Andrew Newberg's
'Why God Won't Go Away'
Gilbert De Bruycker

From: "gilbert de bruycker"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Date: Tuesday, April 17, 2001 9:08 AM

Dear Sir,

I'm not used to talking or writing in English, but I'll do my best to make myself clear. Since this month, a new book: " Why God Won't Go Away" by Andrew Newberg, is available.

The author explains that our brains are biologically programmed to reach spiritual experience, to make myths and finally to believe in a God.

This is a new point of view in the defence of the existence of God. I know of no reply on this argument by the 'classic' defenders of atheism today.

It should be a great pleasure for me if you eventually could help me on my way to find an answer on this new kind of argument or reference to an article perhaps on this subject.

Sincerely Yours,

Gilbert De Bruycker
Belgium

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "gilbert de bruycker"
Subject: Re:
Date: Thursday, April 19, 2001 12:44 AM

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... like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now.
-- Alex, describing part of what it's like to listen to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, from the film A Clockwork Orange

 

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I am reading the book this week, and have already obtained permission from the author and publisher to reprint the first chapter in our print edition (April, 2001).

I consider it more of an explanation of the "God" claim than a fortification of it. I will be lauding Newberg's and d-Aquili's groundbreaking research, but will simultaneously address some of the book's problems. One of these problems is that Newberg seems to go a bit too far in trying to reassure theists that we have not, through this research, disproved the existence of God. And we haven't. But Newberg not only goes further than was necessary, I feel he went further than was proper.

I will say that I recognize the profound mystical experience he describes, because I have had a few myself -- always while an atheist and never considering it anything more than my brain doing something weird. One of these experiences was as a teenager, while on a mild dose of the drug MDA (today popularly known as "ecstasy").

I was laying on my back in the park where our community launched its Fourth of July fireworks display. In fact, I was about a hundred feet from the launch site. Also, I was with a young woman and we were, at the time, extremely close friends as well as intimate lovers, hoping even then to become life partners. As I watched the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, I entered a hypnotic state, induced both by the graceful rhythm of the rockets and explosions, the memory of all the fireworks shows I'd seen since early childhood, and my love for my country -- and enhanced by both the drug and the fact that I was madly in love with this young woman lying next to me with her head on my shoulder. My life already felt complete -- even without drugs or mystical experiences.

Soon, I felt like I'd been here many times before, like I'd been coming here since ancient times -- for as long as the moon had shone herself to those creatures who could look upon her face and recognize an old friend. Today, I can enter this state by looking the moon and contemplating just how many generations of humans and other animals have looked upon the same face of the moon: it only takes a few seconds, but I must focus my mind on the moon -- it won't happen by just glancing at the moon.

Then, suddenly, for just a brief moment, it felt as if I had touched all points in space and time simultaneously. I felt at one with all time and space, and have been describing the experience in this manner since the day it happened, long before I read Dr. Newberg's book (or any occult books, for that matter). In fact, this experience launched a decade-long quest to find out what happened to me on that night. I knew it was more than just the drugs, because I'd taken that and other drugs before and since. To this day, if I watch a fireworks show from up close, I can repeat a semblance this deep experience. In fact, for this reason I don't go to very many fireworks shows: I either fear the inevitable experience or I don't want to tarnish or degrade it -- I can't tell which.

I have never thought of it as anything but a trick of the mind, but this experience so profoundly affected me that I have been wondering about it ever since. However, I have never been quick to connect this experience with those described by the mystics, because they almost always attributed it to God or the supernatural or some other nonphysical cause. The awe that I have for it contains none of these elements.
 

