SIR: In your summer 1997 issue, Saver and Rabin1 reviewed numerous case reports of patients with alterations in limbic system activity, such as temporolimbic epileptic discharge. Many of these patients had experienced intense and often peculiar sensations of God and the divine. The authors concluded that the limbic system may well be the "primary substrate" for religious experience.
The weakness of this article stems from the fact that no adequate formulation of religious phenomena is provided. What the authors suggest is that "the direct sensory awareness of God or the divine…is a quintessential mark of specifically religious experience" (p. 499). However, a quick review of world religions demonstrates that the concept of God or divinity is by no means ubiquitous, and therefore by no means quintessential for religious experience. Take, for example, the totemic beliefs of Australian aborigines studied by Emile Durkheim2:
In the course of my exposition, I have had no need even to say the words "spirits," "genies," or "divine personages." However, if, for this reason, some writers…have refused to see totemism as a religion, it is because they have been operating with a mistaken idea of the religious phenomenon. (p. 169)
Durkheim wisely noted that all religions are eminently collective. Whether religion entails accounts of the supernatural (as in Christianity) or atheistic meditation (as in classical Buddhism), the religious experience is derived from the work of creating a community oriented around sacred belief. The proper analysis of the brain-based events that correspond to religious experience must be exercised within the context of practices that sustain a moral community. In fact, according to this view, the quintessential mark of specifically religious experience cannot be related to the direct sensory awareness of God but rather is related to membership within a socially distributed belief system.
We ought not presume that states of altered temporolimbic activity account for genuine religious experience. Such states account for, say, temporolimbic epilepsy—not religious experience. The clinical phenomenology of temporolimbic epilepsy may well be mediated through culturally constructed religious symbols (say God), but we ought not confuse those symbols with the original context from which they were derived (genuine religious experience). In making this mistake, we risk impoverishing the essential meaning of religion.