Human Brain & Beliefs

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.

NewbergDr 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."

Research reveals that repetitive rhythmic stimulation can drive the limbic and autonomic systems, which may eventually alter some very fundamental aspects of the way the brain thinks, feels, and interprets reality. These rhythms can dramatically affect the brain's neurological ability to define the limits of the self.

Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

bookNewberg, Andrew; D'Aquili, Eugene; and Rause, Vince. (2001)
New York: Ballantine Books.

[Book Excerpts]

Chapter 7

The Origins of Religion: the Persistence of a Good Idea

Evidence suggests that the deepest origins of religion are based in mystical experience, and that religions exist because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences that are often interpreted as assurances that God exists. As we have seen, it's unlikely that the neurological machinery of transcendence evolved specifically for spiritual reasons. Still, we believe that evolution has adopted this machinery, and has favored the religious capabilities of the religious brain because religious beliefs and behaviors turn out to be good for us in profound and pragmatic ways. (page 129)

… Conventional thinking among many psychologists and sociologists explains the rise of religion as a cognitive process, based on faulty logic and incorrect deductions: In very simple terms, we feel fear and we long for comfort so we dream up a powerful protector in the sky.

A neurological approach, however, suggest that God is not the product of a cognitive, deductive process, but was instead "discovered" in a mystical or spiritual encounter made known to human consciousness through the transcendent machinery of the mind. In other words, humans do not cognitively invent a powerful God and then depend on this invention to gain the feeling of control: instead, God, in the broadest and most fundamental definition of the term, is experienced in mystical spirituality. These intimate, unitary experiences of the presence of God make the possibility of control apparent. (page 133)

… But science has surprised us, and our research has left us no choice but to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind's machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the ultimate realness of something that is truly divine. This conclusion is based on deductive reason, not on religious faith - it is a terrifically unscientific idea that is ironically consistent with careful, conventional science - but before it will make any sense, we must second-guess all our assumptions about material reality, and understand how the mind decides what is essentially and fundamentally real. (pages 140 - 141)