Skip to content

Religion will not regain its old power …

by Kevin Nelson, M.D. on May 31st, 2010

“Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.” — Alfred North Whitehead

The Full Article — The Atlantic August, 1925

What about human spirituality is timeless and what must change and evolve?

From → Uncategorized

18 Comments
  1. Lord Tanlaw FBHI FRAS permalink

    I am reading your book – The Spiritual Doorway – and find it not only intelligible but fascinating in that resonates with my own spiritual journey plus experience while having a 5- hour bypass op with the heart stopped.

    I shall be 77 next month and both during and after my time at Cambridge I have been interested in time and astronomy (I am a Fellow if the British Horological Institute and the Royal Astronomical Society). I find that although these kind of experiences you describe in your book are private and personal to the people involved I would still like to exchange some ideas with you if you have the time!
    Yours sincerely
    Simon Tanlaw

  2. Kevin Nelson, M.D. permalink

    Simon,
    Perhaps my greatest treasure as a physician is to hear of the experiences and ideas of others. I keenly look forward to our exchanges.

  3. Dear Dr. Nelson,
    I finished your book, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, the first 24 hours that I owned it. It was fascinating and well-written for the lay person – like me. But I have a question that I ask you to consider. By way of setting the context for it:
    Your model of reality is the currently accepted medical-scientific one. Within that model, everything you write holds true. For instance, the delineation between what you describe as normal brain processes and those that are caused by trauma, shock, or other unusual circumstances are all defined and can be explained and predicted by this model. This being so, makes it a valid scientific model.
    But what if we were to consider that there are other levels of the natural universe that are hidden from what the current medical – scientific model explains and predicts? In other words, our brains are adapted through evolution to our needs in a three spatial and one temporal dimensioned reality. Might an aberration of what we call functional brain processes be considered quite functional in a more encompassing model of reality; one that contains the current model but goes beyond it to reveal more of the makeup of the cosmos?
    If we were to go back in time just a few hundred years, the idea that there is an electromagnetic spectrum out of the reach of human sensory processes would seem outrageous – even supernatural. Might a “dysfunctional” brain process be allowing a peek into something similar; an unperceived level that is as natural as the sound and light wave lengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can’t perceive with our naked eyes and ears?
    I ask this question because I am in the process of finishing an interdisciplinary book that hopefully will bring science and philosophy (faith) back together where they belong. I will be using your book (with proper attributions, of course) in my bibliography.
    Once again, I really enjoyed your work and look forward to “hearing” from you.
    Sincerely,
    Robert De Filippis

  4. Kevin Nelson, M.D. permalink

    Robert,
    I was intrigued by your writing. Yes, I confined most of the book to accepted medical-scientific facts. Although the topic itself may be controversial, I stay well within the boundaries of reasonable neurological probability when I discuss brain mechanisms. Yet in the epilogue I make it clear that there likely unseen worlds that bear directly upon our spiritual meaning. William James as well understood that point. Here I deconstruct the deconstruction. I like your analogy with electromagnetic waves imperceptible to human senses. I look forward to your work-please keep me abreast.

  5. Dear Dr. Nelson–Kevin,

    I think I discovered you recently as a speaker on WBAI 99.5 FM, free speech radio on New York City-my primary source for news, information and critical thinking. I’m currently writing a book, to be independently published this year, entitled Just Breathe Out: Developing a User-Friendly Body, featuring BreathPlay.

    In regards to this writing, I have a question for you. Are you the author of the following quote: “Do we have to reduce truth to a double blind study?”

    I wish to use this quote as part of a chapter heading, and of course I want to give credit appropriately.

    My concern over the years has been that the medical community discounts BreathPlay (active, spine-stretching outbreath; passive, relaxed inbreath) because the only ‘scientific’ study has been done with elite cyclists, not sick folks–the thinking being, I guess, that anything that applies to high performance athletes could not possibly have any application for poorly functioning people. Docs want proof that BreathPlay will be effective with this population of sick people or that population. They want to see the studies to continue the BreathPlay conversation. Of course they do not offer to be part of the research process.

    I, of course, do not think inside that box, so for the past 25 years, I’ve gone about my business as a respiratory therapist teaching BreathPlay to everyone I meet. I did one ‘down and dirty’ BreathPlay training/experiment with firefighters in Newark NJ, demonstrating that if you know BreathPlay, you can improve your physical performance, no mater what your physical condition (Firefighters are not in the best of health!)

    I appreciate your thoughts and confirmation of the quote mentioned above. For more info about me, check out my website,www.btbreathingtraining.com, where you will find a free half-hour audio BreathPlay lesson and the first chapter of Just Breathe Out. I’d be glad to email you more chapters. For more info about BreathPlay go to its developer Ian Jackson’s website, http://www.BreathPlay.com.

    Happy trails,
    Betsy Thomason

  6. Kevin Nelson, M.D. permalink

    Betsy,
    Nice to hear from you. No, that is not my quote but I do think it shows that the wisdom of science (and there is much) has its limits. We are trained to follow the rigors of science if that is possible, but it is not always possible of course. I appreciate your frustration at not being able to summon all the resources to pursuit our ideas. Good Luck.

