A fascinating Quirks and Quarks episode on neurotheology studies
I'm skeptical about fMRI studies, but interesting nonetheless and perhaps an interesting path to test...
The paper mentioned is on Mormons (outside their paywall)
Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons
Michael A. Fergusona, Jared A. Nielsenb,c, Jace B. Kingd, Li Daie, Danielle M. Giangrassod, Rachel Holmanf, Julie R. Korenbergd,e and Jeffrey S. Anderson a,d,f
aDepartment of Bioengineering, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA; bDepartment of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA; cDepartment of Psychology and Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA; dInterdepartmental Program in Neuroscience, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA; eDepartment of Pediatrics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA; fDepartment of Radiology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA
High-level cognitive and emotional experience arises from brain activity, but the specific brain substrates for religious and spiritual euphoria remain unclear. We demonstrate using functional magnetic resonance imaging scans in 19 devout Mormons that a recognizable feeling central to their devotional practice was reproducibly associated with activation in nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and frontal attentional regions. Nucleus accumbens activation preceded peak spiritual feelings by 1–3 s and was replicated in four separate tasks. Attentional activation in the anterior cingulate and frontal eye fields was greater in the right hemisphere. The association of abstract ideas and brain reward circuitry may interact with frontal attentional and emotive salience processing, suggesting a mechanism whereby doctrinal concepts may come to be intrinsically rewarding and motivate behavior in religious individuals.