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Squirrel Hill teen says religion is only human

| Monday, Sept. 27, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

When Lee Huttner visited Barnes & Noble last year, a certain book caught his eye.

"Why God Won't Go Away," which asserts that humans are biologically hardwired to seek spiritual and religious experiences, isn't on the top of most teenagers' reading lists.

But the 2001 book by Drs. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili led Huttner, now a junior at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, to embark upon an ambitious research project for which he will be honored this week at the Library of Congress. He and 15 other students will receive Davidson Fellows scholarships. At 16, he is the youngest member of the group.

After analyzing an array of data collected from four disciplines -- neurology, endocrinology, sociology and evolutionary biology -- Huttner proposed a biological underpinning for religion's appeal.

"Since religion seems to be somewhat biological, it is natural for humans to have these spiritual experiences," said Huttner, a Jew who describes himself as more spiritual than religious. "Religion, the mystical part of religion, has always fascinated me."

The Squirrel Hill teen, who hopes to study anthropology, will receive a $10,000 scholarship for his thesis, "The Religio-Spiritual Impulse and Its Biological Inherence in Humans."

"What Lee has done is impressive," said Fred Clothey, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh and one of Huttner's advisers. "Any graduate student would have been pleased with this sort of work."

People's quest for meaning has evolved over time, Huttner said.

Over the centuries, theories have abounded as to why human beings have an apparently irrational attraction to God and religious experience. In all cultures, religion has phenomenal staying power, implying that people are almost born with a drive to seek spiritual experiences, Huttner said.

"As humans have evolved, so has the complexity of religion and beliefs, especially as humans developed an awareness of their own mortality , which led to belief in an afterlife," he said.

Huttner's theory is not as far-fetched as some might think. In recent years, studies have suggested that prayer and meditation are linked to improved health.

"Meditation is the most powerful form of spirituality there is," Huttner said. "Unfortunately, meditation is not a part of Judeo-Christian traditions."

He also would like to see whatever connection there might be between spirituality and biology to be more acknowledged in psychotherapy.

"A lot of psychotherapists shy away from even discussing religion," Huttner said. "I think they see it as not being part of religion."

U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn Hills, and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale, will join Huttner in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday when the scholarship is presented by the Davidson Institute.

The nonprofit, based in Reno, Nev., is devoted to supporting "profoundly intelligent young people and to provide opportunities for them to develop their talents to make a positive difference," according to its Web site.

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