Back in 2003, renowned British atheist Richard Dawkins travelled to Sudbury, Ontario in search of God.
Well, sort of. Dawkins’s pilgrimage was made to a neuroscience laboratory at Laurentian University to try on Dr. Michael Persinger’s famous “God Helmet.”
If you’ve never heard of the “God Helmet,” you must not be a fan of pop psychology or dumbed-down neuroscience (and if that’s the case, good for you!).
Basically, Persinger’s device is a snowmobile helmet with solenoid electromagnetic coils positioned so as to stimulate the temporal lobes of the wearer’s brain.
The temporal lobes are located, one on each side of the head, just above the ears. Neuroscientists have discovered that stimulation of these areas of the cerebral cortex can replicate the experience of “mystical union” with God.
At any rate, when Persinger’s research subjects reported “mystical experiences and altered states” while wearing the God Helmet, the obscure professor from Sudbury became something of an overnight celebrity.
Apparently, most people who don Persinger’s electromagnetic snowmobile helmet perceive a “sensed presence”—often interpreted as “angels,” or a deceased person known to the subject, or entities of some other kind. There have also been reports in which subjects have experienced what they perceive as “God.” Persinger claims that “at least” 80 percent of his participants detect a “presence” beside them in the room, and about one percent report an experience of “God.”
It didn’t take long before the God Helmet attracted the attention of the popular media, and Persinger’s research has been the subject of several documentaries. One of the better-known of these is the BBC Horizon episode “God on the Brain” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0N_2ULj_LL0).
Here’s where Richard Dawkins comes in. Hoping for a religious experience of some kind, Dawkins agreed to allow Horizon to film his own session with the God Helmet. For 40 minutes, the acclaimed scientist had his temporal lobes stimulated by weak magnetic fields.
And after 40 minutes? Well … nothing!
Other than feeling “strange” and “slightly dizzy,” Dawkins sensed no unusual phenomena of any kind, and described himself as “very disappointed.” He said he had really wanted to experience personally what mystics and other religious persons say they do.
“It pretty much felt as though I was in total darkness,” he said, “with a helmet on my head and pleasantly relaxed.”
Persinger, however, had an explanation for Dawkins’ limited results: he was “well below average” in temporal-lobe sensitivity to magnetic fields. As he told Horizon:
We developed a questionnaire a few years ago called temporal lobe sensitivity and what we found is a continuum of sensitivities from people who are not temporal-lobe sensitive to those who are very sensitive, and the experience end being the temporal-lobe epileptic. In the case of Dr. Dawkins his temporal-lobe sensitivity is much, much lower than most people we run, than the average person, much, much lower. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/godonbraintrans.shtml)
In other words, Richard Dawkins’s brain wasn’t sensitive enough to respond to electromagnetic stimulation!
This got me thinking. Persinger and others have theorized that, since stimulation of the temporal lobes can often elicit a mystical experience, the evidence suggests that mystical or religious experiences in general can be explained away as products of abnormal temporal lobe activity.
Or can they?
We know that visual hallucinations can be produced by certain types of drugs. However, this does not mean that all visual perceptions are hallucinatory. The mere fact that I can see you does not mean you’re not really there!
Whatever effects psychedelics might have upon my brain, my eyes remain the physical organs which mediate my sense of sight. If I had been born blind, I wouldn’t expect to have visual perceptions of any sort—hallucinatory or otherwise.
I wonder: what if the temporal lobes are the physical organs which mediate our sense of the divine? After some 15 years of his own intensive research paediatrician Melvin Morse concluded that “the right temporal lobe [is] the place where man interfaces with God.” *
What if the temporal lobes—right or left or both together—are the sensory pathways through which God communicates with us? If they are, then— being physical organs—they might indeed be susceptible to artificial influences. The God Helmet might very well be able to produce some kind of divine hallucination—but that doesn’t mean that our brains cannot perceive authentic spiritual experiences when they do occur.
Perhaps—when we go deep into prayer and meditation—God uses our temporal lobes to respond to us. Perhaps the temporal lobes are “spiritual eyes” through which we truly can, sometimes, catch glimpses of heaven. And perhaps some of us have more acute spiritual vision than do some others of us.
And perhaps some of us are entirely spiritually blind. What if certain people simply lack the physical equipment required to apprehend the presence of God?
Wow! Talk about a handicap! Does Richard Dawkins have a physical disability which precludes him ever having direct spiritual experience? Is he simply unable to have the sort of “God encounter” available to others? If that’s the case … no wonder he’s an atheist!
However—and this is disturbing—if it’s really true that some of us lack the mental capacity for divine/human communication … Well, that points to a predestination of sorts, doesn’t it? What if—just as one born blind cannot fully appreciate great works of art, or as one born deaf will never hear music—the person born with insensitive temporal lobes will never have a direct experience of God?
A child born without legs is unlikely to ever play for the NHL. One born with severe intellectual deficiencies will never become an astrophysicist. What about the person whose brain is missing the components necessary for spiritual perception? Can such an individual ever come to faith? That must be almost impossibly difficult.
Almost. But in the words of the risen Christ—spoken to Thomas the doubter—we find hope even for such as these: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (JOHN 20:29).
* Melvin Morse, M.D., Where God Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 1.