I had already been working on an article exploring reasons people in the Western world are leaving the Christian church in significant numbers when I learned about the fascinating case of “split-brain” surgeries – something that totally blew my mind (no pun intended).
In the 1960s Roger Sperry, Joseph Bogen and colleagues performed an experimental surgery, officially known as corpus callosotomy, on multiple patients who suffered from epileptic seizures. The procedure involved severing the corpus callosum which connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Though the procedure is no longer performed today it turned out to be highly successful and, for the most part, patients were able to go on to live normal, healthy lives. But it wasn’t long, however, before split-brain patients noticed some peculiar and fascinating side effects.
One patient reported reaching into the closet with the right hand to pick out an outfit, only to have the left hand pick something different and refuse to put it back. A man found himself going to embrace his wife with one arm while his other arm simultaneously pushed her away.
On a more dangerous level, a female patient relayed that when she was driving her left hand would snatch the steering wheel from the right. She also reported her left hand: unfolding sheets her other hand had folded, closing doors the other had opened, and snatching money back that her right hand offered to a cashier.
In short, because each side of the body is controlled by the two different halves of the brain (the left side by the right hemisphere, the right side by the left hemisphere) these side effects seemed to indicate that the two hemispheres of the brain have two completely separate, and sometimes competing, wills.
So what does this have to do with people leaving the church?
Here’s where things get even more interesting. Split-brain patients naturally became the subjects of further brain experiments. Able to selectively control input to each hemisphere, neuroscientists used the opportunity to direct various questions (via input to the left versus right eye or ear, for example) in order to determine how each half separately handles various functions or attitudes.
In one experiment, V.S. Ramachandran reportedly asked a patient, “Do you believe in God?” The response from one hemisphere was “Yes” and the other hemisphere was “No.”
In other words, one half of the person’s brain had faith and the other half was an atheist.
What does this mean? Is our faith biologically controlled and entirely dependent upon whether we are “left brained” or “right brained?”
My answer is that it’s a bit more complicated than that. But what I hope to demonstrate throughout the rest of this article is what I have come to believe is the root cause of the mass exodus from the church in Western society – we are all operating out of a “split-brain” mode, largely dominated by left-brained only thinking.
Such thinking has infiltrated the Christian church itself for years, creating an unsustainable belief system largely removed from the type of lived-out faith that Christ intended. The consequences are that the jig is up, the dominoes are now starting to fall and people no longer see the God who has been presented as something that is real.
Do a quick Google search and you will start to see all sorts of reasons presented for why overall church attendance and involvement is decreasing in numbers: from our increasingly “secularized” culture, to “bad music,” to the battle of faith versus science, to concerns about the church being too judgmental, hypocritical or political, to being too “soft” and not speaking the truth enough, to lack of relevance, to lack of belonging, to even accusations of abuse (spiritual, emotional and, in some cases, physical) often attributed to patriarchal structures.
All of them may be true, or at least contributing factors, and every person who has departed from the church is going to have their individual reasons for doing so.
While I confess I have not done any official polling, as someone who has done a lot of listening over the years to the voices of those who have left the church (ranging from those who are in the process of deconstruction to those who call themselves “ex-vangelicals” to even those who now declare to be atheist) and as someone who has not left the church but has done his own share of “deconstructing” (and “reconstructing”) of my faith, if I could describe the one thread that seems to underlie all of the other explanations, it is this: people have a need to believe in something that is real and they are simply not finding it in the church.
We all commit ourselves to whatever we perceive to be real for our lives, even if there are problems or setbacks to it. It’s when something no longer matches up to the reality of our lives (and in some cases feels harmful to it) that we begin to let it go and sometimes even run from it.
Out of the people who were once part of church but have since walked away, I have found them to generally fit into one of two categories: 1) Those who have walked away from faith entirely because they no longer see the possibility that God is real; or 2) Those who still have faith but have come to feel that the church does not present an accurate picture of the real God who does exist (sometimes even a harmful picture).
But what has happened to the Western church to contribute to this?
In his seminal book on neuroscience titled The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist provides a thorough analysis of the differing characteristics of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, outlining how a shift to left hemisphere dominated thinking has significantly impacted Western society. While acknowledging as a falsehood the idea that each half of the brain participates in separate activities (both halves are involved in all activities) each hemisphere still carries out its own individual functions in handling those activities.
