The Press Saturday, May 9th 1998

The front page of today's Independent shows a colour photograph of man grimacing as he is held from behind by another in a headlock, so that his arms are outstretched in a pose of crucifixion. It could have been the paper's latest editor being escorted form the premises, but it was in fact a case of disputed conversion. The clue is provided by the priest it he foreground. Gary Trotter, the man in the headlock, is being thrown out of church because his nine-year-old son wanted to make his first communion there.

The story had been in the previous day's Daily Telegraph, without a picture; and without, too, the quote that makes the story truly unforgettable: one worshipper shouting that he wanted to "ethnically cleanse" Mr Trotter. No source is given for this quote, but I would be surprised if it had originated from anyone but the supposed victim. Mr Trotter claimed that his son Luke did not want to become a Catholic, though so far as I know no one was holding Luke in a headlock at the communion rail; his mother, from whom the father is separated, had given her consent. This has all the makings of a first-class Dawkinsian myth, including the necessary historical underpinning. I think this is what is referred to when priests are asked to avoid occasions of scandal.

Still, perhaps it's al in the mind. The Observer's Edward Hellmore had a long and thoughtful article on Sunday, reporting form New York on the research being done into the physical correlates of religious emotion. The specific trick is to scna the brains of the people at prayer or meditating to see what changes can be observed from the outside to correspond with their changed experiences.

He quotes VS Ramachandran, a neurologist in San Diego, who has been looking for the sort of neural machinery that might generate religious experiences. "Such epileptics display an unusual obsession with religious matters, and, during seizures, report overwhelming feelings of union with the universe. The researchers discovered that these people also have a heightened but completely involuntary neural response to religious language

" 'Something has happened in their temporal lobes that heightened their response to religious terms and icons, Ramachandran said, 'There may be a selective enhancement of emotions conducive to religious experience."

Of course, what this research cannot show is that there is nothing outside the brain producing these measurable changes with in it. Ramachandran is not himself particularly friendly to religious belief: he told one of the best atheist jokes I have ever heard at a conference on the scientific study of consciousness a couple of years ago: he was describing experiments with women who had suffered strokes which not only robbed them of the use of their left sides, but also of the knowledge that they had lost this use: they would hallucinate or confabulate their left arms doing things and were astonished when the world failed to react: one, when asked to pick up a tray, would grasp the right had handle firmlyu and lift it exactly as if she were holding the other side as well. She would be astonished when the tea things cascaded everywhere. Finally, he told the conference, he could resist temptation no longer. "Clap!" he told her. Solemnly, she swung her working hand up until it stopped abruptly where the other one should be and she looked content. "Now we know what the answer to the riddle is," he said. " 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?' You have to be brain damaged to hear it!"

Thomas Newburg, the neurologist who is conducting research on Tibetan monks as they meditate, told Hellmore that to suggest that the 'objective experience of God was reducible to neurochemical flux might be like making the same claim for the 'objective' reality of the sun, the Earth, and the Air."

The article concluded "Even if scientists can explain spirituality in biochemical terms, it is unlikely to quell the debate over what these experiences mean, or whether they signal the existence of God. Ultimately, there may be one of two conclusions to draw: the brain is set up to generate concepts of religion, or the brain is set up by God because God wants us to have those experiences. 'Neuroscience can't answer those questions' says Newburg.

This is more than mere thumbsucking: both of these outcomes preclude what is one of the most popular beliefs about the soul at the moment: that it is a sort of stuff different from body or material stuff. It will take years for this view to become self-evident; but when it does, the consequences for both science and atheism will be interesting. It is bad news both for Dawkins and his opponents.

Two scare stories on the traditional theme of the Church of England abandoning the family. The Sunday Times had run down a report by "senior clerics" apparently the rural dean of Salisbury who have drawn up a 'betrothal ceremony' for unmarried couples. The Daily Mail has found the Children's Society "attacking the ideal of the traditional family." This was illustrated by a photograph of Dr Carey captioned simply "Carey: backs marriage". But there was meat to this. The Children's Society has produced a document which explicitly defines families without reference to marriage, on the grounds that putting marriage at the centre was "too narrow, excluding the extended family as well as other family relationships not represented by marriage."

This is undoubtedly the sort of thing that Dr Carey would rather the Church did not say, and Steve Doughty was probably quite right to detect in it the hand of Bishop Jim Thompson, the chairman of the society. Fortunately, the Church of England is not the sort of family where people often settle their differences with a  headlock.

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