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A faithful scholar

 

For more than 30 years, Dr. Robert Fuller has published books on many topics, ranging from the Antichrist to Wonder. A Caterpillar Professor of Religious Studies and director of Bradley’s Honors Program, he reflects on his career as a scholar and teacher at Bradley.

Dr. Robert Fuller is an energetic professor whose body of scholarly works reflects his vitality. Unlike many scholars who focus on a fairly narrow academic topic, this Caterpillar Professor of Religious Studies has researched and written about a wide variety of topics relating to religion, and his output has been prodigious. His books have been published by some of the world’s most prestigious academic presses. Five have been published by Oxford University Press, the world’s premier publisher of academic books on religion.

"I have never been able to limit my interests to a single scholarly field. I tell people I have ADD—Academic Deficiency Disorder. I can’t keep myself from pursuing new interests."
Dr. Robert Fuller

Fuller’s 12th book, Spirituality in the Flesh, was published by Oxford last year. The book takes a scientific look at why humans become religious. His other books have delved into such wide-ranging topics as moral obligation, spirituality outside traditional religious institutions, the sense of wonder, alternative medicine, the cultural history of psychology, the impact of religion on human development through the life cycle, the role of wine in religious experience, and the history of Americans’ beliefs about the Antichrist.

Fuller comments, "I have never been able to limit my interests to a single scholarly field. I tell people I have ADD—Academic Deficiency Disorder. I can’t keep myself from pursuing new interests."

He commends Bradley’s administration for promoting an ideal mix of teaching and scholarship. "Classroom teaching is why I chose a career as a college professor. But, teaching is about discovering and communicating knowledge, and this is where teaching connects with the research we do outside the classroom," Fuller says, crediting former provost John Hitt, who in the 1970s and 1980s had the vision to support and create an expectation for Bradley faculty to conduct research.

Bradley’s Office of Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development (OTEFD), where faculty can apply for internal research funding, is a tangible expression of institutional commitment. Fuller notes that with the resources of OTEFD, the inter-library loan system, and access to Internet2, Bradley can support the highest levels of research in most academic areas.

Bringing national attention to Bradley

Fuller’s book, Naming the Antichrist, was published in 1995 and continues to gain attention. When first published, this book was spotlighted in such national media as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Fuller’s expertise in the psychological roots of end-of-the-world religious beliefs had already made him a media resource when the religious community in Waco, Texas, came under siege by federal authorities. During that incident Fuller was sought out by more than 40 television, radio, newspaper, and magazine journalists. A few years ago, Fuller was contacted by the History Channel to film a two-part series on the Antichrist that continues to be aired frequently. Last summer, he was interviewed for a Canadian cable television series, "What I Believe." The host conversed with religious authorities to help guide the audience to an informed view of this topic.

"As a scholar, I would far prefer to be known for what I support, rather than what I am against."
Dr. Robert Fuller

Discussing the book, Fuller comments, "In all my other books, I’m promoting ideas I personally champion. I wrote this book to speak out about an aspect of religion that is usually hateful and mean-spirited. As a scholar, I would far prefer to be known for what I support, rather than what I am against. Ironically, the one book that explains my critical perspective on certain facets of religion turned out to be one of my best-known contributions to the field."

He pulls no punches in expressing his disdain for "beliefs that glorify the destruction of the world rather than directing us to efforts that will build the world." Fuller notes that religion is not always about love. It has also been about hate. His historical narrative explains how religious efforts to "name the antichrist" can be seen as pernicious attempts to demonize our enemies. Fuller observes, "The idea of an Antichrist has served as a vehicle for labeling those who differ from us as incarnations of evil and thereby justifying violence and continued hatred, all in the name of God."

Studying science’s role in religion

In contrast, Fuller hopes his most recent book, Spirituality in the Flesh, will be instrumental in distinguishing him as a frontrunner in researching the correlation between science and religion, a topic he embraces. "You can only think and feel what the brain allows you to think and feel. Therefore, religious thoughts and feelings are anchored in the physiology of our bodies," he says.

