Biological Essentialism and the New Sciences of Religion

Graduate Theological Union

Excerpted from

Yoga, Meditation, and Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks

Reprinted with Permission of Publisher.


© Kenneth Rose, 2016, 2018, Yoga, Meditation, and Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks, Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


Preface: Setting the Scene for Tarka Readers

 In the first selection from my book, Yoga, Meditation, and Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Landmarks, which appeared in the January 2019 issue of Tarka, I surveyed recent developments in genetics, the cognitive science of religion, contemplative neuroscience, and neurotheology. In the second selection, which follows, I assess the significance of these findings for academic and contemplative approaches to global religious experience. As the first part of this essay suggested, scientific studies offer support for the view that mystical experience is rooted in the physiology and anatomy of the brain. In this section, I restate this outcome: whenever a human being experiences the sublime mystical state of nonduality, its neural correlate will include deafferentation of neural activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe. Mystical experience is a neurophysiological and neuroanatomical fact, and not just a figment of the speculative and religious imagination. On one side, this discovery undercuts materialist rejections of the mystical and religious while, on the other side, it undercuts exclusivistic attempts to limit religious experience to just one of humanity’s many religious traditions. Mysticism belongs neither to any one religious tradition nor to science. It always maintains its independence.


II (Second Selection)

The Neurobiological Basis of the Spiritual sui generis

It appears that Newberg and d’Aquili have provided the clue that is needed to show that a specific type of yogic and mystical (if not always religious[i]) experience is rooted in the physiology and anatomy of the brain. Thus, whenever a human being experiences the sublime mystical state of nonduality, the neural correlates of the nondual condition as it arises in awareness will include as its signature the deafferentation of neural activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe. Ann Taves correctly sees Newberg’s and D’Aquili’s claim to have found “the biological root of all religious experience” as exemplifying a sui generis and common-core approach to religious experience rather than the ascriptive approach, which she favors.[ii] Although she acknowledges the association between “unusual activity” in the posterior superior parietal lobe and a sense of “the absorption of the self into something larger” discovered by Newberg and d’Aquili, she rejects the idea that this brain state and it experiential correlate is religious in itself, since, in accordance with her ascriptive theory of religion, it could be deemed nonreligious in other contests. Yet, rather that negating the value of the central finding of neurotheology as grounding mystical experience, Taves’s criticism serves to underscore an essential difference between nondual, apophatic, and introvertive mystical experience and other religious phenomena. Nondual, apophatic, and introvertive mystical experience (or the mystical proper) will, in my view, always bear the neurophysiological signature of the deafferentation of posterior superior parietal lobe, while other religious activity and events, insofar as they are experiential events, may or not have the signature of the mystical and can thus be assimilated to many other human activities, which, in accordance with Taves’s ascriptive theory of religion, may or may not in various contexts merit the designation as religious events. That is to say, any x may or may not be given the label religious on an ascriptive view of religion, but the mystical, whether in contexts deemed religious or not, will always bear the neuroanatomical signature of the deafferentation of the posterior superior parietal lobe.

We are now in a position where, aided both by contemplative neuroscience and neurotheology, we can state the axiom that the mystical is sui generis, while other religious events are sui generis only insofar as they are also mystical. This axiom is confirmed, in my view, by the fact that, as has been known since the days of the Buddha and the Yoga Sūtra, the mystical can be expressed in any number of doctrinal contexts (as suggested by the Buddha’s metaphysical agnosticism and by the adaptability of dhyāna to multiple doctrinal contexts in multiple Indian religious systems). Nondual mysticism—or what has variously been called cessative,[iii] apophatic, and introvertive mysticism—can thus be used to justify any variety of theistic, nontheistic, religious and nonreligious teachings, as when, for example, the subjects of study were Tibetan Buddhist monks or Franciscan nuns.[iv] We could ask for no clearer marker of the neuroanatomical and neurophysiological basis for introvertive, nondual, apophatic, noncognitive mystical experience than the felt sense of nonduality that arises through the deafferentation of the posterior superior parietal lobe.

Given this scientific confirmation of the central thesis of Stace’s introvertive mysticism, and given the functional identity of the human brain from person to person (barring, of course, individual differences at the cellular level), it seems that the basic claim of strong constructivism has been effectively falsified. The neurobiological turn thus confirms the once widespread view in the comparative study of mysticism from James to Stace and Smart that a transconceptual, nondual mystical state is a perennial feature of religion—or what I call a religious universal— rather than a figment of the speculative imagination. By definition, this religious universal, in contrast to more doctrinally shaped forms of intense religious experience, has no sectarian markings. While there can be a Christian religious mysticism shaped by specifically Christian elements, there cannot be a Christian introvertive, nondual, or apophatic mysticism except insofar as it is a Christian who is experiencing this transsubjective, noncognitive state. This goes for all other traditions as well, each of which can claim interpretive ownership of its own variously declined varieties of religious experience, but can lay no special claim upon the nondual mystical-yogic state, which, because it bears the neurobiological signature of the deafferentation of the posterior superior parietal lobe, expresses the deep biological structure of religion and spirituality and provides a scientific basis for the study of the mystical and its attendant practices, itineraries, and outcomes. This discovery, in turn, provides a foundation for a pluralistic and essentialistic comparative science of religion. Thus, the door seems now to swing widely open once again for a new perennialism in the study of yogic consciousness and mysticism.



Despite the sensationalism that is easily aroused by the headline-grabbing discoveries of Persinger, Hamer, and Newberg, their findings seem to have gained ground in the neuroscientific mainstream. This is especially true of neurotheology, whose findings have become a main plank in the search for the neural correlates of religious experience.[v] That these neurobiological processes are shared by human beings lends strong support to nomothetic approaches to religious experience after decades of idiographic approaches focusing on the cultural divergences that attend exclusively to individual mystical traditions.

