A study published in the most recent volume of the Journal of Neuroscience may shed some light on the question of what makes a religious person able to believe in beings and experiences that atheists often scoff at. As many have suggested, there very well may be a basic structural difference in the brains of believers and atheists.
In this study (abstract), researchers examined the brain structure of their subjects, looking especially at a fold in the brain matter called the paracingulate sulcus (PCS). In subjects where the PCS was more developed, the ability to separate reality from imagination was greater than in subjects that lacked a well-developed fold. This finding supports earlier research showing that people suffering from schizophrenia, a condition often marked by auditory hallucinations and a poor grasp of reality, do indeed lack or have a less-developed PCS.
Speaking specifically of these schizophrenic hallucinations, lead researcher Jon Simons stated: “Difficulty distinguishing real from imagined information might be an explanation for such hallucinations. For example, the person might imagine the voice but misattribute it as being real.”
While the focus of this and similar research tends toward explanation of schizophrenia and other recognized mental illnesses, the implications of this study in the sphere of religious debate are quite stunning. Could this difference in brain anatomy, or one similar to it, explain the readiness of some to accept religious belief or to give credence to spiritual experiences and personal revelations?
Certainly more research would have to be done before we could claim to understand where god-belief comes from, but this research and the ever-expanding understanding of neuroscience hold amazing potential for unraveling these mysteries.