Over the past decade, the hunt for genetic connections with behavior has intensified. For any experience, there must be a physical activity in the brain—otherwise, the experience has no basis. Using this irrefutable assumption, researchers have looked for the seat of anger, criminal behavior, gender identification, the sense of self, and many other aspects of human nature. This includes spirituality. Where is God in the brain? To many neuroscientists, that’s not only a valid question but the only one worth asking, insofar as spiritual experiences have any reality.
Now we are hearing about “God in the genes,” as genetics overtakes neuroscience for the top spot in explaining the roots of human experience. Where the brain operates only in the present, genetics peers deep into the past. A geneticist would want to know what evolutionary advantage early humans got from being spiritual—in the broadest sense of the word—that led to a better chance to survive. This whole line of inquiry, whether we’re taking about the brain or our genes, makes sense if you are a materialist. But it runs the danger of saying that spirituality is only about the physical side of the experience, as if music could never be discussed except by looking at pianos and radios, the physical side of delivering the musical experience.
The materialist explanation is filled with philosophical flaws, but instead of focusing on that, it’s more productive to ask how the brain and genes relate to spiritual experience. The physical side must be accounted for, without making it the whole story. To explore a new kind of explanation that embraces both the physical and non-physical, let’s examine an experience that most people have had. Without experiencing God, angels, the soul, or other traditionally religious things, almost everyone has had at least one or two inexplicable coincidences in their lives.