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Bradley Hilltopics

Spring 2009 • Volume 15, Issue 2  



A scientific look at religion

Dr. Robert Fuller, Caterpillar Professor of religious studies and director of BU Honors Program

Dr. Robert Fuller
Caterpillar Professor of religious studies and director of BU Honors Program


Taking a scientific look at why humans become religious is the focus of Dr. Robert Fuller’s 12th book, Spirituality in the Flesh, his fourth published by Oxford University Press.

Fuller was inspired by leading biologists Richard Dawkins of Cambridge University and E.O. Wilson of Harvard, both of whom have published books on religion. Fuller, Caterpillar professor of religious studies and director of Bradley’s Honors Program, saw that many of his religion colleagues have not grasped the connection between science and religion, and he wanted to be a frontrunner in studying the relationship. Explaining the correlation, he comments, “You can only think and feel what the brain allows. Therefore, religious feelings have to be anchored in the physiology of our bodies.”

Fuller differs from Dawkins, in that the Cambridge professor argues against religion. Fuller comments, “Humans are social organisms. We are not faster or stronger than other animals, so we had to cooperate. Humans formed tribal units. Religion fits into that. Tribal identities are defined by religion.”

As he researched his book, Fuller discussed the psychology of emotions with Bradley psychology professors Dr. Derek Montgomery and Dr. David Schmitt. “Emotions straddle psychology and biology. In the ’60s and ’70s, psychologists believed we came in as blank slates, and everything was a result of our social environment. Since then, psychologists have become knowledgeable about genetic, biological influences.”

Fuller’s book also investigates how studying the body can help answer spiritual questions, such as why some religious traditions connect spirituality and pain, how emotions like fear shape religious actions, and what impact chemically altered states of consciousness have on religious experiences.

Commenting on the chemistry of consciousness, Fuller says, “By wiring people to EEG’s during mystical experiences, we see part of the brain being activated. I look at how altered brain states give rise to religious experience.”

Spirituality in the Flesh also explores sexuality and religion. “Our most powerful urge is to repopulate. I’m interested in the sexual desire to unite with a person and the religious desire to unite with our Lord and Savior. I try to show underlying sexual dimensions in religion. It’s an obvious topic, and so many spend two to three sentences with it and drop it.”

He continues, “Then come emotions. The main difference among religions is whether they are based on fear or on wonder. If your beliefs are based on fear of hell or damnation, your behavior is more likely to be modified by religion.”

Another chapter of the book looks at pain and illness. “When pain breaks down the normal sense of self, we hear about born-again experiences. Pain and illness can lead to profound religious re-orientation.”

He adds, “The last chapter deals with the spirituality in and of the flesh. There are a lot of spatial relationships in religion: ‘Jesus lifted me up;’ ‘the left hand of God.’ If we start with the standpoint that life is a miracle, then religion is more of a celebration of our physical existence.”

Last summer, Fuller was interviewed in Halifax for the Canadian cable television series, “What I Believe.” The host of the series conversed with religious authorities to discern what he believes. As the author of Naming the Antichrist, his sixth book, Fuller was chosen to be interviewed. He was also interviewed on this topic for the History Channel, which continues to air.

What is a Caterpillar Professorship?

Caterpillar Professorships recognize extraordinary scholarship among full professors who hold tenure. The professorships were established in honor of Caterpillar with monies raised during the Centennial Campaign. Faculty members apply for the professorships, and selection involves an extensive review process with external peer evaluations and the deliberation of an internal advisory committee.