The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe by John C. Wathey 2022
About the Author
John C. Wathey, Ph.D., is a computational biologist whose research interests include evolutionary algorithms, protein folding, and the biology of nervous systems. Previously, he was a senior applications scientist at Biosym Technologies (now named Biovia), a company that develops molecular modeling software for the pharmaceutical industry. He then founded his own business, Wathey Research, and since that time most of his scientific research was funded by grants from the National
About the Book
Does neuroscience have anything to say about religious belief or the existence of God? Some have tried to answer this question, but, in doing so, most have strayed from the scientific method.
In The Phantom God, computational biologist and neuroscientist John C. Wathey, Ph.D., tackles this problem head-on, exploring religious feelings not as the direct perception by the brain of some supernatural realm, nor as the pathological misfiring of neurons, but as a natural consequence of how our brains are wired.
Unlike other neurobiological studies of religion and spirituality, The Phantom God treats mysticism not as something uniquely human and possibly supernatural in origin, but as a completely natural phenomenon that has behavioral and evolutionary roots that can be traced far back into our vertebrate ancestry. Grounded in evolutionary and behavioral biology, this highly original and compelling book takes the reader on a journey through the neural circuitry of crying, innate knowledge, reinforcement learning, emotional bonding, embodiment, interpersonal perception, and the ineffable feeling of certainty that characterizes faith.
Wathey argues that the feeling of God’s presence is spawned by innate neural circuitry, similar to the mechanism that compels an infant to cry out for its mother. In an adult, this circuitry can be activated under conditions that mimic the extreme desperation and helplessness of infancy, generating the compelling illusion of the presence of a loving, powerful, and all-knowing savior. When seen from this perspective, the illusion also appears remarkably like one that has long been familiar to neurologists: the phantom limb of the amputee, spawned by the expectation of the patient’s brain that the missing limb should still be there.
Including a primer on the basic concepts and terminology of neuroscience, The Phantom God details the neural mechanisms behind the illusions and emotions of spiritual experience.
“The Phantom God integrates novel ideas in evolution, cognitive science, neuroscience, plus psychedelics and drug addiction. Wathey’s bold hypothesis — that the illusion of God’s presence comes from an innate neural model — lays down a scientific challenge, but won’t convince believers. No one who seeks the foundations of religion can ignore The Phantom God.” — Robert Lawrence Kuhn, creator and host of Closer To Truth
“Now I understand what was happening in my brain when I experienced the vivid parental ‘presence of God’ that gave me goosebumps and brought me to tears. In The Phantom God, John Wathey supports his brilliant hypothesis with facts and enjoyably clear explanation. This is science writing at its best.”
– Dan Barker, co-president of Freedom from Religion Foundation, and author of Godless and Free Will Explained, among others
“This deeply engaging and challenging book relates some of the most puzzling aspects of religion to a broad range of empirical research on the brain — including case studies of brain pathology, hallucinations, and lateralization — and reveals surprising evidence of shared underlying neural mechanisms. Concluding that an innate neural model can explain many religious phenomena, Wathey offers thoughtful research suggestions for further testing his ideas. In sum, a masterful work that deserves close attention.”
—David M. Wulff, Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Wheaton College (MA), and author of Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary
“John Wathey has made landmark contributions to the anatomy of religious belief. The Phantom God gives us the fundamental hows of religion’s tenacious hold on human minds, the neuroscience buried deep in our neonatal and early infant attachment system. Read this landmark book, and treasure it.”— J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., M.D., Psychiatrist, University of Virginia, author of Why We Believe In God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.
“The Phantom God offers an amazing hypothesis and exploration of the roots of religion. Why does religion so often infantilize its followers? Why do wounded soldiers cry out for their mothers? This book connects religious behavior directly to the innate models in our brain that help us negotiate infancy and childhood but also profoundly affect us as adults.”
– Dr. Darrel Ray, president and founder of RecoveringfromReligion.org, author of The God Virus and Sex and God
Summary of Prologue (partial)
Former Christian evangelist Dan Barker lost his belief in God after losing faith in the religion. Barker: The temptation to peek into the brains of people praying, meditating, or speaking in tongues has been irresistible. The neuroscience of religious experience is in its infancy, its techniques are rapidly improving, and what it most needs now are specific and testable hypotheses that lead to good experimental questions.
Neuroethology seeks to understand the brain by applying the methods of neuroscience to the natural behaviors of highly specialized animals. Famous examples include infrared vision in rattlesnakes, communication and navigation by electric fields in weakly electric fish, echolocation in bats, sexual pair-bonding in prairie voles, the development of singing in songbirds.
The Illusion of God’s Presence addresses mainly “why” questions, but the questions it addresses are mainly ‘why’ questions. The Phantom God draws connections to fields of neuroscientific research previously considered unrelated to religiousness, like mother-infant bonding in nonhuman mammals and language acquisition in humans.
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