God on the
brain: is religion just a step away from mental illness?
21, 2003 - Source:
Did God create
us or did we create God? The BBC Two documentary "Horizon:
God on the Brain" last
week argued that a famous evangelist's "visions" were
caused by epilepsy and that religious feelings are brain malfunctions.
Anjana Ahuja reports in the Times'
vividness of her visions and the severity of her moral judgment
marked out Ellen Gould White as more than just spiritually inclined.
Among the godfearing American farming community into which she was
born in 1827, her 2,000 religious experiences, details of which
she noted almost obsessively, made her a prophet of God.
married an Adventist minister and the couple founded the Seventh
Day Adventist Church, which currently has 12 million followers around
the world. The movement observes the Sabbath on a Saturday, and
believes the Second Coming of Christ is imminent.
science has afforded a new spin on Whites spirituality. A
leading neurologist who has studied Whites personal history
and opus has concluded that, rather than being divinely inspired,
her illusions stemmed from a form of epilepsy. Her whole clinical
course suggested to me the high probability that she had temporal
lobe epilepsy, says Gregory Holmes, a neurologist at Dartmouth
Medical School in New Hampshire. The multitude of visions, Holmes
suggests, were actually epileptic seizures.
retrospective diagnosis, which has lain quietly in the medical literature
for 20 years, is aired in a TV documentary tonight. The programme
explores the new and controversial subject of neurotheology, or
the role that the brain plays in religious experience.
discoveries that are emerging from this fledgeling science are,
depending on your religious views, either deeply fascinating or
profoundly disturbing. They imply that the brain created God, not
the other way round; that religious leaders throughout history were
touched not by supreme beings but by mental illness; that moments
of serenity common to ardent believers of all faiths are simply
hiccups in brain chemistry.
findings suggest that our attitudes to religion are underpinned
by biology that some brains are physically built to be more
receptive to divine thought, and that this explains why religion
induces apathy in some and fervour in others. One scientist has
even built a kind of God helmet a headset that
can induce the feeling of an unseen presence by bathing the temples
in electromagnetic fields.
was moved to make his diagnosis of White on the strength of one
incident in particular. When White was nine, she was hit on the
head by a stone thrown by a classmate. She drifted in and out of
consciousness wavering between life and death for
three weeks. As well as being disfigured, she was unable to resume
school, and buried herself instead in the Bible. Eight years later
she began having visions. Witnesses are remarkably consistent in
their descriptions of White immersed in these sacred moments.
wrote: In passing into vision, she gives three enrapturing
shouts of Glory! which echo and re-echo, the second,
and especially the third, fainter. For about four or five seconds
she seems to drop down like a person in a swoon, or one having lost
his strength; she then seems to be instantly filled with superhuman
strength. There are frequent movements of the hands and arms, pointing
to the right or left, as her head turns. All these movements are
made in a most graceful manner. Her eyes are always open, but she
does not wink; her head is raised and she is looking upward, not
with a vacant stare but with a pleasant expression,.
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