The book: Humanity’s targeted exploration of the human mind led us through the cognitive revolution, a turn from the spiritual to the secular that changed the future of psychological science. But in Neuromatic; Or, A Particular History of Religion and the Brain (University of Chicago Press), John Lardas Modern ’93 argues that the world of religion is inextricably bound in our study of the mind. Science and religion have entangled histories, he says, from the origins of nervous system research to contemporary efforts to map religion into our neural circuits. Taking a tour of the myths and spiritualities that have informed our exploration of the mind, Neuromatic aims to unravel and acknowledge these connections, and help us better understand this seeming subservience to our own brains.
The author: A self-described “historian, curator, and vinyl collector,” John Lardas Modern ’93 has spent his career studying religion, technology, and literature. He is currently a professor of religious studies at Franklin & Marshall College and previously served as a visiting professor at Haverford College. Modern is the author of The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs and Secularism in Antebellum America. He holds degrees in religion from Princeton, Miami University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Over the past few years I have drawn much critical inspiration from time spent at MindLab at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. MindLab (2009– 14) was a “cross-cutting neuroscience and cognition research framework” funded by the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation. At MindLab researchers studied links between human interaction and brain functioning and examined “how religion and cognition intersect to constrain and motivate agency, interaction, identity, moral values and symbolic meanings.”
During my visits to MindLab I took notes and pictures. I made friends with the scientists and postdocs and gained their trust. I learned about their experimental agenda. I interviewed them and retreated with them to Sandbjerg Manor in southern Jutland. In the space where Prussian military leaders strategized during the Second Schleswig War of 1864, I listened to leading figures discuss big pictures and future trends in the cognitive study of religion and tried to see the world from their point of view. The members of MindLab, like members of all tribes, are motivated by conceptions of who they are not, of anxious fears of those who might threaten their peaceful and well-funded way of life. I learned this lesson on my first night at MindLab when I was standing around with folks after dinner, drink in hand, dank plumes of hash wafting in the wind. As we talked in a circle I uttered the name of Walter Benjamin in passing. Immediately the group burst into laughter. I had hit a nerve. I smiled, uneasily, as if I, too, knew the truth of the matter. I did not bring Benjamin up again in conversation because I soon learned that people like Walter Benjamin make no sense whatsoever and that kind of thing is fine if you are a poet or trust- fund hipster or something like that, but if you are going to say anything meaningful about the world well, then, you need to say it clearly and concisely. For the folks at MindLab Benjamin was a symbol, a taboo figure who reactively generated many boundaries and bonds of solidarity. At MindLab I heard much talk about the dangers of relativists, postmodernists, feminists, cultural anthropologists, and critical historians such as myself who were guilt-ridden and weak-kneed, too afraid to believe in truth or else traumatized by the confidence of the strong scientific pose. These barbarians at the gates, I was told, were misguided in the way they saw science as but one among many possible rationalities. These weak-willed academics did not follow standard epistemic protocols of objectivity, hypothesis, and experimentation in order to produce real, tangible, and useful results about reality.
Deficiencies in the gears of reason. Sentimental renderings without sufficient evidence.
Rather than challenge these claims directly or even bring up what I felt to be the strong categorical presence of secular modernity, I offered my interlocutors stony riffs on why I was interested in them in the first place. Religion, I said, has long been a site of fascination and an object of relentless measurement and theorization — from early modern investigations into the brain as a “chapel of deity” giving way to phrenological theories of localization and diagnoses of religious insanity giving way to the discovery of the motor cortex and its relation to hypnosis and telepathy giving way to ruminations on the electrical emanations of neural activity to the focus on hallucinations, epilepsy, and other extreme states among midcentury neurophysiologists giving way to the isolation of religion as a neural phenomenon giving way to more recent invocations of neuroscience as fodder for theological renewal and so-called new atheist claims alike.
Without name-dropping Benjamin again or mentioning the dialectic of Enlightenment, I argued that MindLab was a culmination of a much longer trajectory. For within this history there is good religion and there is bad religion, the former increasingly mirroring the values of the present secular order. What was being produced at MindLab, I suggested, was religion. Here, in ecstatic acts of attention, was the reification of the secular category, par excellence—religion, defined primarily as a mode of cognitive processing and specified neural activity. Cognitive studies of religion conducted at MindLab and elsewhere serve to articulate a boundary between the religious and the secular that can be either quite stark or rather fluid. To parse individual cognitive studies of religion based on the degree to which they see religion as exceptional or on their alleged sympathy (or lack thereof) with religion would be to miss much about their compatibility under the sign of secularism. For the significance of these scientific studies lies in the ways in which they manufacture religion and its natural distinction, study after study, regardless of results, turning religion into a measurable difference: the brain and images of the brain and images of images of the brain generating the criteria for what constitutes religion as a natural difference. Religion, here, becomes a feature of the world, built-in as it were, that persists beyond the vicissitudes of time and culture. Regardless of particular conclusions about, say, the efficacy of prayer or the function of fire- walking rituals or the practice of spirituality or the emergence of new social movements or large complex societies, cognitive studies conjure the difference between the religious and the secular as natural, that is, as something that can be ascertained through the scientific method. Cognitive studies of religion are religion considered without considering its history, religion considered instrumentally, in terms of what is valuable, therapeutic, or pathological about its presence.
Within the vast majority of cognitive studies of religion, the analytic difference between the religious and the secular is premised on their continuum. There is a founding and necessary assumption, namely that “the very existence of religion requires such cognitive mechanisms that also function outside of religion.” These shared mechanisms include “commitment gadgets,” “coalition psychology,” and “constructing databases about the reputational effects of one’s own and others’ actual behavior and inferred dispositions.” Religion, as a natural human activity whose sources and consequences are bound up in society, can be advantageous or not, depending on the scene or evolutionary circumstance. But what to make of circum-stances that are historical, cultural, or otherwise contingent? For in addition to information passing through the front parietal lobe, might there also be discursive forces flowing through the cognitive and neuroscientific fields that are integral to the making of a human subject who is truly, naturally, and ordinarily religious?
Within the neuro- and cognitive sciences, so proudly complicit in this secular age when the natural difference between the religious and the secular goes unquestioned precisely because it has become unquestionable, there is neither room nor necessity for asking questions about the conditions that have made the measurement of religion possible, let alone so alluring a proposition.
Reprinted with permission from Neuromatic; Or, A Particular History of Religion and the Brain by John Lardas Modern, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2021 by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
“This book is magisterial in scope—masterfully researched, carefully considered, subtly theorized, and energetically executed. Wrangling published, archival, and media sources into a deliberately nonlinear genealogy, Neuromatic will be essential for scholars of religion, history, philosophy, and science studies.” ― Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Wesleyan University