I picked this book up quite a few months ago, as the subject really piqued my interest. It would probably be good to note that the subtitle is “The biology of spiritual experience.” Now those of you who know me will be well aware that I am not a biologist. However, in recognising my own ignorance of this subject, I am seeking (albeit slowly) to add in some more biology into my science reading, which tends to be heavily weighted towards to maths & physics.
I was prompted to take it off the bookshelf and take it with me on the train after I recently listened to the Gifford lectures given by Simon Conway Morris (you can find a link to the Gifford Lectures on the right of this page) in which he puts forth his views on convergent evolution and touches on the area of the relation of “mind” and the brain. For me, as a christian with a scientific background, I love looking at creation and not only marvelling at the end results, but also to look at the methodologies God used to bring it all about. That’s just my metaphysic viewpoint; I know not everyone will agree with it.
I think the same will be true of Foster’s book. I found plenty in there to agree with and some which I disagreed with wholeheartedly. I think there is something in there for everyone to object to, and I can think of few people I have met that would agree with all of the opinions (which cover a wide range of subjects) espoused by Foster.
The book was not quite what I expected. What I thought we were going to get was mostly neurological with some talk about how “religious” experiences affect the brain, along with discussions about causality, and whether what happens in the brain was the result of a “real” external stimulus or whether the experience was merely a product of what was going on in the brain.
Instead, what we have is a survey of various psychological experiences which might be considered to lie “outside the norm.” A lot of space is given to psychotropic drugs and the different effects experienced by users of a variety of different substances. Foster also covers some aspects of shamanism, out-of-body experiences, near-death-experiences, epilepsy and sexual ecstasy. So I wouldn’t have thought I’d see in a conservative Anglican church. In touching on shamanism, it gets close to, though does not reach, my own less-than-popular opinion regarding the presence of shamanistic practices in the Anglican church, specifically in what is known as liturgy, but which I see as being no different from ritualistic chanting, regardless of the veracity of the words being chanted.
Foster hides his own voice in the book sometimes. He does this by spending most of the chapter laying out the testimonies of others and gathering other viewpoints, whilst not commenting on them until the very end of the chapter. This left me a bit frustrated, as I would be reading a chapter, disagreeing with it, shaking my head, only to find in the last couple of pages that Foster actually & I were in agreement.
Along the way, he has a few pops at the reductionists, most notably Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett. Though written with erudition, his critiques are potentially too concise and I would love to read a fuller comment from Blackmore on Foster’s work (she does contribute a quote on the cover, but little more than that).
In conclusion, I think the book spends too little addressing the subject of the subtitle, and too much on merely describing drug experiences which may or may not be related to spiritual experiences.