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Fingerprints of God

NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty uses journalism’s tools to explore the intersection of spirituality and science.

By / May 19, 2009



Using the reporting and explanatory skills of a talented veteran journalist, Barbara Bradley Hagerty has written a compelling account of her quest to answer an age-old question: Is this all there is?

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The result is Fingerprints of God, a book that sails the roiling waters between religion and science and is unlikely to make quick friends among either evangelical Christians or those in the scientific community who conclude that God cannot exist. But for readers who consider themselves to be spiritual seekers, Hagerty treads some fascinating territory.

Rather than dismissing science as the enemy of spirituality, she engages with it, seeking out scientific pioneers, the outliers who are doing intriguing work on the nature of the brain and consciousness. She also talks with ordinary people who’ve had extraordinary personal encounters, such as near-death or out-of-body experiences, that have changed their views of themselves, reality, and on the existence of an afterlife.

Hagerty, the religion correspondent for National Public Radio, comes to a less-than-startling conclusion: Science can neither prove nor disprove these great questions. But she also sees hints of a “paradigm shift” in science now under way – akin, perhaps, to the early 20th century when the work of Einstein and others took a quantum leap away from a universe based solely on 18th-century Newtonian physics.

“Hard science does not mean petrified science,” Hagerty posits. “The paradigm to exclude a divine intelligence, or ‘Other,’ or ‘God,’ to reduce all things to matter, has reigned triumphant for some four hundred years, since the dawn of the Age of Reason,” she continues. “Today, a small yet growing number of scientists are trying to chip away at the paradigm, suspecting that its feet are made of clay.”

While more than 90 percent of the general public believes in God, only 7 percent of elite scientists do, according to recent polls. In addition, “Half of Americans claim to have experienced a life-altering spiritual event that they could circle on the calendar in red ink,” she says.

Some researchers are willing to go on the record about what they’re finding, despite potential ridicule from colleagues. “I think the evidence strongly points in the direction of there being more than just this material world,” says Bruce Greyson, a psychiatry professor at the University of Virginia and a leading researcher on near-death experiences.

Adds scientist Dean Radin: “Science is a new enterprise. We are monkeys just out of the trees. And for us to be so arrogant as to imagine we’re close to understanding the universe is just insane.”

Hagerty, who has covered the Justice Department and Sept. 11 for NPR and spent more than a decade editing and reporting at The Christian Science Monitor, examines both sides of the story. She includes detailed explanations of how many scientists explain spiritual experiences as illusions, chemical reactions, mere tricks of the material brain. A “God spot” in the brain may be responsible for religious or spiritual feelings.

But, she and other researchers wonder, does the brain always cause the experiences – or sometimes respond to something external?

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