Discover magazine has an excellent article on the neuroscience of religious or spiritual experience, an area sometimes known as neurotheology.
Although researchers vary in their own spiritual beliefs, it is possible to be an atheist and still study spiritual experience.
Just as a complete understanding of the visual system wouldn’t disprove the existence of any particular object you see (after all, it could be a true perception, or it could be an illusion), studying the experience of God, doesn’t really tell us anything about whether God exists or not.
One of the most established researchers in this area is Dr Michael Persinger who has stimulated the temporal lobes with weak but shifting magnetic fields (using a modified helmet, pictured) and claims to have induced the experience of a ‘sensed presence’ in na√Øve volunteers.
Persinger notes that minor temporal lobe disturbances are common throughout the population, and are more common in people with high numbers of paranormal beliefs.
Supposedly, a form is the helmet is available for sale over the internet, although as the tag-line of the website is “Neurotheology, Magnetic Brain Stimulation, Deja Vu, Death, God, Sex, Love, and more” it sounds more like a track-listing from a Hawkwind album than a serious piece of research equipment.
The article covers most of the major neurotheology research groups, and gives an overview of their main aims.
Link to article ‘The God Experiments’.