RELG 380

Religion and the Brain


Professor: Daniel Meckel. Office: AA 110 C; Office Tel: 4464

Email: Office hours: (and by appointment)


Course Summary

An examination of religious, philosophical, and cultural issues surrounding contemporary brain science.  Students will become conversant with basic philosophical debates concerning mind-body dualism, consciousness and the brain, and the nature of self-experience; they will consider the implications of neuroscience for popular notions of the soul, human agency, and moral responsibility.  Students need not have a background in neuroscience but should be prepared for an intensive review of some of its basic findings to-date.  The course is interdisciplinary and writing-intensive; it uses film, fiction, accessible scientific writing, philosophical and religious studies.  

Course Materials


Bulkeley, K The Wondering Brain: Thinking about Religion With and Beyond Neuroscience

Carter, Rita Mapping the Mind

Livingstone, Anatomy of the Sacred

Newberg et al, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

Salzman, Mark Lying Awake


Readings include several articles on e-reserve. The password for e-reserve articles is 53CPg


Course Outline


Introduction and Overviews


Aug. 27: Introduction to the class


Readings and Assignments

Readings are due for the day
on which they are listed


Aug. 29: “Religion” and Religious Studies:

What, Why and How?


        Livingston, chs. 1 & 2

        Begin Reading Salzman, Lying Awake



Sept. 3: No Class (Labor Day)


Discussion and Paper Assignment for Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake

Prepare discussion questions for Sept. 5

Paper due on Sept. 7


Sept. 5: Lying Awake: A Novel


        Salzman, Lying Awake

        Persinger, M.A. (1983). Religious and mystical experiences as artifacts of temporal lobe function: a general hypothesis


Brain Basics

Sept.10: Brain Basics 1: Neuroanatomy,

Functional Localization, and Neurotransmission

Sections of the brain:

Neuron, Synapse Cerebrum, Right Hemisphere

Limbic System Brain Stem


        Carter, R. (MM) The Emerging Landscape

Sept. 12: Brain Basics 2: Twin Hemispheres;

The Limbic System


        Carter, R. (MM) The Great Divide; Beneath the Surface


Take the Hemispheric Dominance Test



Sept. 17: Brain Basics 3: Cerebral Cortex


Special Event: Anne Marie Brady and her Brains


        Carter, R. (MM) Higher Ground

Sept. 19: Consciousness and Illusions


Brain Basics Exam

About the Exam. Study Materials


        Carter, R. A Stream of Illusion (e-res)



Mind, Brain and Soul

Sept. 24: Religion in an Age of (Neuro)Science (1)


        Barbour, Ian “Ways of Relating Science and Religion” (e-res)

        Bagley, Sharon, “Religion and the Brain


Essay 1

Write an essay in which you argue for or against Integration (as Barbour defines and supports it) as a viable approach to religion and neuroscience. In your argument, be responsive to the other approaches.


Sept. 26: Religion in an Age of (Neuro)Science (2)







Oct. 1: Neuroscience and the Soul


        Murphy, N. “Neuroscience and the Soul

        Sacks, O. “Neurology and the Soul


Oct. 3: The Mind-Body Problem

        Carter, R. The Hard Problem (e-res)

        Gillett, G.R., “Brain, mind, and soul” (e-res)


Essay 2

Identify and describe the position on the mind body problem (the “hard problem”) that you find most convincing and defend that position over and above the others described in Carter.


Biology of the Sacred

Oct. 8: No Class (Fall Reading Day)



Oct. 10: The Sacred and the Holy

        Livingstone, ch. 3


Essay 3

Compare Rudolph Otto and Mircea Eliade’s notions of the sacred and make an argument for how any of the research described in Sharon Bagley’s article “Religion and the Brain” illuminates (or fails to illuminate) these notions.



Oct. 15: Introduction to the “Biology of Belief”


        Newberg, chs. 1-3


Essay 4

Does Newberg work with an adequate definition of “religion” in his book? Assess the adequacy of his assumptions about religion, using Livingston’s Chapter 1.



Mythology and Religious Symbolism

Oct. 17: The Study of Myths and Symbols


        Livingston, ch. 4, Sacred Symbol, Myth and Doctrine



Oct. 22: The Biology of Mythology


        Newberg, ch. 4, Myth-Making: The Compulsion to Create Stories and Beliefs


Essay 5

Malinowski, Eliade, and Jung: each has a distinctive approach to understanding religious myth. Develop a set of critical reflections on two of these understandings from the standpoint of neuroscience. Draw directly on Newberg.

Religious Ritual

Oct. 24: The Nature and Study of Religious Ritual


        Livingstone, Sacred Ritual


Oct. 29: The Neurology of Myth and Ritual


        Newberg, ch. 5. Ritual: The Manifestation of Meaning.


Essay 6

Scholars of religion have approached the study of ritual in at least two major ways:

  1. Via an explanatory and reductive analysis of the functions of ritual,
  2. Via an interpretive approach to the religious meanings and dimensions of ritual.

Using at least two major thinkers from Livingstone’s chapter on ritual, critique the utility of Newberg’s neurobiological approach in addressing these two aspects of religious ritual.



Mystical Experience

Oct. 31: The Biology of Transcendence


        Newberg, ch. 6. Mysticism: The Biology of Transcendence



Nov. 5: Forms of Mystical Experience

Discussion of Assignment 7:
Tony and Sara

        James, W. Mysticism (e-res)


Essay 7

At the heart of the mystical condition is a state of self-transcendence and unity with ultimate reality. Using James’ descriptive chapter and Newberg’s neuroscience, develop a critique of the phenomenological and theological features of this claim.


