January 6, 2010
Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recently confirmed something I’d been guessing for quite some time – that religion is all in our head.
In their study they took religious and non-religious people alike and asked them to think about religious topics while hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. They asked the subjects to think about God as a savior, a forgiver, and a moral guide.
This is where things get interesting. They noticed the same neural pathways opening in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of our brain responsible for empathy and thoughts that others have thoughts and feelings too.
So basically when people think about God, its goodness, its mercy, its love, divine morals, and those sorts of things, the same area of the brain is being used as when you imagine the feelings of your lover, your neighbor, your children, or anyone else. We can’t feel someone else’s feelings directly but we imagine them using a particular area of our brains. We use our prefrontal cortex, which is the most recently evolved region of the human brain.
We use our own cognitive processes and try to relate those to other objects we see. We try to relate to them. Unfortunately the more different the being in question is, the less effective this method is going to be.
It’s like seeing a small child holding a butterfly in its hands and saying, “You poor thing. Do you have any friends? Do you ever get lonely?” Besides being completely incapable of understanding your speech, even it could, the words would mean nothing as emotions as we know them only exist in mammals.
We assume all things to be like ourselves until we learn otherwise. God is no different.
Thing is, we’re humans, and always will be humans. We think like humans. Act like humans. Behave like humans. We’re always human. And no matter how hard you try, your thoughts will always be that of a human.
I think it’s futile to try to imagine the thoughts of a “supernatural” all powerful being. If God does exist in some timeless, omnipotent, omniscient state, it’s so beyond human understanding it’s futile to even attempt it. And as history shows, those who try it cause us all misery with their “revelations.” They stifle all progress and innovation, burn you at the stake if you differ in opinion, and we all end up with witch hunts and crusades instead of Paradise.
The weirdest part of this study is thinking on the idea that how I feel, and how I think others may feel, both about me, and the world, may not be on the same page at all. I can only guess, and hope my abilities to imagine are powerful enough to emulate the true feelings resonating inside of them.
But it’s so easy to get out of step with the world. But as humans, most of our society’s solidarity is based on our ability to empathize with our fellow citizens. That very limited prefrontal cortex is all we’ve got.
I think the news is particularly harmful in this regard because they pound us with violence and horror stories. The net effect of this is to turn off our prefrontal cortex, where we’re unable to empathize with others anymore. We’ve seen so many people blown up, murdered, raped, and pillaged, it’s so painful to think about it all that we stop altogether — and hence, we as a society fall out of step with one another.
Our minds move into defense mode. We surround ourselves in barriers and try to keep the world out. We no longer extend our hands to help, like a good neighbor.
We have to be careful not to overload our minds with everything that’s wrong. Oftentimes the best advice is “be thankful,” which really means to take time to notice the good things around you. I don’t do that near enough.
I think part of what it means to be brave is to not cave under that fear society tries to instill in us. Sometimes we have to suck up those fears and do the right thing, even when that’s a little scary.
A prime example of this happened to me the other day. I was out for a walk and it was freezing cold outside. A university professor, who lives way down the street, who doesn’t know me at all, stopped and asked if I needed a ride. Now I didn’t need a ride but that actually made my day! I thought, “A nice person! Oh my God! Someone who doesn’t think I’m a rapist, pedophile, child molester, and has nothing to gain from this, yet still offers to help me.”
It’s impossible to be a good person if you lack this courage. There’s a risk to everything we do in this life. There’s even a risk to being good. You have to love the idea of living in a good society, where everyone is helpful and believes in one another, more than even your own life. If you can love goodness more than you fear death, you’ll be capable of being a good citizen who can help others.
Our society now is giving in to fear more than loving one another. We’ll subject one another to humiliating nude scans at the airport because there’s a minor chance that a terrorist may attempt a bombing. That one-millionth of a percent chance outweighs our love for one another. We’re terrified of death, and because of that our freedoms are being ripped away from us.