Title: The role of the brain in religion and spirituality

Fraser Watts

Cambridge Institute for Applied Psychology and Religion, UK


Fraser Watts is currently Executive Secretary of the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR), Visiting Professor of Psychology and Religion at the University of Lincoln, and Director of the Cambridge Institute for Applied Psychology and Religion. He was formerly Reader in Theology and Science in the University of Cambridge, where he was Director of the Psychology and Religion Research Group and a Fellow of Queens' College. He has also worked in the NHS as a clinical psychologist, and as a Senior Scientist in the UK Medical Research Council. He is also a former President of the British Psychological Society.


This paper will review the neural basis of religion and spirituality. Religion and spirituality are so complex and multi-faceted that it is implausible that there should be any single ‘God-spot’ in the brain. Different areas of the brain are involved in different aspects of religion, and the front-back and left-right axes in the brain are helpful in understanding how that works. McGilchrist’s recent work on lateralisation provides a helpful perspective for unpacking that. There is also an important conceptual distinction to be made between relatively experiential and relatively interpretive facets of religion and several lines of empirical enquiry support that. Several current debates about religious experience resolve in the light of this distinction. Mystical-type experiences seem to be more constitutional, and less dependent on culture than organised religion. Neurological disorders provide a helpful way of investigating the relationship between brain and religion, especially those that enhance rather than diminish aspects of religion. Temporary lobe epilepsy seems to enhance some aspects of religion, but not all, and exaggerated claims have sometimes been made for the relationship between TLE and religion. A case study will be presented of a young man with neurological damage who had a strong sense of presence, and who was wedded to a spiritual interpretation of his experience. The issues of neurological reductionism that raised will be explored, especially whether understanding the neural basis of religious-type experiences is compatible with accepting their validity.