- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

LONDON Does the biological structure of our brains program us to believe in God? Advances in "neurotheology" have prompted some researchers to claim they can induce the kind of holy visions prophets may have experienced even in those who are not religious believers.
Neuroscience professor Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has devised a helmet that uses electromagnetic fields to induce electrical changes in the brain's temporal lobes, which are linked with religious belief.
So confident is he that God is all in the mind or the brain at least that Mr. Persinger says he can induce mystical feelings in a majority of those willing to don his Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator.
So the British Broadcasting Corp.'s science series "Horizon" put his hat to the ultimate test: Could it get arch-skeptic and militant atheist Richard Dawkins to start believing in God by electrically massaging his temporal lobes? Mr. Dawkins, author of "A Devil's Chaplain" and "The Blind Watchmaker," was the ideal candidate for a test of whether science can explain away religion, given his views of religion as a "virus of the mind" and an "infantile regression."
The experiment is based on the finding that some sufferers from temporal lobe epilepsy a neurological disorder caused by chaotic electrical discharges in the temporal lobes of the brain seem to experience devout hallucinations that bear striking resemblances to the mystical experiences of holy figures such as St. Paul and Moses.
This theory received a boost from professor Gregory Holmes, a pediatric neurologist at Dartmouth Medical School, who says one of the principal founders of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, Ellen White, in fact suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. She was seen as divinely inspired as a result of her religious visions. The new claim that her visions were, in fact, a result of a brain disorder is likely to meet strong resistance from the more than 12 million Seventh-day Adventists worldwide.
If strong religious feelings are no less a part of brain function than those linked with hunger and sex, the ultimate test would be to summon up mystical and religious beliefs experimentally.
Indeed, it would be in Mr. Dawkins' interests to experience religion for the first time under Mr. Persinger's helmet. After all, this would prove that mystical visions at last could be controlled by science and no longer were just at the mercy of a supernatural entity.
While Mr. Dawkins had some strange experiences and tinglings during the experiment, none of them prompted him to take up any new faith. "It was a great disappointment," he said.
"Though I joked about the possibility, I of course never expected to end up believing in anything supernatural. But I did hope to share some of the feelings experienced by religious mystics when contemplating the mysteries of life and the cosmos," Mr. Dawkins said.
Mr. Persinger explained away the failure of this Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator: Before donning the helmet, Mr. Dawkins had scored low on a psychological scale measuring proneness to temporal lobe sensitivity.
Studies on identical and fraternal twin pairs raised apart suggest that 50 percent of our religious interests are influenced by genes. It seems that Mr. Dawkins is genetically predisposed not to believe.
Dr. Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital in London.

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