439: Conversation With NPR Religion Correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty: Does prayer work (and other questions)?

IF YOU HAD A CHANCE TO ASK 1 QUESTION of National Public Radio’s religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty, what would it be?

    Well, recently Barbara switched sides in the studio and let NPR’s Diane Rehm interview her about her unusual new book, “Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.” When Diane opened up the telephone lines to listeners coast to coast, the essence of what they asked Barbara was: “So, do you think prayer works?”
    After all, this is a hard-headed, nationally respected NPR journalist—a balanced, skeptical reporter who covers religion in the classic approach of the now-endangered profession called religion news writing. If Barbara Bradley Hagerty thinks prayer works—that’s inspirational news!
    She answered the question mainly in the affirmative.
    Some callers described dramatic scenarios in which they believe God answered prayers and they challenged Barbara to agree or disagree with them.
    Wisely, Barbara told the radio audience: “When it comes to spirituality, all you can say is: It’s possible.”
    If I had to sum up her new 300-page book in one sentence—well, you just read it from Barbara’s own broadcast.
    The cover and the title may make her new book seem like yet another volume in the roaring, roundabout debate between atheists, scientists and defenders of faith. So, let me be clear: It’s not.
    In fact, the roots of this book go back more than a century to William James, the pioneering scientist, psychologist and all-around philosopher who launched a historic inquiry into the scientific basis of religion from his offices at Harvard.
    We caught up with Barbara between broadcasts for a chance to pose some questions on your behalf.


    DAVID: It’s good to talk with you! This feels a little bit like last-surviving WWI veterans shaking hands. There aren’t many traditionally trained religion news writers still working full time in the U.S. anymore. In our online magazine, we just saluted Cathy Grossman at USA Today yesterday, but there aren’t too many of us left in full-time media. So, I’m very glad that NPR keeps you on the religion news beat.
    BARBARA: This is such an important topic, politically, culturally—in so many ways in our world. But, things are changing so fast in media. There are maybe less than 20 left now, wouldn’t you say?
    DAVID: If we’re talking about religion news writers working full time on the beat, now, I’d say it’s less than that. But I can recall when there were more than 170 full-time religion writers coast to coast. So, I was thrilled when I opened up your new book to find that it wasn’t just another shot fired in the debate between believers, nonbelievers, scientists, apologists and so on.
    This is something entirely different. I’d say your book is “unique,” except that you’re actually going way back here to William James and his bold idea that a smart, rigorous investigation of religion can yield solid answers.
    BARBARA: I didn’t want to engage in the debate with neoatheists right now, because I don’t think there’s a lot of content in that debate. It’s a lot of rock throwing. One side says: Christians did terrible things in the Crusades! The other side says: Yes, but they did good things, too! There’s not a lot more to be said there.
    I wanted to write a book that’s much more fundamental. I wanted to examine spiritual experience—and the logical place to start was William James himself. He was so brilliant. He was this important Harvard professor, so I think we can say he was the first prominent person to buck the conventional wisdom in scientific inquiry to look into religion. And his work was very broad. He wrote about Sufism, Muslims, Christians and Jews and various forms of spirituality within all these religions.
    Reading his “Varieties of Religious Experience” was the first thing I did and the best single thing I did. What I quickly found is that his work still is relevant.
    One of the more interesting current polls I found was by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago that says 51 percent of adult Americans have had spiritual experiences that are so transformative that they remember them all their lives.
    That’s a stunning thing to think about. There are millions of people who have had a numinous experience that has changed them. This is such a common human phenomenon, so I wondered: Why isn’t science looking at this?

    DAVID: Well there were many who did over the years, although we’ve forgotten a lot of this in our collective American memories. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg is best known for his role in developing breakfast cereal and his extreme measures at his holistic clinic, but he also was working on this problem of scientific inquiries into spirituality and health.
    In your chapter, “The Biology of Belief,” you write about another big name, Norman Cousins, who explored the mind-body-spirit connection back in the 1970s. There were others. You mention some in your book.
    But, today, I think you’re right. It does seem like a brave idea to dig into this connection in a serious way.
    BARBARA: (laughs) You know, it’s unsettling to hear how many people are calling my book “brave.” I think that’s what people tell you when you’re about to face fire on the front lines.
    DAVID: (laughs, too) No. I don’t think anyone wants to shoot at you! I listened to Diane Rehm and people seemed quite happy to talk with you and Diane. But, coming from your position as a skeptical journalist, I do think it’s brave to explore these connections in a fresh way. I also think it’s great that you write honestly about your own experiences as a Christian Scientist—and also about your movement into what I’d call a broader form of spirituality.
    BARBARA: I wrestled with whether to put my own story in the book. Finally, I decided to include that. I tried to write the book almost as if it’s a series of radio interviews and I’m giving readers this series of stories like we might give them in radio interviews. I take them with me. I go to try out this thing called the “god helmet” that you put on your head to simulate spiritual experiences. And, I go out to a peyote ceremony. I invite readers to go on a journey with me.