  7. Hello again,
    I found a good deal more on Pam Reynolds and Dr. Sabom. I’ve added a segment to one chapter on NDE’s in my book. Here is an excerpt:
    But even though Ms. Reynold’s story and Dr. Sabom’s analysis seems clear to the layperson, Dr. Kevin Nelson, neurologist, in his book, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, has this to say, “Pam’s was a real, profoundly important spiritual experience. But it falls short of scientific proof that consciousness transcends the material world.”
    But as you consider Dr. Nelson’s very qualified professional opinion, keep in mind that I contend that consciousness doesn’t need to transcend the material world for such an experience to be real– but that consciousness functions in the natural world in ways that cannot be described with our present day scientific models.
    In other words, this woman could not possibly have consciously, in a traditional sense, experienced what she was able to describe in detail after her recovery. But “a traditional sense” is limited by the models that inform our traditions.
    I would love to have your comments.
    Best,
    Robert De Filippis

  8. Dear Dr Nelson,

    I only read bits and pieces from your work, and it is fascinating to me. I am about to buy and digest one of your books.

    Could you, in short, describe in which respects the two of your latest books – the “Spiritual Doorway” and “The God Impulse” are different? I am not sure which one to read.

    Many thanks!

    Gorazd

  9. Kevin Nelson, M.D. permalink

    Gorazd,
    Both are the same book with different titles by different publishers. In North America the title is “Spiritual Doorway” (Dutton/Penguin) and in the UK “The God Impulse” (Simon and Schuster). What ever one is commercially available will do. Enjoy the read!

  10. Ben Jones permalink

    Hi Dr. Nelson,

    I bought your book this morning and I could not put it down, i’ve read the whole thing already. Great read!

    You seem to be straddling the fence between atheist and non-atheist beliefs. Like on one hand, you acknowledge spirituality as a real entity and a part of being human, but yet you seem to reduce it to a phyiscal, biological function that takes place in the brain, and not outside of it.

    Correct me if im wrong in the above assertion, but it leads to a few questions that i wondered if you could answer?

    I’m sure you get this one alot, but what is your belief beyond the brain? Like for example, once the brain dies completely, not near death, but completely dead, is that the end of the physical and spirtual journey? Do you believe in an afterlife, and/or a supreme being?

    I know science can only provide physical answers, but did you write your book in hopes people would gain spirtually from it, thereby preparing themselves for “heaven” or a spirtual life after this one? or did you write it, so that people begin to embrace the spiritual part of the brain, as a physical science, and nothing more?

    Most spirituality is based on the concept that the spirit and the body are joined now, but will seperate at death. I know you wrote in the book that the idea that one’s conciousness is seperated during an NDE, but this is an illusion. So is the idea that our spirit lives on after our body an illusion also?

    I think I read in Time Magazine that our brains were hard wired for faith? Perhaps we have spiritual brains because it was neccessary for our survival? In caveman times, a lightning storm, might have seemed to the people back then like a living nightmare, and they learned how to have faith that it would go away and get better.

    Even today, we kind of need faith dont we? We have to have faith that the bus driver of our bus doesnt decide to drive himself off a cliff and kill the rest of us. We have to have faith that our dentist doesnt take out his argument with his wife on our teeth, and pull all of our teeth out.

    Faith is a requirement to living in society, so maybe thats where our spirutual brains come in…this is just a plausable theory of mine…of course.

    But I’d appreciate any or all of your thoughts on this. Thanks

  11. Kevin Nelson, M.D. permalink

    Ben,
    You raise many interesting questions and I will answer them the best I can. The book is spiritually neutral; a “how” in terms of neuroscience within the brain and not “why”, so in that sense it straddles the fence as you point out. If both camps find this approach annoying, so be it.

    Science and rational thought has its limits and can take us only so far-certainly not as far as most people would like to go. This leaves room in the brain for personal faith which is beyond the provence of this book. I do have a personal faith but dwelling upon it serves only as a distraction from the central purpose of the book-how does the brain work during spiritual experience? In this way, the book should provide a type understanding in their spiritual quest.

    My intent was this: The faith someone brings to the book will be the faith that remains with them as they read the last page. The book gives a new understanding of faith-which the faint at heart may find unsettling.

    As yet, there is no credible scientific evidence of experience surviving outside the brain. Oh, I would rejoice in many ways if it could be known scientifically, but alas such is not the present case. Whether human consciousness exists outside the brain remains in the realm of faith.

    Yes, some aspects of our spiritual being is wired in, but not seemingly all and there’s the rub.

    Faith is not prediction, that is science. So faith in your bus driver is really a scientific proposition-a rational probability that he will not intentionally dive off a cliff or veer into the on-comming lane (remember Woody Allen’s Annie Hall?).

    In the end, my book is the antithesis of “fast-food” spirituality; the “Heaven is Real” and “90 mins in Heaven” where people want a shortcut to our most profound questions. A true spiritual quest is not so easily satisfied, only short circuited.

