The Brain and Faith

An interesting article by Michael Gerson was brought to my attention in the footnotes of a book I’m reading. I was particularly intrigued by a couple of paragraphs in the middle:

“The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not. …For Newberg, this is not a simple critique of religious fundamentalism — a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It is a criticism of any institution that allies ideology or faith with anger and selfishness. “The enemy is not religion,” writes Newberg, “the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear — be it secular, religious, or political. Newberg employs a vivid image: two packs of neurological wolves, he says, are found in every brain. One pack is old and powerful, oriented toward survival and anger. The other is composed of pups — the newer parts of the brain, more creative and compassionate — “but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain.” So all human beings are left with a question: Which pack do we feed?”

Thought provoking stuff… (Gerson’s full article is included below)

Religion has often unintentionally enabled scientific skepticism. The faithful will issue a challenge to science: Ha, you can’t explain the development of life, or the moral sense, or the nearly universal persistence of religion. To which the materialist responds: Can too. It is all biology and chemistry, thus disproving your God hypothesis.

To this musty debate, Andrew Newberg, perhaps America’s leading expert on the neurological basis of religion, brings a fresh perspective. His new book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, summarizes several years of groundbreaking research on the biological basis of religious experience. And it offers plenty to challenge skeptics and believers alike.

Using brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, and Sikhs and Sufis — along with everyday people new to meditation — Newberg asserts that traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to “long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love.” He assures the mystically challenged (such as myself) that these neural networks begin to develop quickly — a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances “social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions.”

Newberg argues that religious belief is often personally and socially advantageous, allowing men and women to “imagine a better future.” And he does not contend, as philosophically lazy scientists sometimes do, that a biological propensity toward belief automatically disproves the existence of an object of such belief. “Neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn’t exist,” Newberg states with appropriate humility. Neurobiology helps explain religion; it does not explain it away.

But Newberg’s research offers warnings for the religious as well. Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain — particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate — where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is “filled with aggression and fear.” It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.

For Newberg, this is not a simple critique of religious fundamentalism — a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It is a criticism of any institution that allies ideology or faith with anger and selfishness. “The enemy is not religion,” writes Newberg, “the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear — be it secular, religious, or political.”

Newberg employs a vivid image: two packs of neurological wolves, he says, are found in every brain. One pack is old and powerful, oriented toward survival and anger. The other is composed of pups — the newer parts of the brain, more creative and compassionate — “but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain.” So all human beings are left with a question: Which pack do we feed?

“How God Changes Your Brain” has many revelations — and a few limitations. In a practical, how-to tone, it predicts “an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about.” But if this is what spirituality is all about, it isn’t about very much. Mature faith sometimes involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort. If the primary goal of religion is escape or contentment, there are other, even more practical methods to consider. “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy,” said C.S. Lewis, “I always knew a bottle of port would do that.” The same could be said of psychedelic drugs, which can mimic spiritual ecstasy.

Every religious discussion eventually comes down to the question of truth. Can we escape from the wheel of becoming, or hear God’s voice in a wandering prophet, or meet a man once dead? Without such beliefs, religion is mere meditation. Newberg’s research shows an amplified influence of religious practices on those who “truly believe.” But Newberg himself has difficulty sharing such belief. His research on the varieties of religious experience — and his scientific understanding that the brain is drawn naturally toward artificial certainties — leave him skeptical about the capacity of the human mind to accurately perceive “universal or ultimate truth.”

Yet, he told me, “To this day, I am still seeking and searching.” And that is the most honest kind of science.

michaelgerson@cfr.org

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “The Brain and Faith

  1. so… do you recommend this book? i trust you for book rec’s! i hope all is well. its kind of a running thing in my community to refer to each of us having a “flesh dog” and a “spirit dog” and we get to pick which one we are feeding and starving. i was happily surprised to see the wolf pack analogy!

    1. I liked that analogy as well. I always recommend McLaren’s books. I also realize that many people will have ALOT of problems with his theology (I really do not have many problems with it). I haven’t finished New Kind of Christianity yet (I’m in the middle of Chapter 10). I would say this about McLaren…If you read him to find out his definitive theology so that you can debate positions and decide a winner (I’m orthodox! He’s not!!!) you will be frustrated, particularly if you disagree with some of his proposals. However, I read McLaren because he asks GREAT questions of me, the reader. I can point to his “New Kind of Christian” book and the timing of my reading it as key markers in my continuing to serve in vocational ministry.

  2. Thanks for posting, Mike. I’ve always struggled to understand the either/or choice we seem to place between religion and science, and this gives me a way out of that dicotomy in the first place. Of course, like so many things, this also lays a real challenge to me about how I choose to see God. As the book group I’m in continues to study the last week of Jesus and consider what the kingdom of God means (and looks like), I think the other question he implies up is equally important: Given this neurological reality, why Christianity rather than simply meditation? Or as CS Lewis said, why religion in not a nice bottle of port? Or maybe even more to the point, does my daily life give evidence that my view of religion is something more than can be gained from a nice bottle of wine, a good self-help book on becoming the best me, and a little yoga meditation now and again?

    1. I’ve wondered about the “Why Christianity” question as well. At the time that I left Louisiana College, I was actually open to leaving Christianity as well (not meant for dramatic effect…that was simply the place I found myself occupying at that time). I’ve mentioned in other places a journal entry I made during those last few months in which I wrote, “God, if you’re there cool. If you’re not, cool.” During those couple of years, I read several helpful books—two of them are mentioned below…not sure if they would be helpful or even recommended now or not…they were helpful for me at that particular time. I guess where I’ve landed these days is that I have a choice in which God I’ll serve. Dare I post a scripture verse? I will…

      Joshua 24:15: “If you decide that it’s a bad thing to worship God, then choose a god you’d rather serve—and do it today. Choose one of the gods your ancestors worshiped from the country beyond The River, or one of the gods of the Amorites, on whose land you’re now living. As for me and my family, we’ll worship God.”(The Message).

      I can choose to serve God and follow Jesus. I can choose to serve the god of western consumerism. Or whatever. We had an interesting discussion in my Bible Study class at church this past Sunday. We were talking about the pharisees asking Jesus for a sign. The question on the table was “what were the Pharisees looking for? Would any sign given have made a difference in their attitude toward Jesus?” Someone talked about a story told at church about someone wanting to give an amount of money but “God telling them to give significantly more”. They did. Of course…there was an unexpected check in the mailbox the next day for a little more than the amount they gave. So, was that a sign? Or was in merely coincidence? I think I’m beginning to lean toward a third option. For me, it’s another opportunity to recognize/worship/praise God during the everyday following-of-Jesus that I have chosen as my life’s path. (I’m not sure if that makes any sense in it’s abbreviated-reply-to-a-reply-of-a-blog-post form. But there you have it) 🙂

      (Finding Your Religion:When the faith you grew up with has lost its meaning by Scotty McLennan —this guy was Gary Trudeau’s campus chaplain…Trudeau is the writer of the Doonsebury comic strip, of which I have been a huge fan for a long time. I picked up the book mainly because Trudeau wrote the introduction.; Mid-Life Spirituality and Jungian Archetypes by Janice Brewi — I stumbled across this book at the Episcopal book store in Alexandria…the main thing got from it was an acknowledgement that the mid-life transition in which I found myself at that time was as normal a going through puberty. It only becomes a crisis when we go through them in unhealthy/destructive ways—for instance, running off with a 20 year old on a Harley or something).

  3. Good timing Mike. While watching a crime drama involving some religious zealots, it struck me that we humans are never more dangerous than when we believe in something. Think inquisition, crusades, clinic bombings, 9/11, but also think Generals sending soldiers into battle, soccer matches turned into riots, etc. etc. Your post reminded me that we are also never more compassionate and giving than when we believe in something.

    1. cuts both ways doesn’t it H. I was thinking about this a little in my last post about FB friends…not in terms of beliefs but in the compartmentalizing we do with our relationships/friends. If you’re conservative, you watch Fox News…Liberal, MSNBC. We sort ourselves into churches that reinforce our beliefs. We live in neighborhoods that are pretty much racially and economically homogenous. We really do very little to challenge ourselves or our beliefs. And we wonder why their is a fundamental lack of true constructive discourse in our country. (I’ll shut up before I break into a rant…

      1. First of all, great blog post. Just discovered your blog today. This article makes some great points about the physiology of thoughts and belief. It makes Romans 12:2 seem all that more important.

        Receiving what’s in this article, makes theology of utmost importance. Because theology is so important(many have realized this), some tend to close their minds to any other but theirs, assuming their theology is perfect. Honestly, it makes much more sense to me to assume I’m probably wrong. At any rate, I’m trying to learn as much as I can through the Spirit and the Word.

        I find it funny that the writer makes a distinction between a loving and a wrathful God. Is far as I can tell, the God of the Bible is both.

        Also, I tend to lean towards the conservative side, but I can’t stand Fox News. I’d much rather watch Rachel Maddow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s