Book Review: 'Fingerprints of God' by Barbara Bradley Hagerty

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By Christine Rosen
Sunday, May 31, 2009


The Search for The Science of Spirituality

By Barbara Bradley Hagerty

Riverhead. 323 pp. $26.95

I was a child the first time I saw someone "speaking in tongues" during a Pentecostal worship service. The murmuring woman approached our pastor, who raised his hands over her head and, after a few minutes of impassioned prayer, placed the heel of one hand on her forehead and shouted, "Hallelujah!" The woman collapsed on the floor and lay prone for several minutes. Later, she claimed to have experienced a dramatic easing of her arthritis.

This faith healing (and the many others I later witnessed) always left me wondering two things: Did it really work, and what was the experience like, physically, for the person who received it? In "Fingerprints of God," National Public Radio religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty attempts to answer these and other vexing questions about the science of spiritual experience. Along the way she tells the story of her own intriguing spiritual evolution.

Fingerprints are a good metaphor for Hagerty's project. Like fingerprints, Hagerty argues, spiritual experiences leave physical marks, particularly on the brain. She spends much of the book exploring this phenomenon and the emerging field of "neurotheology -- the study of the brain as it relates to spiritual experience." Using tools such as fMRI, neurotheologists try to explain everything from gut feelings and premonitions to near-death experiences. Is it possible, neurotheologists ask, to connect to a spiritual realm beyond the material world? Can consciousness exist apart from our physical bodies?

Hagerty's own spirituality adds depth to her journalistic investigation. Hagerty was raised a Christian Scientist, a faith that places great emphasis on mind-body connections and forswears much modern medicine. "Christian Science holds as a central premise that healing is a function of spiritual understanding," Hagerty explains, "that matter and its conditions, including sin and disease, are 'false beliefs;' and that prayer changes a person's thought, which results in healing." As an adult, Hagerty grew distant from the religion, although without the bitter recriminations common among those who leave their faith. (She recalls with humor the moment when, severely ill with the flu, she allowed skepticism and an overwhelming desire for Tylenol to trump her childhood beliefs.)

But in 1995, while interviewing a member of the evangelical Saddleback Church in Los Angeles, Hagerty had what she describes as a "mystical" experience, a moment of spiritual awareness that led her to become a Christian. Since then, she writes, "I have wondered about the physical nature of these moments." She also wonders what her exploration of them in this book might do to her professional reputation. She confesses that it took her more than 10 years to muster the courage to write about spirituality: "I was, to be honest, skittish. Skittish about ruining my reputation in a career where few people believe in God and fewer still bother to distinguish spirituality from religious politics."

As Hagerty notes, curiosity about the physical reality of spiritual experience is hardly new. She harks back to philosopher William James, who explored what he called the "reality of the unseen" in "The Varieties of Religious Experience." Hagerty believes that 21st-century science offers new ways to explore the unseen. To this end, she interviews scientists who are believers, such as Francis Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project and author of "The Language of God," and agnostics like Dean Hamer, a geneticist and author of "The God Gene." She asks whether some people are genetically "soft-wired" for spiritual experience. She attends a peyote ceremony in Arizona to find out if there is such a thing as "synthetic spirituality," that is, whether you can replicate spiritual experience by ingesting drugs. She describes the neurological mysteries of temporal lobe epilepsy and how it can make a person's brain more "attuned to religious experience." She even tries a device called the "God helmet," which uses magnetic fields to stimulate certain regions of the brain to prompt a kind of spiritual "sensed presence" in the wearers. (She admits to some disappointment after feeling only a vague sense of oneness with the chair she was sitting in.)

In another writer's hands, much of the material in this book might have become fodder for ridicule, such as Hagerty's interview with a successful upper-middle-class woman who experienced a spiritual transformation while hiking in Machu Picchu, divorced her husband and became a self-described mystic who speaks to angels. But throughout the book, one is struck by the humility Hagerty brings to her subject -- something lacking in many contemporary debates over the meaning of faith and the existence of God -- and her skepticism about the science offered up as proof of spiritual experience. After spending hours at conferences and interviewing experts on near-death experiences, she writes, "What I did not hear was airtight evidence that these mystical voyages did in fact take place -- that they were something other than tricks played by a dying brain."

Hagerty ends by arguing that science and faith are not mutually exclusive: "The language of our genes, the chemistry of our bodies, and the wiring of our brains -- these are the handiwork of One who longs to be known. And rather than dispel the spiritual, science is cracking it open for all to see." This conclusion is unlikely to satisfy the devoutly religious and is sure to prompt derision from the intensely atheistic. Indeed, Hagerty's engaging book poses a provocative challenge to anyone who has ever wondered where faith comes from, and what it can do for -- and to -- us.

Rosen is senior editor of the New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society and author of "My Fundamentalist Education."

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