Since I am a materialist, the part of the book that explains the mystical experience as a function of the brain makes a lot of sense to me. I feel this information is groundbreaking, and that this information alone will have serious implications against attaching supernatural validity to religious experience. British occultist (and probably atheist) Aleister Crowley introduced one of his books by saying,

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In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth & the Paths, of Spirits & Conjurations, of Gods, spheres, Planes & many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether they exist or not. By doing certain things, certain results follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophical validity to any of them.
-- quoted from Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger

 

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An entire school of occultism, including Crowley, Wilson, Gurdjieff, Anton Lavey, and many others, has emphasized practicing occult rituals specifically because they will bring about profound occult experiences, while simultaneously downplaying or even warning against the error of thinking that there's "really" something going on "out there." While enjoying these phenomenal occult voyages, their philosophical outlook remains indistinguishable from atheism or, at best, what Wilson calls "aggravated agnosticism." By this, he means that he has sincerely and intensely pursued answers to all the classic Eastern and Western philosophical questions -- but the more he learns, the more he realizes the less he knows. He's definitely not an "I don't know" agnostic.

Newberg's book is admittedly flawed, however, because its slated co-author, Dr. Eugene d'Aquili, died before the book was begun. Perhaps had he survived the publication of this important book, he may have been able to provide the balance that is sorely missing from the book's final chapters. For these two reasons, the profound implications of his work and the death of his senior partner, my criticism of the book will be reserved. I highly recommend it, and suspect that any student of Freethought will quickly see through the last part of the book, recognizing it for what it is: an apology, of sorts, for showing the world that the experience is a brain function and is not magical.

One explanation for the prevalence of religion that he omitted was State Religion's systematic removal from the gene pool of skeptics and freethinkers, by persecution, over the course of several millennia, for not being cowed by the official State Dogma. This left the tendency toward credulity (the serf mentality) to dominate. This angle, detailed in chapter 4 of Victor Sternger's Physics and Psychics, neatly fills in the gap left by Newberg's argument.

Newberg says, on the one hand, that the capacity for mystical experience explains, in part, humankind's strong tendency toward faith. But at the same time he admits that hardly anybody has the profound mystical experiences described in his book! Most of us take smaller steps in that direction, but hardly anybody goes all the way into a full-blown Unitary Experience. Many religious people that I've encountered (and Newberg mentions this) cannot possibly have had the experiences Newberg describes, or they wouldn't be such flaming bigots about it, trying in desperation to get the rest of us to go along with their delusions. These people, I think, more closely resemble fanatics who are obeying the dictates of a dogma in support of a specific tribal totem than people who have "become one with the universe" or have "mingled with God." Newberg makes strong suggestions along these lines, though he is, I think, a lot gentler in his book than I'm being about it here. Still, in his own way, he describes the difference between the two styles of religion, and in so doing he does not mince words.

I do know that the part which speaks of the benefits of religion is extremely contrived. We will be addressing the "studies" he used to make this case. I also have serious problems with his discussion of which "reality" is "really real," but currently lack the education in the history of philosophy to address his discussion of what philosophers have said. However, I suspect that it is no less biased than his discussion of the benefits of religion.

The "studies" that he uses in trying to establish the medical benefits of faith have each been countered by other studies which show the flaws of the initial studies. For Dr. Newberg not to mention this is, to me, irresponsible. Sure, perhaps he did not know of the newer counter-studies, because the pro-God studies always make the front page and the nightly news, but the "corrections" only get prominent space in skeptical magazines and often come off as having been written by killjoys.

This is no excuse: if he were trying to make a convincing case (rather than soften blows or make religious people happy), he would have at least addressed the criticism of those studies. In other words, the chapter on the benefits of religion would not be so absolutely one-sided. Dr. Newberg is currently on a two-week book tour and I assume he is being peppered about this one. I sure hope so, anyway. If he isn't, we're in more trouble than I thought. After I have a chance to absorb the implications of his book and contemplate the flaws I see in it, and after he has a chance to field whatever objections he gets (if any), perhaps he'll be willing to sit for a short interview on these questions. He has been very graceful and responsive with me in our request to reprint the first chapter in our print edition.

I suspect that the implications of his book, combined with the fact that he is a professor of religion, led him to try to soften the implications of his work -- that the religious experience is not incorporeal but is a function of how a certain section of the brain works. This, to me, tempers any conclusions or speculations he may offer as to what the religious experience "really means" apart from it being a purely subjective experience.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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