David Brooks hit upon something important in his “neural Buddhists” column last week: both the militant atheists and religious fundamentalists miss out on larger truths about the nature of spirituality that scientists are actively exploring:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

As it is with Brooks at his best, the column boils down a large amount of difficult material into provocative and culturally savvy points – which, in this case, happen to be mostly correct. “The self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships” is straight out of Buddhism 101, and accords not just with scientific understanding of the body and mind but also with common sense. (Buddhism emerged in a milieu of ancient Indian religious philosophies that explored the nature of the body-mind in a systematic, experimental way. The Buddha himself put the era’s leading approach to spiritual insight, asceticism, to the test, nearly starving before ultimately rejecting it.) And the is-there-or-isn’t-there debate about God is, indeed, mostly beside the point, a sideshow that sells a lot of books but elides the important questions.

But the column still falls into a typical Brooksian trap: glibness. Are the religious experiences scientists are investigating really a kind of gooey (small-r) rapture, the perception of “the unknowable total of all there is”? I wish he’d chosen his words more carefully. And how are these very diverse concepts – no fixed self, morality, ecstatic experiences of oneness – related, except in the broadest terms, as a bunch of stuff scientists (and religious people through the ages) have observed? Brooks tosses around interesting ideas, which may or may not be connected, either conceptually/theologically or even scientifically, and suggests they’re all part of a single cultural revolution now underway. Not sure about that. The scientific study of morality, for instance, tries to tease out its evolutionary basis – typically, the advantages of altruism for perpetuating genes. But when altruism (or any kind of self-sacrifice) becomes merely a tool for keeping the species going – a means to an end – it loses any claim on the sacred, and on true morality. If you’re being nice to advance your own interests, in other words, you’re not really being nice. And God (if there is one) knows it. But most scientists wouldn’t make that distinction.

On the other hand, Ross Douthat’s critique of Brooks sounds equally muddled:

This notion’s major premise is summed up nicely by Brooks as follows: “Particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits.” No, the Christian would say: Particular religious systems are cultural artifacts, in a sense, yes, but they’re artifacts built around specific human experiences, not universal ones. Christian theology and Christian ritual are compatible with the universal human ability to experience the sacred through prayer and meditation, but they’re “built on top” of particular encounters and revelations that tend to have little in common with the “transcending boundaries/overflowing with love” experiences that neuroscientists are equipped to measure. Indeed, in both the Old and New Testaments, the foundational encounters with God – the religious experiences that created Judaism and Christianity – are nothing like a meditative, free-floating sense of one-ness with the universe. Instead, whether it’s Moses encountering the burning bush or Job being addressed out of the whirlwind or the disciples encountering the Risen Christ, the encounters with God that shape the Judeo-Christian tradition tend to be extremely personal on the one hand (God has a personality, a voice, even a body; He isn’t just some cosmic soup we can all go swimming in) and extremely terrifying and difficult to comprehend on the other.

Here, Brooks’s generalizations are turned into straw men. Of course religions are built on “specific” experiences. Every person’s experiences are, after all, specific. You cannot build a religion on some abstract, unrealized human capability – it must be realized, and every realization will by definition be unique, a product of its own place and time. “A free-floating sense of oneness” may crudely describe, clipboard-style, what some test subjects felt. But it’s a cliche, some words on a page – it doesn’t capture the actual experience they had. By the same token, I doubt Douthat, or the rest of us for that matter, can know what Moses, or Jesus, or the Apostles were thinking and feeling. We have some idea of it from what people wrote down, years after the fact, and yes, it was strange and surprising. Real insights always are.

Photo: Great Buddha (Daibutsu) statue in Kamakura, Japan