20 am

    Of Course!

    Of course! Man is created by God in three parts: mind, body and spirit. There is intersection of these to create the whole. Reasoning away the spiritual as a function of the molecular in evolution does not diminish the fact it is there and not quantifiable by science.
    My lady has early onset Parkinson’s now for 25 years. It is her spirituality combined with good physical health practices and proper medical community care which makes her an exemplary example of how to cope with this disease or any other.
    Please don’t minimize or attempt to explain away the importance of a very real spiritual component in mankind. God is alive, living in this PD sufferer and has made a major difference in her one day at a time.

  • Anonymous on 01.10.2011 at 9:44 am

    Not in conflict

    Many years ago a man of the cloth told me that there is no conflict between science and religion. I have consistently found this to be true. Both are researches into how the world around us works, and where we individually fit in. The apparent conflict is the result of the fact that religion also includes a study of the world within us. Science exempts itself from this study because you cannot readily display your results to someone else. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I have yet to meet anyone who can prove to my satisfaction that they dream- show me one. Is that scientific proof that dreams do not exist?
    As for what makes “religious” groups violent, the answer is that religion and spirituality are designed to unite, while politics lives by “Divide and conquer”. When politicians exploit the populations of religions, division, falsely calling itself religion, results.

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