Scientists at Oxford University are to torture people in laboratories in an experiment to see whether a belief in God is effective at relieving pain.
The scientists will apply a chilli-based gel to the skin of volunteers and ask them to try different strategies to lessen the burning sensation, including asking people with strong religious beliefs to draw on their faith to cope with the pain.
The experiment is one in a series that sees scientists join forces with philosophers, theologians and brain surgeons to tackle some of the most profound questions of the human condition: what is the nature of consciousness and how do religious beliefs manifest themselves in our brains?
The Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind will be led by the neuroscientist Lady Greenfield. “I believe the time is now ripe for the machinery of scientific method to come to bear on some of these questions,” she said.
The study of consciousness and brain processes that give rise to strongly held beliefs have for long been on the periphery of scientific research.
With the advent of techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, which can take snapshots of brain activity, scientists believe they can obtain meaningful answers about how consciousness arises and what makes belief systems so widespread and resilient.
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The group will first assess claims about consciousness and religion, including the suggestion that people with strong faith can use that to cope with pain.
In one experiment, Toby Collins, deputy director of the centre, will use anaesthetics and brain scanning equipment to investigate the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness. In another, Dr Collins’s team will use the chilli gel and ask volunteers to try to cope with the pain.
“We can ask them to try different beliefs, whether spiritual or otherwise. People can cope with pain in many different ways and what we’ll be doing is looking at the activity in the brain.”
The study could help to reveal how faith is represented in the brain. Other projects will look into the conditions that make people susceptible to strong yet irrational beliefs, such as the age people are exposed to certain ideas and the frequency with which religious messages are reinforced.
The centre has been set up for an initial two years with a $2m ( £1m) grant from the US-based John Templeton Foundation, which promotes research into theology and science.
“People are realising these are the most exciting questions that anyone can ask,” said Lady Greenfield. Understanding the basis of religious and other types of belief could help to shed light on the surge in fundamentalism and terrorism.
“One of the fundamental reasons why religious beliefs have to be taken seriously … is that they are potentially very dangerous, and that can be true of other dogmatisms too,” said John Brookes, professor of science and religion at Oxford.