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Atheism as a Spiritual Commissurotomy

April 11, 2014

Some people who are former theists say they don’t miss their old faith, and so they don’t miss God. And certainly those who have never had faith do not miss what they never had, although some Materialists (atheists) wistfully wish they could believe.

In response, I will draw an analogy from neuroscience, specifically with split-brain research. In his work trying to identify the nature of consciousness, Michael Gazzaniga (Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, HarperCollins, 2011) describes his research with severe epileptics (with frequent grand mal seizures) who had been subject to a surgical procedure called a ‘commissurotomy’, in which their corpus callosum and anterior commissure were surgically severed. This is done in order to prevent the electrical signals of a seizure in one half of the brain spreading to the other half of the brain. As a result of this procedure, each half of the brain can no longer communicate with the other half, although both halves still receive input from the senses, including receiving the same information from the brain stem to which they both remain attached. Following their commisurotomy, patients always reply that they feel no cognitive change, no change in their mental processes – they feel completely normal. Medically speaking, one could not ask for a better outcome: significant reduction in seizures, with no apparent change in cognitive processes, and happy patients!

Gazzaniga’s research, however, has revealed a fascinating phenomenon below the conscious awareness of such patients. A feature of our highly lateralized neocortical functions is that ‘any visual, tactile, proprioceptive, auditory, or olfactory information that [is] presented to one hemisphere [is] processed in that half alone, without any awareness on the part of the other half. The left half [does] not know what the right half [is] processing, and vice versa’ (Gazzaniga, 57). Consequently, when patients are asked after their commissurotomy, ‘How are you feeling? Do you feel any changes?’, they answer ‘I don’t feel any changes, I feel normal, just as I was before the surgery’. Yet in fact they are completely disconnected from all that is happening in the right half of their brain. In other words, because the left hemisphere controls language, it is their left hemisphere that is answering the doctor’s question (“I feel fine, no difference at all”), yet, while saying this, the left hemisphere is completely unaware that it has lost almost all connection with what is going on in the right hemisphere. Of course, all that is happening in the right half of the patient’s brain is hugely important for their well-being and proper functioning as a person, yet the left hemisphere is completely unaware of this and feels quite happy being out of touch with the right hemisphere, even believing nothing has changed.

Further still, it is no longer possible for the two halves to operate in tandem, losing those cognitive functions that require cooperative, tandem operations between the two hemispheres. A simple example is the ability to recognise composites, for instance that ‘toadstool’ is something different from a ‘toad’ and a ‘stool’. The commissurotomized patient is not even aware they have lost these tandem abilities, and happily carries on without them.

This provides a helpful analogy by which to explain the phenomenon of cutting oneself off from both belief in God and the life of faith – it amounts to a ‘spiritual commissurotomy’. The person who cuts these off and then says ‘There is nothing missing from my life’, is like the person whose right hemisphere has been cut off from their left, then answers the doctor by saying they do not feel they are missing anything by no longer being connected to their right hemisphere. In both cases, though, their conscious perception of no loss, and their continuing personal satisfaction with this situation, leads to a profoundly wrong conclusion, that nothing has been lost. With both types of commissurotomy, physical and spiritual, things are not the way they should be, even if the new situation subjectively feels fine.

Importantly, some people do reverse their spiritual commissurotomy. One example is Chris Wiman, former editor of Poetry, the world’s foremost poetry magazine, who abandoned the faith of his childhood while in college. As he puts it, in college he found that his earlier faith ‘couldn’t stand up to the challenge of modernity and secularism’. In the journal The American Scholar (Summer, 2007) Wiman describes his return to faith after a couple decades away, and, in interviews since the appearance of that article, has described what he has recovered by his return to faith. Similar stories are told by both T.S. Elliot and W.H. Auden, often considered the greatest poets in the English language. Such figures were satisfied with life during their time away from God, yet for various reasons returned to God and, in doing so, found themselves reconnected to important aspects of what it meant for them to experience the fullness of human existence. Unlike a physical commissurotomy, a spiritual commissurotomy can be reversed.


One Comment leave one →
  1. June 4, 2014 8:01 pm

    Holy cow, but that will preach on a Sunday morning.

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Vinoth Ramachandra

IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement

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