From conception to birth, The Conference on Neuroscience & Religious Experience, to be held at Pomona College on Friday March 10, is the brainchild of Colin Eckstein ’17. For Eckstein, a neuroscience major and religious studies minor, this isn’t only a project for his thesis —it is an effort to counter what he calls the traditional “warfare narrative” perpetuated by academic scholarship that pits science and religion against each other.
In writing a literature review on the neuroscience of religious experience, Eckstein read more than 100 book chapters and articles by neuroscientists, psychologists, religious studies scholars and theologians. He says his readings revealed that by and large religious adherents denied that science had anything to say about the phenomenon of spiritual experience and, similarly, scientists pathologized religious experience. Eckstein was struck, however, by some notable exceptions: scientific accounts of religious experience that did not dismiss belief.
“I was inspired to see that authentic, respectful and scientifically religious conversation was possible, and I wanted to be a part of that,” says Eckstein.
Eckstein was raised in what he describes as a fundamentalist Christian sect that was unsympathetic “if not outright hostile” to scientific institutions.
“I was repeatedly told growing up that the devil planted dinosaur bones to perpetuate the lie of evolution and that climate change was a conspiracy of liberal academic elites,” says Eckstein. “Nevertheless, I was interested in science and refused to believe that faith and a vigorous intellectual life were mutually exclusive.”
Eckstein decided to confront his doubts rather than sidestep them. At Pomona, he examined scientific literature and wrestled with how what he was reading reconciled with his religious views. It was a process that Eckstein calls transformative.
“I’m more convinced than ever that faith and scientific inquiry can be pursued together, each challenging and enriching the other,” he says.
Eckstein plans to pursue a master’s in religion and psychology. When he mentioned to Psychology Professor Ajay Satpute that this was the topic he was most interested in, together they talked about options for his thesis. Satpute suggested Eckstein put together a conference. So Eckstein took on the herculean task, working on everything from fundraising, to choosing and inviting speakers, to hotel bookings, to catering and media services, assisted by Anne Tessier, academic coordinator of the Neuroscience Department.
Satpute calls Eckstein’s work a “bold expression of himself and his own struggles in life. From heart to head, he has strived to find a balance between religion and science that avoids the shallow conclusions offered by the rejection of science for religion (or vice versa), the assimilation of religion into science, or treating them as separate entities altogether.”
Featuring presenters with expertise in religious studies, anthropology, theology and art, the conference is designed not only to bridge the gap between science and religion, but also between scholarship and lived experience, says Eckstein.
“I hope that no matter where people are coming from, they will come away from this conference with a more complete picture of religious experience,’’ he says. “I want to instill people with a newfound respect for the ‘opposing camp’ and a willingness to engage with unfamiliar perspectives.”
The Conference on Neuroscience and Religious Experience will be held from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Friday, March 10 in Millikan Hall (610 N. College Ave.). It is free and open to the public.