Christopher G. White is Assistant Professor of Religion at Vassar College and contributes to the blog for The Social Science Research Council, The Immanent Frame. White is also the author of, Unsettled Minds: Psychology and the American Search for Spiritual Assurance, 1830-1840 (UC Press, November 2008). In his latest blog entry, “Mind Sciences and Religious Change in America,” White argues from an historical standpoint that recent neurological advances have consistently failed to alter older religious notions and practices, as described in the passage below.
“Why has the rise of mind/brain science not led to the expected decline of traditional religions or their wholesale transformation? One reason has been pointed to by Brooks and others in this discussion—that psychological studies often point to the usefulness of religious belief
and practice. It is true that such studies do not authorize specific religious ideas or practices. But in my experience, this doesn’t matter to most believers.
A second reason that psychological experimentation hasn’t dramatically altered the American religious landscape is that American Christians borrow selectively and (might I say) ingeniously from psychological work, embracing insights that support their views and resisting insights that seem reductive or are destructive of deeply-held beliefs. There is a longer story to this, and it is in my forthcoming book, Unsettled Minds—shameless plug—so I won’t give away the whole story here. A third and final reason that psychological technologies haven’t dramatically altered belief is simply that it is difficult for believers to sustain a living religion either because of pragmatic reasons (it’s good for me) or because experimental results call for it (studies show it is healthy). Hall expected Christianity to transform itself into a merely hygienic or therapeutic system, but when faced with the choice, most Christians kept the old doctrines, rituals, gods and supportive communities. They can hang on to all of that and incorporate what they can of newer, therapeutic practices and ideals. The last one hundred years has shown this to be the case: It has been at once a century of astonishing psychological growth and power and a time of remarkable Christian (and evangelical Christian) growth.”
To read the rest of his blog, please read, “Mind Sciences and Religious Change in America.”