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Thread: Evolutionary Neurotheology and the Varieties of Religious Experience

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    Evolutionary Neurotheology and the Varieties of Religious Experience

    Evolutionary Neurotheology
    and the Varieties of Religious Experience
    (Extended Version)*

    Bruce MacLennan
    University of Tennessee, Knoxville

    My goal is to outline an evolutionary neuropsychological foundation for spiritual and religious experiences. Central to this account are concepts from archetypal psychology, which, on the one hand, explain the structure of common religious experiences, but, on the other, are grounded in ethology and evolutionary biology. From this it follows that certain religious phenomena are objective, in that they are empirical, stable, and public. As a consequence, certain theological claims can be objectively confirmed or refuted. However, it would be a mistake to assume that this approach reduces religious experiences to the “merely psychological” or considers them inessential epiphenomena in a materialist universe. On the contrary, I will show that it demonstrates the compatibility and even inevitability of transcendental religious experience—and its crucial importance—to biological beings such as ourselves. (Along the way I will advance some concrete hypotheses about the possible role of specific brain systems in religious experience.)

    I. Overview
    How can we achieve a unified understanding of the universe, which comprehends the physical, psychical, and spiritual dimensions of reality? In this chapter I will argue that the archetypes, as described in the psychological theories of Jung and his followers, provide the crucial link between the material and spiritual worlds: on the one hand, they are grounded in evolutionary neuropsychology; on the other, they are the objective constituents of the spiritual world. This might seem to reduce the spiritual realm to the “merely psychological,” or even to neural epiphenomena, but I will argue that this is a misinterpretation of the theory, and that the gods (or God) are objectively real and crucially important for meaningful human life.
    An additional part of my goal is to show that science does not imply atheism, for certain theological propositions are consistent with, and indeed implied by, contemporary science. I also hope to show that the religious believer should not feel threatened by evolutionary theory, for it in fact implies the reality of a spiritual realm.
    In brief, I will proceed as follows. In the next section I will review the main ideas of archetypal psychology, but emphasizing their evolutionary basis (drawing upon Stevens, 1982, 1993). Section III explores the religious implications of the archetypes in the context of their material embodiment. In the final section I will review possible neuropsychological bases of religious experience.
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