    Kevin

  12. Kevin Nelson, M.D. permalink

    Bruce,
    Thanks so much for your ideas. I really appreciate you taking the time to give me your impressions, which I found valuable. It’s not often I get to discuss the writing process itself. As I wrote the book I feared it was too simplistic but after reading it again once finished, and listening to others like yourself, I agree and think the book would have served the general reader better with expanded explanations of some of the technical background. Sometimes hard to know where to strike the balance.

    The brain basis of the psychology of religion is a huge topic to which I intentionally make only passing mention. To expand on how our brains allow us develop religious beliefs, engage in a spiritual life and the impact this has on us as social spiritual creatures (and our evolution) would require an additional book-if not volumes. This makes it no less interesting as you point out, but to start I had to limit this book’s scope to individual brains, during brief but hallowed moments.

    I believe you are correct and the credit for Calculus rightfully goes to Leibniz. This error falls squarely upon my shoulders. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Best-
    Kevin

  13. Ben Jones permalink

    Thanks so much for your replies Dr Nelson. I had a few follow up ideas to throw your way, if you don’t mind.

    1. Where you mention The Who song “wont get fooled again” I grinned as I’m a huge fan of their music, but I thought it would have been more spiritually amazing had the song been “Pinball Wizard” Instead. But that was an interesting story.

    2. I recently read where Microsoft is working on technology to back up our brains. Uploading ones brain into a computer and every thought and memory would be left in tact. We could then take that data and put it into a robot or a new body perhaps, and it could live on forever.

    I wondered what you thoughts were on that, if you thought it possible, and imagine if it were, would computers and robots then be having near death experiences as well?

    I tend to think that the digital versions of the brains would be missing something, something we dont yet know what it is, but something that starts the whole process of being human.

    Like I cant imagine a computer being concious, but that where technology wants to go.

    Appreciate your thoughts.

  14. Kevin Nelson, M.D. permalink

    Ben,
    One of my editors did in fact want to use a “Pinball Wizard” title, but the song of the experience was “Don’t Get Fooled Again” and in many ways it is very appropriate.

    Backing up our brains remains in the realm of science fiction for the foreseeable future. But the idea is so intriguing that the notion might live on forever. So too mechanical consciousness like Hal.

    Kevin

  15. Dear Dr. Nelson,
    I finished your book, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, the first 24 hours that I owned it. It was fascinating and well-written for the lay person – like me. But I have a question that I ask you to consider. By way of setting the context for it:
    Your model of reality is the currently accepted medical-scientific one. Within that model, everything you write holds true. For instance, the delineation between what you describe as normal brain processes and those that are caused by trauma, shock, or other unusual circumstances are all defined and can be explained and predicted by this model. This being so, makes it a valid scientific model.
    But what if we were to consider that there are other levels of the natural universe that are hidden from what the current medical – scientific model explains and predicts? In other words, our brains are adapted through evolution to our needs in a three spatial and one temporal dimensioned reality. Might an aberration of what we call functional brain processes be considered quite functional in a more encompassing model of reality; one that contains the current model but goes beyond it to reveal more of the makeup of the cosmos?
    If we were to go back in time just a few hundred years, the idea that there is an electromagnetic spectrum out of the reach of human sensory processes would seem outrageous – even supernatural. Might a “dysfunctional” brain process be allowing a peek into something similar; an unperceived level that is as natural as the sound and light wave lengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can’t perceive with our naked eyes and ears?
    I ask this question because I am in the process of finishing an interdisciplinary book that hopefully will bring science and philosophy (faith) back together where they belong. I will be using your book (with proper attributions, of course) in my bibliography.
    Once again, I really enjoyed your work and look forward to “hearing” from you.
    Sincerely,
    Robert De Filippis

    +1

  16. Kevin Nelson, M.D. permalink

    Richard,
    I agree with much of what you write. My book is based upon accepted scientific principles, and within that framework I believe the book is sound. Like William James, I too believe in a great unseen universe, hidden from us. For that reason I drew upon the metaphor of dark energy and matter in the epilogue. But the very fact that it is hidden from us means that its nature is speculative or a matter of faith. As you write: “Might an aberration of what we call functional brain processes be considered quite functional in a more encompassing model of reality; one that contains the current model but goes beyond it to reveal more of the makeup of the cosmos?”. Yes that might be but I have no way of knowing, at least in scientific terms. I do believe, perhaps on faith, that the great unknown is far stranger and profound than the human mind will ever grasp.
    Thanks for your interesting post and your kind words. I look forward to your book.
    Warm regards,
    kn

  17. Ruby C permalink

    I would like to thank all of you for your in-put. I am 72 years old, and I have been seeking more knowledge of
    spirituality. I would like to share infomation that I have learned, and I do understand it. I will be as short as I can.
    I have learned that in order for me to understand many things, first I must go back to the beginning. I took my mind back to conception. The powerful intelligent energy
    that is always present, quietly developeing this new being, is awesome, beyond comprehension. This is science.That great manifestation of all of nature. Once we were born, we were taught to follow the material world, the world of matter. ( That is the first mistake.)
    Of course there is more.

  18. Kevin Nelson, M.D. permalink

    Ruby,
    I appreciate sharing your thoughts and experience.
    Best-
    kn

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS