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Introducing ChemotheologyFour centuries ago Francis Bacon gave valuable advice about inventing neologisms. Since theywere unfamiliar, and thus potentially an obstacle to communication, he said that they should only beused when they were necessary to communicate a genuinely new concept or principle, On that basisthe addition of chemotheology to the vocabulary of science and religion is debatable, but justifiableon two grounds. Firstly, although it may in some instances seem to express the obvious in anunnecessary technical way, it may equally draw attention to matters whose obviousness hasobscured their significance. To take one quick example, is the pleasure that the worshipper, ormeditator, obtains from the smell of incense spiritual in any meaningful sense? What makes a smellspiritual or otherwise? Chemotheology approaches these as important and open questions. Thesecond justification for introducing a new and unfamiliar term is related to the first, but morefundamental. Dealing as it does with the physiological origins of all kinds of feelings, it offers helpin identifying genuine spirituality in a post-modern, New Age society with so many offerings that itresembles a spiritual bazaar, with no shortage of money-making hucksters.
It would be of value to begin by giving a working definition of the terms “spirituality” and“religion”, which are always in danger of being confused. What follows assumes that spirituality isessentially a state of consciousness marked by awareness of a higher reality with which theindividual feels, or desires to feel, a relationship, and may be independent of any creed. Not all, byany means, would accept this theistic definition, which is at odds with Buddhism and Taoism, but itoffers a clear starting point and focuses on the radical importance of definition, Religion, bycontrast, is a corporate phenomenon, essentially a group composed of those who accept certainfundamental assumptions about the nature of spirituality and a whole lot of other things, such as atheology of creation and structures of authority, and agree not to question them. From a scientificperspective, therefore, a religion becomes a closed system of taboo, unable to survive free enquiryabout its fundamental beliefs from within its membership. It is worth noting, however, that scienceitself can become a taboo system, when questioning of fundamentals is forbidden. There is, in fact,a strong psychological connection between religious fundamentalism and scientism, bothdepreciating individual freedom to seek in favour of group-think. Spirituality is a more generalconcept than religion, and it is often argued that there is a common factor of spirituality across thespectrum of so-called faith groups. This cannot be taken for granted, however, and the questionremains open as to whether or not genuine spirituality can be faith-bound. Though the question is ofvital importance in a world that seems to be entering into a “clash of civilizations,” it will not bepursued here.
Chemotheology may be considered a branch of neurotheology, especially where it deals withneurotransmitters, but has its own independence insofar as it focuses attention on the glandularsystem of the body, especially the endocrine system, where most of the chemicals that influenceconsciousness originate, Whether viewed as a free-standing discipline or not, it takes its placewithin a new systematic theology that is now emerging in our scientific culture. Cosmotheology,neurotheology and historical theology are together reshaping the theological landscape, andredefining religion. Cosmotheology is providing a new creation story that will transcend the
conflicting myths which keep the world in religious compartments and generate religious wars,Neurotheology is on the way to dissolving the barrier between a God “out there” and “God within”,and historical theology is laying bare the pious fictions that have been taken for centuries asreligious facts. Chemotheology offers a potential bridge between science and religion in an agewhere the need for such a bridge is increasingly felt and at the same time is a corrective to thosewho would argue that spirituality is only a higher kind of superstition. However, one must berealistic and recognize that since chemotheology spans both religion and science, it is more likely tobe attacked from both sides than welcomed from either.
Spiritual Highs and LowsFrom the perspective of chemotheology, the honest seeker after truth must ask if the search for God– to put it oversimply – is not at base the search for a kind of chemical pleasure, like the jogger’sadrenaline high. The case against religion is even more damning if one accepts that the Godhypothesis is a fantasy. This is essentially the case argued by Richard Dawkins and othersecularists, and must be isolated as a black box here in order to focus on the aspect of chemicalpleasure. It may be said, however, that the reality of a creating power is strongly supported bycosmology, for, at the very least, it is as plausible a hypothesis as “it all just happened.” The factthat one gains pleasure from religious activities does not automatically make them self-serving. Theprinciple at issue is far more complex than that, for in general nature organizes things so that weobtain pleasure from doing what is needed for survival of the species and the individual. A nursingmother, for instance, may obtain pleasurable feelings of hormonal origins but this does not makebreast-feeding her baby a selfish activity in a bad sense. So while it would be true to say thatreligious practices are designed to produce pleasurable feelings at various levels, from smells tobells, as colloquially expressed, the critical issue is whether the pleasure stops at that level or is insome way a preparation for, and inducement to seek, a higher level of emotional satisfaction. It is,in fact, arguable that this higher satisfaction goes beyond emotion, but the word may be used as aninitial marker in this unknown territory.
