Religion and the Body


Modern Science and the Construction of Religious Meaning

Edited by David Cave & Rebecca Sachs Norris

BOOK REVIEW: Here is a fascinating book of essays that use insights and discoveries in neurobiology and related scientific fields to examine the relationship between the human body and the practice and study of religion. In the introduction, the editors state a fundamental premise underlying this endeavor:
For the religious, meaning is articulated through belief, story, ritual, ethics, and ineffable experiences—bodily all…Religious experience is irreducibly an experience of the body. No component of religious life is unattached to the body…For in the end, religion is inexorably a human construction. And to be human is to be embodied. (Introduction, pp 2-3)

Whether or not one agrees with these statements, the essays present an interesting perspective on our struggle to find meaning, and to understand our religious beliefs and experiences in the face of new developments in the study of our brain and our genetic constitution. These studies suggest that human beings are not so much “defined and shaped by society or sacred forces” but rather are “extensions of nature, of neurons and synapses and strands of DNA,” and that the human body should be considered to be “electro-chemical processes operating in a bounded locus of matter.” (Introduction, p 1)

The book is comprised of three sections. The first section deals with neurobiology and sources of religious experience and provides a theoretical foundation for the scientific interpretation of various forms of religious expression. In the first essay David Cave suggests that modern neurobiology challenges traditional scripture in that it provides a new scriptural authority that is based on the human body and that can be used to guide us in our search for meaning. In the next essay, James Haag and Whitney Bauman explore the interplay between religion and matter. Then follows essays examining, respectively, the phenomenon of speaking in tongues (glossolalia) as seen from the differing perspectives of modern psychology and the Pentecostal community, and the interdependence of the brain, the body and the social world in religious ritual.

The second section of the book examines how modern life, including medicine and consumer culture, is affecting traditional religious concepts and attitudes. Two essays stand out. Rebecca Sachs Norris explores the effects of our immersion in consumer culture on our ability to engage in, among other things, demanding spiritual disciplines. And Eric Repphun addresses the difference between pain and suffering via the fiction of American cult writer Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk’s characters reclaim agency in their experiences of pain and suffering through such means as bare-knuckle boxing (Fight Club), staged automobile accidents (Rant), and acts of self-mutilation, creating authentic human communities where, in the words of “Fight Club’s” narrator, “… every day doesn’t start with the alarm clock and end with the television.”

The third section of this volume extends this inquiry into specific practices and other cultures. Included are an essay that seeks to explain how the energy of sacred sites can affect one’s spiritual development; an essay that looks at how the original intentions of yoga and Asian martial arts have been changed to suit the attitudes and expectations of modern  consumers; and an essay that investigates sleep deprivation in both religious practice and scientific research.

From the decidedly eclectic case studies presented here, the editors hope readers will see in these essays a resource and a platform for stimulating further discussions on the modern scientific view of the body and the construction of religious meaning.  —Peter Valentyne

Religion and Body
Modern Science and the Construction
of Religious Meaning

Edited by David Cave & Rebecca Sachs Norris

Brill Academic, 277 pp

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