The Common Good
July 2009

Crossing the River

by Barbara Bradley Hagerty | July 2009

A journalist explores the science of spirituality.

The golden rule of journalism decrees that you take nothing on faith, that you back up every line of every story you write with hard evidence. You question everything. The unspoken ethos of organized religion is that you leave the uncomfortable questions alone, you accept them as unsolved mysteries or previously answered by religious minds greater than yours. You rely on the wisdom of sacred texts and your minister, and you swallow your doubts.

And yet I could not keep the questions at bay. Is there another reality that occasionally breaks into our world and bends the laws of nature? Is there a being or intelligence who weaves together the living universe, and if so, does He, She, or It fit the description I have been given? I was not worried about losing the old man with a beard—but what about the young man on a cross? Is there a spiritual world every bit as real as the phone ringing in the kitchen or my dog sitting on my foot, a dimension that eludes physical sight and hearing and touch? In the end, my questions boiled down to five words: Is there more than this? …

I realized that for nearly a decade, I had been running down one trail after another, keeping to the familiar safety of a path that would leave me dry but never lead me home. At some point, I needed to cross the river and immerse myself in the unnerving questions about God, and reality, and whether what I instinctively believe is true—or a load of rubbish.

I was, to be honest, skittish. Skittish about ruining my reputation in a career where few people believe in God and fewer still bother to distinguish spirituality from religious politics. More than that, I was skittish about submitting my faith to scientific tests, exposing it to the possibility that the most profound moments of my life were nothing more than, say, electrical activity in my brain.

But in the end, I had to cross the river, and on the other side I found a small, brave band of scientists who had far more to lose than I did. They had slaved away for their medical degrees or their Ph.D.s in neurology or biology, building a reputation in mainstream scientific research. And then they had risked it all by pursuing the taboo questions. Is spiritual experience real or delusion? Are there realities that we can experience but not necessarily measure? Does your consciousness depend entirely on your brain, or does it extend beyond? Can thoughts and prayers affect the body? And that question I cannot seem to escape: Is there more than this?

Excerpted from Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission of Riverhead Books.

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