    DAVID: You talk about your own years in Christian Science and you also point out that your faith now is broader than that particular background. I don’t want to try to summarize where you wind up, because it’s really a part of the adventure of reading your whole narrative. I don’t want to spoil that for readers who’ll buy the book. But you do write very well—very engagingly—about your own spiritual pilgrimage.
    BARBARA: I decided to include my story in the book because I know there are a lot of people out there like me who have a real respect for science, but who also have a belief system that’s very important in their lives. I wanted people to know that I’m writing as one of them. There are too many books out there in which journalists write about religion in a clinical or an antagonistic way. I’m exploring sympathetically with readers here. I’m inviting them to come along with me.
    DAVID: But I have to return to the first point I raised here. You represent a long tradition of journalistic reporting on religion. That means balance. That means skepticism. That also means, along the way—gosh darn good stories in many sections of this book.
    But—to reassure your future readers—you’re not trying to sell them an invitation to some new religious group in book form, right? There’ve been a lot of those books and even some documentaries out there like that. They want to sell you on the author’s own spiritual system. So, let me point out—you’re not selling them on Barbara’s brand of faith here, right?
    BARBARA: No, I’m a journalist and I’m not going into ministry in this book. I’m not trying to become an advocate. I don’t have that kind of agenda in this book. For example, I didn’t have to prove that prayer works. I didn’t have to sell someone the idea that you can “name it and claim it.” That’s not my role.
What I tried to do here was take an honest approach to finding out from science about spiritual experiences.

    DAVID: You found it’s a bit more difficult to draw hard-and-fast answers than you perhaps thought at first. Is that fair to say?
    BARBARA: Well, I found that all this research is a bit like a big Rorschach Test. You can look at a study about prayer. One finding in a study might show that the body’s levels of serotonin are key to mystical experience. You can look at evidence like that and, if you’re a materialist, you can say: Look, this shows that spiritual experience is nothing more than chemistry in your brain—or electrical impulses in your neural system! Or, if you’re a believer, you can look at the same evidence and say: Look, this is evidence that the brain has ways to connect with the divine! Same evidence; two different conclusions people draw about it.
    Science can’t tell us which is right. What I tried to do here is to be really honest about what science can—and can’t—answer so that readers are free to decide what they want to believe, looking at the latest data.
    DAVID: A good example of this is the story of a 60-year-old man, called Michael Richards in your book, who had one hand rendered curled and useless from a lifelong medical condition. You describe going to a medical conference where a medical professional from the UK gave a report on this man’s longtime condition—and then on his condition after a near-death experience in a hospital. He “flat lined” for nearly 30 minutes and when he came back, you report that there’s now evidence this curled-up hand has been restored. It flies in the face of medical assumptions about the hand, which had shortened muscles and so on. It’s really a gripping passage in the book and you leave us without a clear-cut answer about this case.
    I’d say this is one of the Rorschach tests you show us. You lay out the story, but you don’t draw a conclusion.
    BARBARA: I almost don’t know what to say about this case. Let me talk about it from my own personal perspective. I grew up as a Christian Scientist and I’ve seen a lot of healings in my life. I’m not just talking about my own prayers affecting my own body—but I’ve seen healings of other people and I believe that prayer has power.
    Can I prove that? No, I can’t. But, I witnessed enough significant healings as a child that I have a tendency to believe that prayer heals. This Michael Richards story fits in with my worldview.
    There are two possibilities when you read that story in the book. One is to conclude that the woman who presented this case study was lying and staged the photograph of Michael Richards with his hand restored and splayed open—and the other possibility is that this healing happened when something spiritual occurred in this near-death experience he had.
    All I can do is say: I can’t explain this. It does fit with what I know from my own life experience. And I know that I’m so glad that brave scientists are risking their careers now to examine things like this.

    DAVID: Well, let me return to your Diane Rehm interview, when you were responding to one particular caller with a rather amazing description of a spiritual experience she’d had—a pretty unbelievable experience that she then asked you to explain. And you said: “When it comes to spirituality, all you can say is: It’s possible.”
    I think that line sums up your book pretty well—as much as one line can catch the theme of a big hardback book like this.
    BARBARA: That is really a fair way to look at it. Yes, that really captures the book: “It’s possible.”
I like to think that there is a spiritual reality. It helps me. It helps me get through life and to orient myself in the world, but I’m not going to tell anyone that my spiritual reality is provable fact. I say: I believe and I think these things are possible.


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