Religion on the Brain?

Religion on the Brain?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
June 16, 2009

Readers of Monday’s edition of USA Today were treated to an introduction into the sociobiology of belief. Interestingly, this article appeared in the opinion pages of the paper — which is right where the article belongs.

Andrew Newberg, associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that religion can be a force for good or for evil, depending on the conception of God that is the focus of belief. In its most basic form, Newberg’s article can be reduced to his belief that when individuals believe in a God of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, they are likely to experience benefits from this belief and then have a generally positive outlook on life. On the other hand, those who believe in a God of wrath, judgment, and vengeance are more likely to experience negative consequences in their lives and to demonstrate a basically negative outlook.

Newberg, along with his colleague Mark Robert Waldman, have been working on a psychiatric understanding of religious belief. Their recent book, How God Changes Your Brain, presents a comprehensive version of their argument and model of understanding. Newberg’s article in USA Today is something of a distillation of the arguments made in their book.

The USA Today article presents an understanding of religion that is reduced to biological elements. Nevertheless, some readers of Newberg’s article are likely to miss the basic biological reductionism and methodological naturalism that marks his understanding of religion and belief in God. Newberg’s argument seems to be that we will be better off if more Americans held to an understanding of God that is, by his evaluation, more positive. As he writes:

There seems to be little question that when people view God as loving, forgiving, compassionate and supportive, this more likely results in a very positive view of themselves, and of the world around them. But when God is viewed as dispassionate, vengeful and unforgiving, this can have deleterious effects on one’s physical and mental health. Again, the research is clear: If you ruminate on negative emotions, they activate the areas of the brain that are involved in anger, fear and stress. This can ultimately damage important parts of the brain and the body. What’s worse, negative emotions can spill over into outward behaviors that generate fear, distrust, hatred, animosity and violence toward people who hold different or opposing beliefs. Thus, it becomes more easy to believe that “I, and my religion, is right and you, and your religion, are wrong.” It is this destructive religious rhetoric that atheists are quick to point their fingers at when focusing on the negative qualities of faith.

In other words, Newberg would trace negative emotions and “destructive religious rhetoric” to an individual’s conception of God. Beyond this, he attempts to trace this belief in God to biological causation and the specific areas in the human brain.

Writing in How God Changes Your Brain, Newberg and Waldman argue that “God can change your brain.” They insist that this is true without respect to the specific belief in God. In their words, “it doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu, or an agnostic or an atheist.” According to their model, the brain creates understandings of God — a capacity developed through the evolutionary process. In terms of the neurological process, it really doesn’t matter if God does or does not exist. “In fact, as far as we can tell, most of the human brain does not even worry if the things we see are actually real. Instead, it only needs to know if they are useful for survival.”

Newberg and Waldman assert that it is the thalamus in the brain that determines what is real and what is unreal. “The thalamus makes no distinction between inner and outer realities, and thus any idea, if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality. Your belief becomes neurologically real, and your brain will respond accordingly.”

This is a remarkable assertion, but it goes hand-in-hand with the reduction of human consciousness to a purely naturalistic reality. Furthermore, this effort at scientific explanation reduces belief to no more than biochemistry and reduces religion to a mere social function. But, if belief in God is nothing more than biochemistry, why believe at all?

Newberg’s answer to this is rather straightforward — he hopes for more Americans to believe in a basically benign deity. He believes that this would lead to a decrease in social tension and an increase in social harmony.

In their book, Newberg and Waldman rely on a study conducted by a team of sociologists at Baylor University. In the Baylor study, done in cooperation with the Gallup organization, four different conceptions of God were presented. These include “the authoritarian God,” “the critical God,” “the distant God,” and “the benevolent God.” Fundamentalism is associated with belief in the authoritarian God and this pattern of belief is traced to the limbic areas of the brain. “Envisioning an authoritarian or critical entity — be it another person or God — will activate the limbic areas of the brain that generate fear and anger,” they suggest.

By contrast, belief in God as a benevolent force is stimulated in the prefrontal cortex and, specifically, in the anterior cingulate. In their words, “We suggest that the anterior cingulate is the true ‘heart’ of your neurological soul, and when this part of the brain is activated, you will feel greater tolerance and acceptance toward others who hold different beliefs. The God of the limbic system is a frightening God, but the God of the anterior cingulate is loving.”

Let’s be clear: If religious belief is nothing more than a biological process and if God is nothing more than a concept originating inside the neurobiological process of the brain, then we should simply wish for more persons to hold to what might be considered healthy understandings of God as compared to those which might be considered unhealthy. Of course, it is at this very point that the logic breaks down. Thinking in purely conceptual terms, virtually any sane person would take greater comfort in a God who is both benevolent and judgmental. After all, do we not all yearn for God to bring judgment upon mass murderers, child molesters, and the perpetrators of vast economic fraud?

The functional view of religion reduces belief in God to its potential personal and social utility. According to Andrew Newberg, certain forms of religion can indeed offer positive benefits, while other forms of belief bring both personal and social harms. Newberg and Waldman are at least honest in acknowledging that their understanding of religion is completely independent of the question of God’s existence or nonexistence.

Interestingly, both in the book and in the USA Today article, Newberg relates an incident that, to him, represents the form of religious belief he wants to see pass away:

When I was in high school, I dated a girl whose family regarded themselves as “born-again” Christians. It was my first encounter with devoutly religious people who strongly disagreed with my perspective on faith. They were always pleasant to me, but they were quite clear that in their view I had deeply sinned by not turning to Jesus. Oh, and because of this, I was going to hell.

If nothing else, this paragraph serves to demonstrate that to Newberg and Waldman, belief in the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ represents a “negative” form of religious belief. In their book, the authors express hope that such exclusivist forms of belief will give way to “a very slow acceptance of pluralism.” As Newberg comments, “But as I have always argued, if God is truly infinite, then God must have infinite manifestations.”

Andrew Newberg’s article in USA Today offers a fascinating glimpse into what happens when belief in God is reduced to biochemistry, neuroscience, and the evolutionary process. If you accept this worldview, you must hope for humanity to evolve towards a form of religious belief most to your liking.

Of course, Christianity is based on belief in the one true God who is objectively real — in the God who is the self existent, self revealing, God of the Bible. Based on the Bible, we believe that God is both benevolent and holy, both forgiving and judging. God’s judgment is always right, just, and perfect — and his judgment will be demonstrated in absolute perfection on the Day of Judgment. On that day, God’s judgment will demonstrate his righteousness and mercy in the forgiveness of sinners who have come by faith to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. In that same judgment, God’s wrath will be righteously poured out upon those who are without Christ and thus without a Savior, an Advocate, or a hope.

And that takes us back to Andrew Newberg’s experience with the family of “born again” Christians, who believed that those who do not turn to Jesus are going to hell. So far as he is concerned, this represents nothing more than a regrettable neurological process that erupts as a negative religious attitude. Of course, the question he does not want to answer — and his scientific model allows him not to answer — is this: What if they were right?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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