Many of his colleagues in religious studies have not grasped the relationship, and Fuller decided to research the connection after leading biologists Richard Dawkins of Cambridge University and E.O. Wilson of Harvard University published books on religion.

"The connection between psychology and religion is the overall theme of my academic research. This was my major field in graduate school at the University of Chicago. My second field, however, was American cultural and religious history, and for many years I published more in this area than in my initial area," Fuller says. "Being 28 years out of grad school, I was somewhat out of touch with newly emerging work in academic psychology. I needed to rejuvenate my professional skills by digging into 21st-century psychology."

As he conducted research, Fuller conferred with Bradley psychology professors Dr. Derek Montgomery and Dr. David Schmitt. They steered him to state-of-the-art work in cognitive psychology and the psychology of emotions. In contrast to the 1960s and 1970s, when psychologists believed people came into the world as blank slates, psychologists are now knowledgeable about the role of genetic or biological influences. Fuller’s book uses current research in the biological and psychological sciences to explore a variety of questions about religion, such as why some religious traditions assign spiritual currency to pain, why the emotion of fear so often factors prominently in religious life, why people often believe they have a deep personal relationship with unseen spiritual beings, or how chemically altered states of consciousness often trigger religious experiences.

"If we start from the standpoint that life is itself a miracle, then religion is the way we celebrate the sacredness of our physical, worldly existence."
Dr. Robert Fuller

One topic covered in Spirituality in the Flesh is how scientists conduct laboratory research on religious experiences. "By wiring people to EEGs or other sophisticated equipment that monitors brain activity, we can see how different parts of the brain become especially active during mystical experiences. I find it fascinating to learn what is going on in the brain during experiences we label as religious or mystical."

The book also explores the connection between religion and sexuality. "Our most powerful biological urge is to repopulate. Powerful hormones motivate us to become attracted to others, to seek intimate union, and to sustain loving relationships. All of this has a bearing on why religious persons become attracted to God, seek intimate union with God, and sustain loving relationships with their chosen Lord or Savior. If you read many conversion narratives or observe religious revival meetings, you can hardly avoid noticing this connection between religion and romantic love. It’s an obvious topic, yet it is also a controversial topic. Because most scholars spend only two or three sentences describing this connection between religion and sexuality, I am one of the first to develop this line of analysis in any detail."

He continues, "Another important biological factor in religion is the role of emotion. It is not a question of whether emotion influences religious thinking, but a question of which emotions are most pronounced. My research explores the contrasting ways in which fear and wonder influence such cognitive activities as selective attention to sensory input, memory retrieval, physiological arousal, and activating fight/flight tendencies. If fear plays a prominent role in religious thinking, then we know that cognition and behavior are more likely to become narrow, defensive, and possibly hostile. Wonder, on the other hand, expands our cognitive repertoire, elicits greater empathy for others, and establishes long-lasting attitudes of care and ethical concern."

Another chapter of the book looks at pain and illness, which "can lead to profound religious transformations. Pain dismantles our normal sense of self and ushers in a surrender response. For this reason pain is often associated with religious rites of passage and various kinds of ‘born again’ experiences."

He adds, "The book’s last chapter deals with a number of ways our bodies connect with spirituality. Our body’s spatial orientation to experience profoundly influences how and what we think. For this reason, bodily metaphors permeate religion. Consider, for example, how often we hear people pray for God to lift them up, ask Jesus to take them in His arms, or proclaim that ‘I once was low, now I am high.’ In the final chapter, I also show how my view differs from other scholars, such as Richard Dawkins, who only use biological information to debunk religion. Religion can be detrimental to human well-being as Dawkins and others have scientifically shown, but it is also the source of our imaginative thinking and spurs us to our loftiest thoughts and feelings."

In the book’s conclusion, Fuller makes it clear that a biological approach to religion does not have to be linked with disbelief. "Indeed, if we start from the standpoint that life is itself a miracle," Fuller says, "then religion is the way we celebrate the sacredness of our physical, worldly existence."