The Neuroscience of Religion, Choice, and Everything In Between

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Bio of the Author: Emily Evans is a budding Neuroscientist, medical student at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, life-long friend (sometimes), and as witty as she is brainy. 

Beginning to write this post, I spent a lot of time searching about neuroscience and religion. I hoped to find grounds for unity; that the cogs turning in each of our minds work towards the same laudable purpose, and that this mind, when faced with awe or evil, strives to embrace the former and overcome the latter. 

Instead I found fundamentalism. In study after study looking at religious belief, believers were separated out from nonbelievers through literal faith in transubstantiation or interpretation of sentences such as “angels really exist” and “God can punish you.” These studies rely on an assumption that the nuances of but one religion, Christianity, are surrogates for the intricacies of faith and spirituality (1). 

Happily, the beneficial effects of spirituality and meditation are well-researched and less divisive. Studies using fMRI show that meditation and prayer have similar patterns of activation, and are both effective strategies for stress reduction, lowering blood pressure, and activating the immune system. A systematic review of the current literature found that “the majority of well-conducted studies found that higher levels of religious involvement are positively associated with indicators of psychological well-being (life satisfaction, happiness, positive affect, and higher morale) and with less depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviour, drug/alcohol use/abuse.” (2) There is some debate on whether this happiness stems from religious practice itself, or the community that organized religion provides, though another study did show that spirituality confers a similar happiness benefit (3).

Sure, there has been talk of the “God gene” VMAT2 that possibly predisposes its carriers to spiritual experiences, and certainly doesn’t help my attempt to blur the lines of spiritual delineation into a beautiful smudge of unity (4). Ah! So of the religious and the irreligious, one of us is just a mutant! Finally it makes sense. But with 84% of the global population identifying with some religion (5), and 100 trillion synapses in the brain, I’m willing to think that the matter may be a bit more complicated than that (6).

Self-proclaimed “atheist” intellectuals like Richard Dawkins incite polarity by decreeing that religion is at odds with science (7), and as thinking individuals we must choose: rationality or faith and (if think we are able) then naturally we shall choose reason. With a militant group of scientists stating that the natural result of use of one’s intellect is atheism, and as such the converse reflects a lack thereof, then no wonder the faithful might feel defensive.

Religion and science are not absolutes. Though he incurred the wrath of the Church for his finding that the sun was the center of the galaxy, Galileo also believed that the sun was fixed. Newtonian astronomers discovered that the sun and the earth both moved, and meanwhile the Church believed the earth was fixed and the sun moved. Depending on your reference point they’re all a little bit right. Over and over science may cry “This is it! We have it! Glory glory Hallelujah!” (well, maybe not that last part) Only to come shuffling back decades later, “So, when we said that fats are evil and that margarine is the new best thing, aaactually...” The practice of religion too has shifted over time and many sections are no longer headed (Leviticus, anyone?) I am sure that many Christians walked in sin today whilst wearing “clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19) and don’t even get started on shellfish.

In science peer review and reproducibility are hallmarks of solid research. In religion, fundamental ideas that arise from different faiths too should hold similar value. Take “ahimsa,” which is one of the yamas, or moral imperatives in Patanjali’s Yogasūtra, and makes many more appearances in other ancient vedic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita. Ahimsa means “not to injure” and “compassion,” and is commonly referred to as nonviolence. This virtue is a major tenet of Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism, but also draws strong parallels in Western religion. Most explicitly in the 10 commandments as “Thou shalt not kill,” (Exodus 20:13) but also by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39). Patanjali goes on to say that following ahimsa leads to abandonment of enmity (II.35), which sounds awfully similar to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

It is worthwhile to understand that at times science can seem as ineffable as enlightenment, and it is our duty to work to understand to the best of our abilities, with the faculties and information in front of us. Science is the result of a human mind struggling to make sense of the corporeal world; but religion manifests itself as humanity strains to find meaning in Spirit.

Abstract and self-referential thought are hallmarks of humanity. We are capable, like no other animal, of awareness of our behavior and subsequent alteration of it. We have options. We have choices. And in this era we have freedom like never before. But can global warming tell us how to treat our brethren? Does a new vaccine shed light on how to live a purposeful life? The theory of evolution tells us that certain traits are selected for and passed down because they confer a reproductive advantage. Then let us consider the great virtues of religion as truths that have persisted because they confer a spiritual advantage. It would be a shame to discard these ideas in lieu of the concrete or literal. 

Lesson:

Imbued within our nature is the capacity for reflection. What do we want out of this brief existence? Neuroscience has shown: options stress us out.  So like great scientists, philosophers, poets, and saints, why not draw from and build off of works that came before us and let the fruit of our Spirit be “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Worse things could befal us. And like a good scientist always should, cite your sources: Galatians 5:22-23.

References:

1.    http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0007272
2.   Moreira-Almeida, Alexander; Francisco Lotufo Neto; Harold G. Koenig (September 2006). "Religiousness and mental health: a review". Rev. Bras. Psiquiatr. [serial on the Internet] 28 (3): 242–250. doi:10.1590/S1516-44462006005000006. PMID 16924349.
3.   Holder, Mark D.; Coleman, Ben; Wallace, Judi M. (April 2010). "Spirituality, Religiousness, and Happiness in Children Aged 8-12 Years". Journal of Happiness Studies 11 (2): 131–150. doi:10.1007/s10902-008-9126-1. Retrieved April 12, 2014.
4.   http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/faith-boosting-genes/
5.   http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/chapter-1-importance-of-religion-and-religious-beliefs/
6.   http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/9/7/722.full
7.   Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. Transworld Publishers. ISBN 0-593-05548-9