From the award-winning NPR religion correspondent comes a fascinating investigation of how science is seeking to answer the question that has puzzled humanity for generations: Can science explain God?
Is spiritual experience real or a delusion? Are there realities that we can experience but not easily measure? Does your consciousness depend entirely on your brain, or does it extend beyond? In Fingerprints of God, award-winning journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty delves into the discoveries science is making about how faith and spirituality affect us physically and emotionally as it attempts to understand whether the ineffable place beyond this world can be rationally -even scientifically-explained.
Hagerty interviews some of the world's top scientists to describe what their groundbreaking research reveals about our human spiritual experience. From analyses of the brain functions of Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns, to the possibilities of healing the sick through directed prayer, to what near-death experiences illuminate about the afterlife, Hagerty reaches beyond what we think we know to understand what happens to us when we believe in a higher power.
Paralleling the discoveries of science is Hagerty's own account of her spiritual evolution. Raised a Christian Scientist, she was a scrupulous adherent until a small moment as an adult triggered a revaluation of her beliefs, which in turn led her to a new way of thinking about God and faith.
An insightful examination of what science is learning about how and why we believe, Fingerprints of God is also a moving story of one person's search for a communion with a higher power and what she discovered on that journey.
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Amazon Exclusive: Barbara Bradley Hagerty on Fingerprints of God
It took me more than a decade to muster the courage to write Fingerprints of God. The seed was planted on June 10, 1995, when I was reporting a story for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine about evangelical churches. Kathy Younge and I were sitting on a bench outside Saddleback Church. She told me that her melanoma had returned after a remission, and she believed that the disease was not meant to kill her, but to give her a transcendent purpose. As we talked, the night darkened to indigo. The streetlamp next to our bench cast a perfect circle around us, creating the eerie sense that we were actors on a stage. The temperature had dropped into the 50's. I was shivering but pinned to the spot, riveted by Kathy and her serene faith.
My body responded before my brain, alerting me to some unseen change. My skin began to tingle and my heart started beating a little faster. Imperceptibly at first, the air around us thickened; it grew warmer and heavier, as if someone had moved into the circle and was breathing on us. I glanced at Kathy. She had fallen silent mid-sentence. Neither of us spoke. Gradually, and ever so gently, I felt engulfed by a presence I could feel but could not touch. After a minute, although it seemed longer, the presence melted away. We sat quietly, while I waited for the earth to steady itself. I was too spooked to continue with the interview, and a few minutes later I was driving back to my hotel room.
But I could not shake the questions. Was that experience a delusion, or was it real? Is there a spiritual reality that exists beyond our everyday physical world? Is there evidence of God? Not just people’s beliefs, but hard, scientific evidence? And most basic of all: Is there more than this? For a decade, I looked for books that would answer these questions. Finding none, I decided to investigate the only way I knew how – as a journalist.
In 2006, I took a year-long leave of absence from National Public Radio to research the emerging science of spirituality. I spoke with dozens of prominent scientists who are bushwhacking through this controversial territory, often drawing the ire or ridicule of their colleagues who believe that everything can be explained by material means. In the meantime, I took a journey peppered with surprises and ridiculous situations. I traveled to Canada and donned the "God helmet" to see if activating my temporal lobes would unleash an encounter with the "divine." I attended to a peyote ceremony (although, like our former president, I barely ingested) and visited Johns Hopkins University in search of a chemical that would manufacture a mystical experience. I arranged for a minister to have his brain scanned while he prayed at the University of Pennsylvania, and tried to see if I could physically change my own brain through two weeks of meditation at the University of Wisconsin.
And I spent endless hours with people who had enjoyed dramatic spiritual experiences. Some had had spontaneous mystical experiences, right out of the blue. Some transcendent moments were triggered by a trauma, others by drugs, or epilepsy, or near-death experiences. Some people spent hundreds of hours in prayer and meditation to cultivate the ability to connect with the divine.
I confess that my exploration was not an entirely clinical. I was raised a Christian Scientist, and while I now consider myself a serious mainstream Christian, I have always believed in the presence and power of God. At the beginning I nursed a nagging concern that perhaps this God business is just a ruse, self medication in the face of certain death. I fretted that science would prove that all mystery, all transcendent experience, can be boiled down to brain chemistry and genetics.
What I found—well, you’ll have to see. But I can say this: By the end of my research, I had redefined God and my view of reality. And perhaps at the end of the book, you will too.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the award-winning religion correspondent for National Public Radio. She’s the recipient of the Templeton Foundation-Cambridge University Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion, and a Knight Fellowship at Yale Law School. Before joining NPR, she was a reporter at The Christian Science Monitor for 11 years. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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