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Extraordinary New Discoveries Linking Science and Religion
Reviewed by Stephanie Sarver, PhD on March 1, 2006
The Sacred Neuron, through its title, would seem to introduce religion into a broader discussion of neuroscience. The book actually takes the opposite approach, drawing on cognitive neuroscience research to inform the discourse of religion. Bowker carefully examines the factors that figure in our understanding of aesthetic and moral judgment, as well as religious belief and expression, and concludes with consideration of the “new crisis” faced by modern religions. Bowker’s reputation as an expert in religion is evident: He sets the book in the context of the work of the late Anglican Bishop Hensley Henson, who pondered whether religious faith can be rational and intelligent. Those unfamiliar with Henson may find Bowker’s emphasis on Henson’s thought somewhat distracting; this technique, however, provides a narrative center around which Bowker’s implicit argument evolves. That argument carries readers from his theory of conducive properties and cognition to the role of religion in human societies.
Bowker takes issue with aspects of postmodern thought, which holds that human values are relative rather than absolute and subject to individual preference and cultural influences. He introduces the concepts of historical and linguistic relativity and takes issue with deconstructionist theory that would deny the truth of independently identified facts. Bowker challenges postmodern relativism by invoking neuroscience research (primarily the works of Antonio Damasio, Peter LeRoux, and Edmund Rolls) to assert a neurological basis for the process by which humans arrive at aesthetic and moral judgments. We humans are united in our neurocognitive processes and our apprehension of what Bowker calls the “conducive properties” inherent in nature, music, or human interaction. These conducive properties can be observed in the way “in which feelings, emotions, and rationality are at work together, and in which the judgments and the vocabularies of good and evil are evoked.” Bowker suggests that these conducive properties are not entirely universal but converge sufficiently across human experience to provide a basis for resolving the deep conflicts that plague humanity.
Bowker tenuously bridges his discussion of conducive properties with religion when he ponders the intellectual means by which coherent religious belief is formed. The truth of religious claims can only be determined in open systems of thought that allow for the examination of integral claims, even by outsiders. Yet many religious systems reinforce their coherence by thwarting impulses to examine the truths on which the system is based. Fundamentalism results when religious groups create coherence through an exclusion of divergent thought. The need to maintain internal coherence often leads to conflicts with the worlds external to their belief system.
In his final chapter Bowker ponders the “new crisis” of religion. He asserts that historically, the primary role of religion was to preserve the social order that ensured the perpetuation of the species. This was accomplished through systems that governed food and fertility, hence religion’s long preoccupation with defining and enforcing sexual laws, especially as they related to women. Religions have persisted because they transmit information crucial to human survival, at least until the current era. Bowker suggests that a continued focus on reproductive and sexual issues puts religions at risk of becoming irrelevant. Religions would better secure their value to human society by assisting us to realize our spiritual potential and by transmitting wisdom about existence.
The Sacred Neuron is an impressive scholarly work. Bowker brings great care to developing his ideas and provides ample references to the foundations of his thought. His style is decidedly academic; readers who prefer ideas served up plainly may find themselves working to locate Bowker’s central concepts. For patient readers, however, The Sacred Neuron offers rewards, not only in the conclusions that may be drawn from Bowker’s thoughts but also from following an intellectual journey that promises to educate readers.