Nov. 7: The Doors


        Winkelman, M. Cross-Cultural Assessments of Shamanism as a Biogenic Foundation of Religion


Essay 7A (due Monday)

Jim Morrison as Shaman:
Discuss the cultural and biological implications.


Divinity and Ultimate Reality

Nov. 12: Concepts of the Divine

and Ultimate Reality

First half discussion of Assignment 7A:
David and Natalie

        Livingstone, Deity: Concepts of the Divine and Ultimate Reality



Nov. 14: The Mind in Search of Absolutes



        Newberg, Chs. 7 & 8: The Origins of Religion; Realer than Real

Essay 8

From our theology (i.e., notion of divinity or ultimate reality) comes our experience of the divine. From experience of the divine comes our theology. Argue for one or the other, both, or neither, using Livingstone and Newberg.



Nov. 19: No Class (American Academy of

Religion National Conference)





Thinking about Religion With and Beyond Neuroscience

Nov. 26: Dreams and Visions

Discussion of Assignment 8:
Jaime and Glen


        Bulkeley, Introduction & ch. 1

Nov. 28: Sexual Desire

Discussion of Assignment 9:
Sophie and Chris

        Bulkeley, ch. 2


Essay 9

Sexual desire opens a way of relating to the divine (Bulkeley, p. 67)

Discuss in light of neuroscience, two religious traditions, and Lester Burnham.




Dec. 3: Creative Madness

Discussion of Chapter 3:


        Bulkeley, ch. 3


Dec. 5: Contemplative Practice

Discussion of Assignment 10:
Sara and Tommy

        Bulkeley, ch. 4 & Conclusion


Essay 10

Develop your own evaluation of Bulkeley’s critique of Why God Won’t Go Away, by Newberg and d’Aquili.



Final Exam



Assignments and Grading


Lying Awake Paper................................................................... 25

Brain Basics Exam..................................................................... 200

Short essays............................................................................... 280 (40 each)

Final exam.................................................................................. 250

Presentation............................................................................... 50

Participation............................................................................... 195




Final Grade Values
1000 Points Possible

920 to 1000 = A

900 to 919 = A-

880 to 899 = B+

820 to 879 = B

800 to 819 = B-

780 to 799 = C+


720 to 779 = C

700 to 719 = C-

680 to 699 = D+

620 to 679 = D

600 to 619 = D-

599 & below = F


Track your progress on Blackboard

Lying Awake Essay: TBA


Short Essays (7): Students are invited to write seven (or more) of the ten short essay assignments posted on the syllabus. The essays should reflect three things: (1) an accurate reading of the material for that day, (2) a thoughtful and reasoned reaction to the readings that presents an argued point rather than mere opinion, and (3) a set of three discussion (i.e., not informational) questions related to the topic.

Essay Structure: The essays should be three full pages long, double-spaced with 1” margins and 12 pt. font. Questions should be typed on a separate page, following the essay. The first part (no more than a page) of the essay should summarize the reading material as it is related to the essay question; the bulk of the essay will present your own critical thinking. Essays are due on the day for which they are posted. Late essays will not be counted. Students have the option of writing more than seven. I will grade the essays with a simple system: ”+” (= 40), ”√+” (= 34), “√-“ (= 30), “–“ (= 26), “0” (= 0) I will apply the top seven scores toward the final grade. Recommendation: start writing the short essays early so that they don’t back up on you later, and so that you can write more than seven if you need to.


Presentation: TBA.


Other Guidelines

A Comment on Grading: If ever I find that a particular question on a test is missed by almost everyone, I will assume that it was unfair or too difficult and throw it out. If ever you disagree with a grade, you can always come to me and protest, complain, persuade, etc. I may or may not be convinced, but I will always listen.


Participation: “Participation” means (1) wakeful presence, (2) preparation of reading assignments, (3) active involvement in class interactions, (4) punctual arrival at the beginning of class, and (5) completion of all in-class writing assignments. Lack of any of these will affect your grade, excessive lack is reason for dismissal from the class.

Attendance Policy:
Without regular attendance, students do not tend to learn as well; so attendance is required. I do, however, offer two free days-off during the semester. A note from a doctor, dentist, coach, or funeral director will render an absence excused.  Without such a note, the absence will not be excused. A phone call or email message saying that you are ill is not sufficient, nor is a note from the health center confirming an appointment. Please note that I tend to allow a maximum of one or two absences per semester for official sports activities. Leaving class early will result in a marked absence. Each unexcused absence results in a 20 point reduction (1/2 grade point). 

My Office Hours:
My office number and hours are listed above. Please make an appointment if possible, but feel completely free to drop by with your concerns, ideas, questions, etc. I will always make time if I can. If need be, we can certainly communicate by email, but in-person is always best.

Online Syllabus, Email Communications, and Computer Failure. This online syllabus can be accessed through the Blackboard course page but I recommend that you bookmark it so as to bypass BB when it goes down. The syllabus is my best projection of how our time will be organized. I might well alter the assignment schedule as seems appropriate or necessary; but I will not change the grading policies.

Students are responsible for checking the online syllabus and their email every day. I will announce any and all changes via email -- e.g., a changed deadline or altered reading assignment. Computer failure is not a valid excuse for a late assignment. Broken or unreliable computer? Use the computers at the college.

Academic dishonesty in any form (including plagiarism of self or others, falsified documentation of a doctor’s note, etc.) will not be tolerated. Cheating of any kind results, without exception, in an “F” for the course. Really.

Food in class:
Drinks and snacks of the very quiet variety are allowed in class, nothing else.

No activated cell phones are allowed in the classroom (so please turn them off).