I apologize up front for my very oversimplified (and likely inadequate) explanation of his well-researched 462-page work in just a few short paragraphs. I highly encourage anyone to read it to get a full understanding of the science and sociological impact that he shares.
In short, the left hemisphere tends to handle the particulars and has an affinity for that which is mechanical, while the right tends to look at the whole and has an affinity for whatever is living. The left not only is the primary source of language (especially speech and reading), it also tends to be characterized as the side for: utility, abstraction, analysis, systemization, clarity, rationalism, certainty, denotative language and literalness. Caught up in the details, it is disposed to not seeing outside itself and, therefore, has an inclination toward either/or thinking, division and control.
The right, on the other hand, sees the individual parts in relationship to each other and to the whole. It, therefore, is the side for: context, metaphor, emotional understanding, empathy, care, love, art, music, intuition, connotation, and being able to see that which is “Other” or “whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation” (McGilchrist 92). In contrast to the left hemisphere, it tends to accept ambiguity and paradox.
As McGilchrist states, the right hemisphere:
“…acknowledges the importance of ambiguity. It therefore is virtually silent, relatively shifting and uncertain, where the left hemisphere, by contrast, may be unreasonably, even stubbornly, convinced of its own correctness…. So the left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome.” (McGilchrist 80, 82)
While each hemisphere may seem to have radically different views, in the same way that both hands are necessary to hammer a nail (one to align the nail, the other to strike), both sides of the brain are necessary for proper functioning in life. According to McGilChrist, both hemispheres are necessary for our understanding that which is ultimately real.
“My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recogisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain.” (McGilchrist 3)
However, perceiving reality fully with both hemispheres is rarely the case. As he states, “This synthesis is unlikely to be symmetrical, and the world we actually experience, phenomenologically, at any point in time is determined by which hemisphere’s version of the world ultimately comes to predominate.” (McGilchrist 10)
In short, we all tend to live with a split-brain view of the world.
The way that it is supposed to work is that the right hemisphere, with its ability to see that which is outside itself, takes in new experiences and then passes the information onto the left side to process, categorize, and often put language to it. But then its job is to return that information back over to the right side which is able to contextualize it in relation to the world.
“But I do not mean only that the right hemisphere starts the process of bringing the world into being. I mean that it does so because it is more in touch with reality….. Whatever the left hemisphere may add – and it adds enormously much – it needs to return what it sees to the world that is grounded by the right hemisphere.” (McGilchrist 195)
The left hemisphere serves a significantly important function. It is what gives us words for communication, provides for pragmatic solutions, and develops systems on which we can effectively operate. It gives us the rationalism on which much of Western society was built, enabled the industrial revolution, and is at the basis of the scientific method.
However, over the history of time, left-brain dominant thinking began to increase in the West, failing to fully return the perspective back over to the right hemisphere, and reaching its height beginning with the age of Enlightenment.
The result is a missed opportunity to know all that is real as the left hemisphere created a “self-reflexive virtual world” that has “blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand.” (McGilchrist 6)
While there is much positive to be said about Western advancement, according to McGilchrist, the problem with a society that becomes overly dominated by left-brain thinking, without the counterbalancing check of the right, is a tendency towards a view of the world that becomes “ultimately lifeless” (174), “mechanical,” “utilitarian in ethic” and “over-confident of its own take on reality” (209).
Such left hemisphere dominance, due to its inability to be relational and failure to see that which is “Other,” has an impact on our ability to see the divine as well. As McGilchrist contends,
“For it [the right hemisphere], belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship…. This is not reducible to a question of a factual answer to the question ‘does God exist?’…. It is having an attitude, holding a disposition towards the world, whereby that world, as it comes into being for me is one in which God belongs.” (McGilchrist 170)
The implication, of course, is that in a left-hemisphere world, God does not belong.
For some people this leads to an entirely materialist perspective – void of gods or a spiritual realm, the universe is self-contained, requiring only natural law to create and sustain it.
For most, however (as the right brain influence hasn’t entirely disappeared), there is room for a spiritual world; but as the hemispheres battle it out for influence (with the left side dominating with its either/or perspective), a split world is created with two separate realities – the secular and the sacred and never the twain shall meet.
