Fingerprints of God

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

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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?

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.

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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?

“‘God’ may not be, as the atheists have it, a delusion – but perhaps a conclusion driven by the math of the universe,” she says. “[R]ather than dispel the spiritual, science is cracking it open for all to see,” she adds. “It seems to me that the instruments of brain science are picking up something beyond this material world.”

While the book’s scientists and religious seers have engaging stories to tell, the most powerful narrative is that of Hagerty herself, laying bare her own spiritual journey. More than a decade of soul-searching took place before she was willing to write it, she says. Her story begins at a time of depression and physical illness in which she turns away from the religion of her childhood and young adult years, Christian Science. Though she doesn’t end up back inside that church home, she finds herself standing on its threshold and gazing inside admiringly.

“Without realizing it at first, I had looped back to the faith of my childhood,” she writes in the book’s conclusion. “I found myself staring squarely at [Christian Science founder] Mary Baker Eddy’s definition of God: ‘Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love; all substance; intelligence.’ ”

She recounts physical healings experienced by her mother and grandmother, both practicing Christian Scientists, through prayer alone. At one point she calls on a Christian Science practitioner to pray with her to locate several minidisks with her research notes for the book that had been lost in the mail. A few weeks later a Postal Service manager phones to say they had been found.

Christian Science, she says, is “a religion that is, perhaps, a hundred years ahead of modern science – a religion that relies wholly on the power of thought to alter the body.”

The transcendent experiences she shares are not denominational, though they are intriguingly similar. No matter what their religious backgrounds, people who’ve had life-changing spiritual encounters – whether through a dramatic life event or consistent daily meditation and prayer – say they feel “a loving presence, infinitely intelligent and gentle,” she says. And “often, an overwhelming sense of unity with the universe – and, always, light.”

According to University of New Mexico researcher Bill Miller, she says, people’s priorities change after these profound spiritual experiences. “Before the experience, men ranked their top personal values as: wealth, adventure, achievement, pleasure, and being respected.... After the experience their top values were: spirituality, personal peace, family, God’s will, and honesty.”

Hagerty describes what she calls her own modest spiritual encounter as reminiscent of the words of British Anglican minister John Wesley: “My heart was strangely warmed.”

Hagerty writes with touching candor and honesty, but also with a journalist’s skeptical eye that demands facts and data. She worries that her religious upbringing, or perhaps even her genes, are influencing her conclusions. But in the end, she can’t help thinking that she’s onto something real that science is only beginning to understand. Something that people feel intuitively.

“Belief in God has not gone away, no matter how secular society has become or how much effort reductionist science has exerted to banish Him,” she says. “God has not gone away because people keep encountering Him, in unexplainable, intensely spiritual moments.”

Gregory M. Lamb is a Monitor staff writer.

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