In 1995, NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty was interviewing members of Saddleback Church for a Los Angeles Times Magazine article on why some churches grow and others don't. She talked with a woman named Kathy Younge about her spiritual journey. Younge was suffering from recurrent melanoma, but she didn't believe God was trying to kill her; she believed he was giving her a transcendent purpose. As Hagerty and Younge were talking, the journalist says, the air grew thick, moist, and warm, as if someone was breathing on them. She felt enveloped in a circle of light.

This is the story Hagerty opened with at a Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion lecture last week. She was there to discuss her most recent book, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (which CT magazine reviewed this May). I was surprised to hear her validate evangelical faith so openly given that, as a regular attendee of the center's lectures, I'm accustomed to hearing that faith's adherents talked about as if they were part of a carnival sideshow.

The experience presented Hagerty with a crisis. She says she was "spooked" and shut down the discussion quickly, but on the drive back to LA, she began asking herself questions: What happened? Was it a delusion? A chemical reaction? God?

The veteran journalist set out to answer some of these questions for herself, others like her, and her NPR listeners—most of whom, she said, aren't members of the Southern Baptist Convention. In her research, she discovered that 51 percent of Americans say they've had a dramatic spiritual experience, but that 93 percent of National Academy of Science members don't believe in God. "If 51 percent of Americans had schizophrenia, scientists would want to study it," she concluded. She decided early on to include her own experience in the book, because, she said, journalists tend to be like anthropologists, treating their subjects as specimens. She wanted readers to know she was one of them.

Hagerty's research led her to a Navajo Peyote ceremony, a conference on near-death experiences, and to scientists who study what happens to the brain during spiritual practices. She concluded that scientists tend to see the brain like a CD player, a closed system in which events are merely chemical functions of the system. But, she said, it's possible that the brain is more like a radio in that the sender is separate from the receiver. If, for example, NPR is broadcasting a program and a listener's radio breaks, NPR is still broadcasting. Likewise, she said, "people who have vivid transcendent moments are able to tune into a reality that many of us ignore."

Hagerty doesn't believe that science currently has the ability to prove or disprove God, although it might in the future. She also believes that the case for materialism "isn't as much of a slam dunk as it's made out to be." It's just as likely that our brains are "finely tuned to connect with the divine," and that we are on the verge of a paradigm shift.

Hagerty only interviewed people like her—people, she said, whom she wouldn't be embarrassed to invite to a dinner party. During the Q&A after the lecture, she said she comes from a bias of accepting the rules of science as "the legitimate rules," a bias she still prefers, even though she believes that as long as elite scientists dominate the debate, there will be little progress away from the dominant paradigm of our time. Younger scientists are getting restless though. The notion that we're just a bundle of cells apparently doesn't ring true even for them.

Toward the end of the Q&A, a young scholar from North Carolina asked if Fingerprints of God might not be good for evangelical types, who don't trust science. Someone else asked if all religious experiences are equally valid. Hagerty said she didn't get why evangelicals trust medicine but not other branches of science, and told a story of being interviewed by two evangelicals on what she thought was a secular radio program. One of the hosts asked if it wasn't possible that for non-Christians, the experiences were demonic, given that Satan appears as an angel of light. The author was taken aback and said she couldn't judge that, even though she would call herself a Christian.

It was an ironic ending to a narrative that began with a spiritual experience at a premiere evangelical megachurch. Apparently the only metaphysical truth worth considering is happy truth, and all evangelicals mistrust science.

We should be grateful, I suppose, that a paradigm shift may be on the horizon. We should also be grateful that intellectuals of various sorts are warming to the idea that there might be a non-material world. I just wish they understood how foolish it sounds—when they're coming to conclusions that simple-minded believers have arrived at for millennia—and yet they continue to relegate them to the sideshow.

Christine has written about two other Princeton lectures on her blog, Exploring Intersections.