Theologian N.T. Wright confirms this as he argues that modern Western society, beginning with European and American Enlightenment, is largely influenced by the philosophy of “Epicureanism,” which he defines as “the worldview in which God, or the gods, may perhaps exist, but if they do, they are far away and remain uninvolved with the world…. God lives at the top of the building, and we live at the bottom; the stairs have been destroyed, and the elevators stopped working a long time ago.” (Wright, Surprised by Scripture, ch. 1).
In a 2016 speech Wright further elaborated on Epicureanism’s influence, stating:
“We have inherited the Enlightenment’s assumption of a split world which has produced new definitions of the key terms ‘science’, ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ themselves. This split-world assumption, though, is itself rooted neither in science nor in faith. It is a philosophical take-over bid which has distorted each element in the picture, and has deliberately generated the false either/or of which we have spoken.” (Wright, “Wouldn’t You Love to Know?”)
Many reading this will contend that such a split-view doesn’t sound like Western Christianity at all which talks about things like personal relationship with God and God’s miraculous involvement with the world. But as we continue on you will begin to see just how embedded within the church such a philosophic outlook is. As Wright went on to say:
“Indeed, the way we now hear the word ‘miracle’ itself is conditioned by these Enlightenment perspectives, so it now sounds as though it refers to a distant God, normally outside the world’s processes, but just occasionally reaching in to do something bizarre and then going away again. The fact that many devout Christians think they have to defend just this shows how great a victory the Enlightenment has won.” (Wright, “Wouldn’t You Love to Know?”)
In my book Rethinking God: Because God is Bigger, Closer, and More Real Than You Think, I propose the importance of returning to the historic definition of God as “Being,” or the “Ground of Being” as Paul Tillich more recently expressed it (note: for various reasons in the book I more frequently use the word “Existence,” but I use it interchangeably with “Being”).
The impact of seeing God this way is to understand the paradoxical way in which God’s active presence can be seen in the world. As the “I Am” (the name expressed to Moses in Exodus 3:14) God can be understood to be the single ultimate source law beneath our two ways of seeing reality.
As the “Am,” God is the source law undergirding all the natural laws that created and operate the material universe. As the very personal “I,” God is the source law from which emanates all relational laws that affect how we best live (such as love, empathy, grace, compassion, peace, intimacy, beauty and even the arts).
These laws, the natural and the relational, do not actually operate separately but are essential to each other. There is not a natural world and a separate relational world – they are both part of the same reality. And, thus we can learn something about the one true God who created it all by observing both the natural and relational.
In our limited human nature, our split-brains, however, have a hard time seeing the seemingly paradoxical nature in which these two “realities” operate, especially due to our tendency toward either/or thinking.
To illustrate the paradoxical way of seeing things, theoretical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne used an oft quoted illustration of a teapot:
“Why is the kettle boiling? Answer#1: The kettle is boiling because the burning gas heats the water. True. Answer#2: The kettle is boiling because I want to make a cup of tea and would you like to have a cup with me? True.
There is no conflict between those two answers; they are in fact complementary. In an exactly similar way, I don’t have to choose between science and religion. ‘The universe sprang into being about fifteen billion years ago through the fiery explosion of the big bang.’ That is true, but it does not preclude my also saying, ‘The universe came into being and remains in being because of the Word of a Creator whose mind and purpose are behind all of the scientific truths that we perceive.’” (Polkinghorne, “Is Science Enough?”)
Science, thus, often misses out on seeing the “I” aspect of God and reality, while theology misses out on seeing the “Am” side. Both are needed to develop a complete picture.
Seeing God, the “I Am,” as the ground of being also eliminates what I call a false supernatural line. Like N.T. Wright’s illustration of the building (with God at the top, us at the bottom and no stairs or elevator in between), in our split-brain separation of the “I” and the “Am,” we have created a false line that separates the “natural” world from the “supernatural.”
Yes, there are things that happen in this world that are beyond our natural comprehension and, yes, there will forever be things beyond our natural abilities, but the reality is God is completely natural to this universe. In fact, one could argue that God, as the source of it all, is the most natural part to it.
Reality is thus a spectrum between the material and the spiritual worlds, the secular and the sacred – with each in constant interaction. Instead, with our tendency toward the either/or, we have placed God and divine action into the “supernatural” realm, the material world and its activities into the “natural” realm, a line separating the two and only occasional interaction between them.