Finding the BalanceFrom a neurochemical point of view, mental health is related to maintaining an optimum level ofserotonin in the brain, sometimes called “the happiness chemical”, which is constantly changingunder the influence of a wide variety of factors. The part played by serotonin in determining ourconscious state is complex, and involved with synaptic efficiency, but it would not be misleading tosay that a low level of serotonin leaves us in varying degrees depressed and ill at ease with theworld or with ourself, and the need to find the right balance governs our behaviour at every level.
Intellectually, it can come from unfulfilled curiosity, or from a clash between belief and perception.
Emotionally, it comes mainly from the need for love – i.e., union with another person. Spiritually, ithas been called by the poets “the divine discontent,” and summed up by St. Augustine sixteencenturies ago in addressing God, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and we shall find no rest until werest in Thee.”
Serotonin balance depends partly upon the concentration of other chemicals in the blood, as, forexample, sugar, but also on relationships - from individual to global. We do not exist like pebbleson a beach, but are organic parts of greater wholes, from the family, through the nation, to thehuman species. Their welfare is our welfare. To the extent that we are empathic, we suffer as they
suffer and rejoice as they rejoice. In the 21st century, the communications revolution has widenedour empathic scope enormously, and as a consequence the normally sensitive individual willexperience emotional stress not only from suffering within the family but from a famine in Darfuror an earthquake in China. This new development, hardly realised as yet, adds a whole newdimension to the traditional imperative to love one’s neighbour.
Temporary distress can find short-term remedies. Physicians and psychiatrists alleviate it withProzac, Valium or Ritalin, but because the serotonin level is related to blood sugar level, theindividual will often seek a quick fix by taking sugar. Britain, it has been said, has become a nationof sugar junkies. Chocolate is the great comforter, particularly among women, for some reasonwhich must surely be related to the female hormonal balance, and, in the context of spiritual needs,it instructive that John’s Gospel refers continually to the Holy Spirit as the comforter. The action ofchocolate in raising serotonin levels comes, not primarily from sugar, but from the fact that itcontains several chemicals which generate subtle alterations in mood. Indeed, the range of thesemood-altering substances and the complexity of their effects has given rise to what is sometimescalled “the science of chocolate.” The two best known of them are probably tryptophan andphenylethylamine, which, in stimulating the production of serotonin, appear to mimic the effects ofhuman love. In this connection, a friend once described to me the effect of a successful groupmeditation, which she said was like having warm chocolate poured over her. This startling imagehighlights the question raised earlier about the goal of religious practice: in a nutshell, is meditation– solitary or in a group – in danger of become a search for selfish pleasure rather than for unity witha higher reality? The risk can be easily recognized in the sensory experience of religious liturgy,and par excellence in Russian Orthodox Christianity, where sweet-smelling incense, candles, richvestments, icons replete with gold leaf and powerful choirs can give quite overwhelming pleasure,even to atheists. In the light of the remark above, however, one might ask whether or not it ispossible for meditation itself be indulged in as a kind of spiritual chocolate? Could one evenbecome addicted to false spirituality?
First ConclusionsA knowledge of mood-altering chemicals will not make us more spiritual, but it can make us reflecton the meaning of the word “spirituality,” which seems to be taken in general simply as an all-purpose good, vaguely opposed to materialism, but often co-existing with deep selfishness. It canalso draw attention to the developmental and evolutionary role of religion, and this is of particularimportance today, when religion is often written off as a no more than blind loyalty to a set ofoutworn and hand-me-down beliefs, more often than not, the “faith of our fathers.” Chemotheologyhelps turn our minds towards an almost forgotten question – what is the point of religion? What useis it if it does not enable the individual and the species to unlock and develop their latent potential tobecome more human? The original message of Christianity was that we can become more thanhuman by “taking on the mind that was in Christ,” and something very similar is found inBuddhism and Hinduism, whose adherents seek “the Buddha mind” or “Krishna consciousness.”Whatever differences there may be – and they may prove to be very significant – there is a commonbelief that a higher than human species is possible. It looks as though science, having shown us ourevolutionary past, must now pass the ball to religion, to design and create our evolutionary futurebut, if so, a new kind of religion must emerge to meet the challenge.
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