Discoveries such as these are the foundation of a new, post-materialist science of religion, one that need not, like currently dominant materialist sciences, remain agnostic about whether or not there is a spiritual and immaterial dimension to life.[vi] These findings put overly constructivist and particularist views of religion on notice that, despite the richness of diversity that radiates through humanity’s religions, there is an underlying core of mystical experiences that shape individual spiritual experience wherever it occurs.[vii]

But again, as at the beginning of the chapter, one note of caution needs to be raised, for while the help of science is useful in recalling religious studies to its neglected nomothetic concerns, it must not be paid for at the cost of blindly adopting a trivialization of religion that sees religion only through the genetic, cognitive, and neurobiological categories that mark the boundaries of a reductionistic materialism. Independent of the views of science, welcome as they may be, religion has its own realm of competence. Surpassing the powers of virtually all other human endeavors, religion promises access to the immaterial and deathless realm of beatitude. Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other varieties of mysticisms differ in countless irreducible ways, yet they also share an identical concern with charting a path for contemplatives from unaware submersion in the realm of the senses to awakening into an immaterial realm of deathlessness and beatitude.

Whether one accepts that such a realm exists or not, it is indisputable that religion in general and mysticism in particular aim toward this realm. There is no doubt that cultural, political, linguistic, and anthropological factors shape religions and spiritualities, as constructivism has usefully pointed out. They are after all, products of the incessant and immensely creative activity of human societies and personalities. Yet, it should be uncontroversial to assert that the purest aim of religion and mysticism is to acquaint human beings with a realm beyond the reach of the senses and death, which is achieved through overcoming the duality of self and other. This is the basis of religious hope and of mystical practice, and it is because of this message of hope that one may hear a religious or mystical eulogy at a memorial service but never a eulogy based on chemistry or economics.

This new religious essentialism is thus less interested in the biographies of religious founders and histories showing how the contexts of their unique hierophanies shaped their personal mystical experiences than in studies that, for example, show how the altered states and nonordinary[viii] insights of meditation, which is the key practice of mysticism, affect people’s capacity for compassion,[ix] the realization of happiness,[x] and the activation of the altruism necessary for group rather than individual selection in evolution.[xi] From perspectives such as these, the specific contextual differences between religions and their contemplative practices appear to be less significant than their empirically testable benefits, which inhere in them as forms of religion and spirituality rather than as unique features of this of that sectarian body of doctrines, practices, and historical and institutional characteristics. For, despite the infinite number of differences that distinguish the world’s many religious traditions, the essential practices of religion have displayed a remarkable unity over the millennia, as the old perennialists correctly argued. Setting aside the endless varieties of local expression and local doctrinal controversies, religious practices such as ritual, prayer, and meditation seem remarkably similar everywhere they occur, just as writing and talking involve the same bones and muscles in different human societies, even if their verbal and symbolic content changes dramatically from context to context. Up very close, Hopi katsina dances appear quite different from Vaiṣṇava sankīrtana parties or Pentecostal dancing in the Spirit, yet, within a larger perspective, each of them can be seen as serving the same purpose of awakening a sense of ecstatic connection to unseen realms and powers in the dancers, an experience that, despite its identity across time and cultures, is diversely thematized in the world’s many unique religious traditions.

Thus, a basic conviction guiding this book is that while constructivism served for a time as a needed corrective (but not as a substitute) to the abstractions of the earlier perennialist approach, constructivism itself now stands in need of correction. This I propose to do this by returning theoretical attention in religious studies to the question to the general aspect of religions, which is to say that I will sift the unique materials contingently produced by the three traditions under review in this book in order to draw or abstract out the contemplative universals, or deeply felt internal states, which retain phenomenological identity through the diverse contexts in which contemplative experience is expressed. It is upon these contemplative universals, rather than upon the interesting but inessential differences between diverse contemplative traditions, that, in my view, a defense of mysticism—and more generally of the religious life of humanity as religious—can be mounted over against the perhaps now faltering reductionistic, materialistic view of life.

[i] See Newberg and Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain,150-169

[ii] Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered, 18-22.

[iii]Stuart Ray Sarbacker, Samādhi: The Numinous and the Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga (Albany: State University Press of New York Press, 2005), 1, 24-25, passim.

[iv] Summarized by Hick, The New Frontier of Religion and Science, 63-65, 75-76, 79, although he interprets this constructivistically.

[v] McNamara, The Neuroscience of Religious Experience, 127, 129-130.

[vi] At the juncture of science and religion, pioneering neurotheologian Andrew Newberg suggests that one possible, if “perhaps unlikely,” outcome of the discoveries of neurotheology might be a paradigm shift in which “the material world will be found to be secondary to some spiritual or absolute realm,” Principles of Neurotheology, 59.

[vii] Hamer clearly places himself in the Jamesian tradition of separating personal spirituality from institutional expressions of religiosity, and clearly indicates that his interest as a researcher is in the latter, Hamer, The God Gene, ix-x.

[viii] To avoid the traditional religious associations associated with words such as  transcendent, I substitute here the expression nonordinary, which is taken from F. Samuel Brainard, Reality and Mystical Experience (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 49-50 passim.

[ix] Paul Condon, Gaëlle Desbordes, Willa Miller, and David DeSteno, “Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering,” Psychological Science, August 21, 2013, accessed October 23, 2015, doi:10.1177/0956797613485603; see also David DeSteno, “The Morality of Meditation,” New York Times, July 5, 2013, accessed October 23, 2015,

[x] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 35-37, 63, 78, 90, 91, 148.

[xi] Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 235-238. Haidt follows David Sloan Wilson in arguing for this view of religion, The Happiness Hypothesis, 233-234.