Such “Epicurean” thinking, as opposed to an “I Am” perspective, is part of the split-brain mindset. And because both hemispheres of the brain are necessary for knowing what is real, split-brain thinking is simply not sustainable for those attempting to remain true to their faith and the reality they experience. It creates a cognitive dissonance that generates a quiet discomfort for some in the church and causes others to walk away entirely.
In Part 2 of this series I will be exploring some of the real-world consequences of a split-brain mentality and the ways they play out practically in Western society, causing an exodus from the church. But here is essentially a “CliffsNotes” version of what I will be sharing:
- Faith vs Science: As a result of either/or thinking and the false line separating natural from supernatural, we’ve become engaged in an unnecessary battle between faith and science. As natural sciences advance, supernatural explanations decrease, thus diminishing the role for God in this world. Faced with an either/or choice, people either dig in their heels to faith and reject science, or they end up walking away from faith in order to rest on scientific consensus. The treatment of mental health has also become a casualty in this battle.
- Theology: Adhering to the left brain’s tendency for systemization, clarity and certainty we have developed disciplines such as “systematic theology.” While serving an important function, without a proper balance of the right brain’s affinity for empathy, theological pronouncements can become cold and judgmental, leaving people feeling disenfranchised and shamed. The need for certainty and control, can also create abusive power structures. Consumerist penchant for definitive answers (such as “7 keys to blessed living”) also lead to disappointment with God.
- Biblical Interpretation: The left-hemisphere’s penchant for literalness ignores the cultural context, as well as the metaphoric and “myth” language, of the Bible. “Myth” was not an attempt to be fictitious, according to our modern understanding of the word, but rather a means at getting at deeper, implicit truths unavailable to the language of the left hemisphere. In its attempt to be accurate, literal interpretation can actually give us a false picture of God.
- Politics & the Culture War: “We’re voting for a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief” is the ultimate example of modern Epicureanism as well as the valuing of utility over empathy. Such left-brain thinking is not reserved entirely for the “conservative” church. Forms of liberal theology ignore personal relationship with God, and liberation theology focuses on “systems.” Bouncing between the utilitarian extremes of Marxism and unchecked capitalism, the culture war is actually a battle of left-hemispheres, masked in right-brained “spiritual” language.
- Prayer: The left brain’s proclivity for language puts a high value on the written and audible versus intuition. Thus, for many “hearing God” is reduced to the written word. Others seek to hear God in the “audible,” whereas the Bible gives few examples of God speaking audibly. Lost is hearing God through deeper intuitive understanding as well as through nature and the arts. Prayer has also become an act of reaching out to the distant heavens rather than a recognition of God’s ever-present reality. Unanswered prayer is a key reason people leave the faith.
All of this criticism may give the impression that I dislike the church, particularly the Western church. Quite the opposite. It is precisely because of my love for Christ’s body that I choose to critique from within. In Part 3, I will examine how split-brain thinking actually has roots that go deeper than the age of Enlightenment, back to the Garden of Eden. I will also express my hope for the church, pointing out the positives I already see within it and suggesting solutions that will overcome split-brain thinking and help us to interact with the God who is real.
Go to Part 2 here. I also welcome your honest feedback in the comments section below.
Split Brain image credit: pyramis at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mindmob/51951632/in/album-1124041/
Baldwin, Steve L. Rethinking God: Because God Is Bigger, Closer, and More Real Than You Think. In Excelsis Deo Press, 2018.
McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press, 2019.
Polkinghorne, John. “Is Science Enough?” University of the South, September 1994, Sewanee, TN. Lecture. http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/11/polkinghorne-quotes-3-why-is-tea-kettle.html.
Ramachandran, V.S. Beyond Belief Conference, Salk Institute, 5 November 2006, La Jolla, CA. Lecture. www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=43&v=PFJPtVRlI64&feature=emb_logo.
Wright, N.T. Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. Reprint ed., Kindle ed., HarperOne, 2014.
Wright, N.T. “”Wouldn’t You Love to Know? Towards a Christian View of Reality.”” Grasping the Nettle Dinner, Grasping the Nettle. 1 September 2016, Glasgow, Keynote Address. https://www.graspingthenettle.org/watch/n_t_wright_2016.