Religion, Bodies, & The Brain (T/RS 284)

University of Scranton
Cyrus P. Olsen III, D.Phil. 

Catalog Description:

This course examines religion and embodiment through the lens of brain science.  Religious rituals and practices are studied in light of their impact on the human body.  Students will also engage in Ignatian reflection on the relationships pertaining to religion, bodies, and the brain in the context of experiential learning.

Course Description:

Religion, Bodies, and the Brain is a general education course for undergraduates interested in keeping science and the humanities in conversation with one another.  The course accordingly enhances students’ proficiency in the public communication of ideas, as they learn to read, write, and speak about changes in both science and religion as they pertain to their place in society today.  Together we begin by learning how the concept of “religion” came to be adopted in the modern period, and for what purposes.  The relationship between religion and science can then be critically examined.

Simultaneously, we study some very basic principles of brain science.  Having acquired some working knowledge of both religion and brain science, we will study recent attempts to use brain science to explain religion, particularly religious rituals and practices as a set of human behaviors shaping human lives.  Reversing the relationship, we will also study how religious groups adapt to, and/or resist, developments in science.  Students will thus become more adept at discerning the ongoing negotiations performed by people of faith as they situate themselves in societies where the authority of science holds sway.  Framing “religion” in this way affords students an opportunity to query the place of religion within society while also considering the commonalities religious rituals, practices, and ideas share with other basic everyday activities often presumed to be outside the purview of religion.  Use of contemporary conversations about the “sacred” and the “secular” further assists the inquiry into wider social implications for how we talk about religion.

Experiential learning will be utilized to familiarize students with the importance of patterns of movement for shaping our daily lives so as to give students the opportunity to compare theory to practice, their own practice.  Jesuit practices of meditative reflection will then be applied to those experiences to facilitate engaging the memory and imagination of students.  Through experiential learning the ideas expressed in the religious and neuroscientific literature will have a different meaning for the students, one that is more richly tied to how our commitments to people, practices, and ideas begin and end in the body.  We will experience Ignatian spiritual exercises.  We will collaborate with Cheryl Boga to create a music workshop, centered around use of the voice.  We will also have an opportunity to create a movement workshop to accentuate the place of motion in religious experience and healing.

Another key component of the class is the convergence of ideas coming from science and religious traditions on how to live with optimal health.  The brain science lectures we will be utilizing from the scientist John Medina (University of Washington) are delivered with optimal brain health in mind.  Furthermore, brain science is deeply influencing therapies for optimizing health, whether that is in the counseling profession, psychiatry, addiction recovery, or simply in popularized literature seeking to offer new patterns of healthy living.  Religious traditions the world over ask adherents to fast, to exercise, to harmonize, and to engage in mindful habit-formation.  Today the language of virtue and public deliberations about ethics draw upon data coming from brain science.  We are seeing studies connecting the gut biome to brain health that have the potential to influence public policy due to the inequalities in food access across our own country.  Students will thus have ample opportunity throughout the course to write upon, speak about, and question the potential convergences of studies, practices, and ideas that privilege the brain when articulating what humans are in this world and what we can do to harmonize with ourselves and our environments.

Student Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this course students will be able to:

(1)   Identify and discuss religious practices as they relate to brain science and embodiment.
(2)   Discuss both the integration of and the tension between religious practices and scientific research in brain science, as these pertain to contemporary concerns about public health.
(3)   Apply theological and philosophical insights to developments in brain science.
(4)   Employ religious and scientific sources in reflection about personal and communal health.
(5)   Articulate relationships between concepts/experiences of God and scientific explanations of encountering the extraordinary.

Required Texts:
1. Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale, 2015) e-book available freely through our library
2. John Medina, Your Best Brain, Great Courses lectures on Kanopy through library
3. Thomas Dixon, Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2008) e-book available freely through our library
4. Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons (2018)
5. Learning Through Play: A Review of the Evidence (Cambridge, 2017)

Other relevant resources:

For Theology/Religious Studies Students, the “Science for Seminaries” website maintained by the Catholic University of America is a useful resource.