For NPR correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty, religion is more than just a beat. Hagerty was raised as a Christian Scientist and grew up listening to her grandmother's stories of healing illnesses and serious injuries through prayer. As an adult, Hagerty became a Protestant Christian after experiencing her own encounter with a divine presence, a moment she describes as "spooky." In her new book, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, Hagerty goes on a professional and personal journey to discover whether science can explain religious phenomena like healing or mystical experiences and ultimately whether it can prove the existence of God.
You were raised Christian Scientist, but this week you're on a bunch of medications for various throat and ear infections. What happened?
It kind of started with Tylenol. I had never taken a pill, never gone to the doctor, but one winter when I was 32 years old, I came down with the flu. I was miserable, shaking, drifting in and out of consciousness. In a lucid moment, I remembered someone had left Tylenol in my medicine cabinet. I pulled the bottle out, took one, and crawled back into bed. (See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.)
I had been taught that drugs have no power over your body, that it's all your thinking. But within five minutes the shivering just stopped. It took me about a year to leave Christian Science, but that was the end of my formal faith in it. It turned out not to be the end, however, of how I thought about how thoughts affect the body. (Read TIME's cover story on how faith can heal.)
You had a spiritual experience that led to this book as well.
Yes. In the summer of 1995, I was interviewing a woman who was a member of Saddleback Church in California. It was dark and we were sitting outside in a circle of light under a lamppost while she talked to me about her faith. The moment itself is hard to describe. It's as if someone stood on the edge of the circle and was breathing on us. A warm, moist air surrounded us. She was mid-sentence and stopped talking. It was a moment like I hadn't felt before or since. There was the presence of something else that was spiritual around us. It lasted 30 seconds, maybe a minute, and then it just kind of receded like a wave and was gone. This book really came from that moment, feeling that presence. It was an attempt to find out whether I was crazy or not.
That's pretty unusual stuff from an NPR correspondent. Were you hesitant at all to write about this?
I was terrified. It's hard to be a journalist and say you believe something that you can't prove. And journalists on the whole don't tend to be very religious. Truth be told, I was a little bit worried about what my colleagues would think.
I can imagine you were also taking a risk with the book that you might discover your faith isn't real, that science proves spirituality is all in your head.
Absolutely. The bigger worry was that I would find out that God was a ruse. And that all of this that I felt that day and the subsequent decade was a sham, that it was just brain chemistry, an electrical storm in my temporal lobe, a delusion. My faith is the prism through which I look at the world and make moral decisions. What do you do if you find out it's wrong?
What did you find? Is religion all a sham?
The conclusion I came to looking at all of this is that it's okay to believe and it's okay not to believe. The science is pretty agnostic about the issue. You can look, for instance, at evidence researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found about serotonin receptors sparking mystical experiences and say that it's all brain chemistry. Or you can look at that and say that it's amazing that we are so intricately wired that we have a serotonin receptor that allows us to connect with the divine. It really is a matter of belief.
So you didn't prove the existence of God, but you didn't disprove it either.
That's right. And I don't think science ever can prove or disprove the existence of God. The whole idea of God is that He is outside of time and space, outside of our capacity to measure. What we do have the technology to test is at least one proposition that suggests there might be more to life than just this. That's the question of whether the mind can operate when the brain has died. There's a woman named Pam Reynolds who went through what's called a standstill operation to remove a brain aneurysm. They chilled her body to 60 degrees, drained all the blood out of her head, took out the aneurysm, warmed up the blood and put it back in her body. For about an hour during the procedure, she had no blood in her brain so no ability to form or retain memories and for much of the time, she had no higher brain function. And yet according to records of what she said when she awoke, Pam was able to hear conversations about the surgery. She was able to count the number of people in the operating room and describe who was standing where. It suggests that her mind may have been operating when her brain was unable to make or retain memories. That's pretty provocative.
You write of some of the stories in the book, "A skeptic would dismiss them and a believer would feel a shiver of recognition." Did you err on the side of skepticism or believing the people you interviewed?
Some of the stories sounded so tenuous to me. What ended up in the book is just a fraction of my research. But I loved hearing their stories and I loved hearing what the critics said to debunk them. Here's the thing: nearly all of these people were transformed by their experiences. They were more generous, more other-thinking. They had had a transformation of character. Was it scientifically verifiable? No. But it was good for them. As one of them, a comedy writer named Jeff Schimmel, said to me: "It's sad to think that my love for my fellow man is due to a temporal lobe gone awry. But I don't really care. I'm happier and a better person because of this."