Time: Biology explains belief

chimp_brain_in_a_jarIn a recent article, Time magazine gives professor after professor a chance to explain the effect religion has on an individuals’ health. Unfortunately, people who specialize in religion, such as preachers and theologians, aren’t given much of a voice by Time in discussing “the biology of belief” unless they have a strong scientific background.

The primary religion ghost that jumped out at me in reading this rather long article, is that Time apparently didn’t talk to any Christian Scientists. Their unique and varied perspective is not reflected in the article. One would think that Christian Scientist’s beliefs on healing would be considered for an article on whether prayers provide healing:

If you’ve ever prayed so hard that you’ve lost all sense of a larger world outside yourself, that’s your parietal lobe at work. If you’ve ever meditated so deeply that you’d swear the very boundaries of your body had dissolved, that’s your parietal too. There are other regions responsible for making your brain the spiritual amusement park it can be: your thalamus plays a role, as do your frontal lobes. But it’s your parietal lobe — a central mass of tissue that processes sensory input — that may have the most transporting effect. (Read “Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs”.)

Needy creatures that we are, we put the brain’s spiritual centers to use all the time. We pray for peace; we meditate for serenity; we chant for wealth. We travel to Lourdes in search of a miracle; we go to Mecca to show our devotion; we eat hallucinogenic mushrooms to attain transcendent vision and gather in church basements to achieve its sober opposite. But there is nothing we pray — or chant or meditate — for more than health.

Health, by definition, is the sine qua non of everything else. If you’re dead, serenity is academic. So we convince ourselves that while our medicine is strong and our doctors are wise, our prayers may heal us too.

A review of the sources quoted in the article indicates that Time didn’t find it necessary to talk to anyone who doesn’t believe that religious emotions and health are completely controlled by one’s brain. The article is about the science of religion, but when one talks to individuals who completely buy into one’s racial thesis, it is difficult to get any contrary criticism. Or perhaps science has decided this matter as settled, but I doubt that.

The article is primarily an analysis piece, and it is Time (which has been curiously silent as Newsweek goes through its spasms of attempting to transform into a “thought leader“). Unfortunately, the magazine approached this topic with the pre-conceived concept that science can in fact explain everything religious.

There were a couple of quotes worth highlighting from individuals who have what seems to be solid religious expertise:

A similar analysis by Daniel Hall, an Episcopal priest and a surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found that church attendance accounts for two to three additional years of life. To be sure, he also found that exercise accounts for three to five extra years and statin therapy for 2.5 to 3.5. Still, joining a flock and living longer do appear to be linked. …

Even doctors who aren’t familiar with Kristeller’s script are finding it easier to combine spiritual care and medical care. HealthCare Chaplaincy is an organization of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Zen Buddhist board-certified chaplains affiliated with more than a dozen hospitals and clinics in the New York City area. The group routinely provides pastoral care to patients as part of the total package of treatment. The chaplains, like doctors, have a caseload of patients they visit on their rounds, taking what amounts to a spiritual history and either offering counseling on their own or referring patients to others. The Rev. Walter Smith, president and CEO of the chaplaincy and an end-of-life specialist, sees what his group offers as a health-care product — one that is not limited to believers.

What patients need, he says, is a “person who can make a competent assessment and engage a patient’s spiritual person in the service of health. When people say, ‘I’m not sure you can help because I’m not very religious,’ the chaplains say, ‘That’s not a problem. Can I sit down and engage you in conversation?’”

That’s all wonderful, but why wasn’t there room for anyone who still believes in good old fashion prayer or the biblical laying on of hands? Or has that simply been discredited to the extent that Time didn’t find it worthwhile to mention?

Photo of a chimpanzee’s brain, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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  • Jerry

    Sorry, but I think you missed the target. The article was in the science section of Time and was about the biology of belief so science was the focus and the exclusion of a purely religious viewpoint was proper.

    It’s All in Your Head

    But I did see a great big assumption in the article – it was clearly reductionistic basically saying that religion is nothing but the outcome of how the brain functions.

    What was really needed are other voices from the scientific community that accept all of the research but disagree with the philosophy that spiritual experience is nothing but a subjective experience of brain neurochemical activity.

  • Stoo

    Hmm, so what are the other candidates that, scientifically speaking, that experience might be?

  • http://honestuncertainty.com Aaron

    Perhaps what Jerry is suggesting is that even though someone may be a scientist, this does not preclude them from believing in a reality that is either “outside of” or “contains” the one we experience. This “higher” or “deeper” reality would, by definition, be undetectable by any instruments or concepts of science.

  • Jerry

    Aaron, your supposition is correct. Perhaps another way of saying it is that there are scientists who believe in the existence of the soul even though they can’t weigh and measure it. And some believe that the brain is the medium though which the soul interacts with creation.

  • Judy Harrow

    So science can define a correlation between particular brain functions and particular psychological or emotional experiences, including, but hardly limited to, religious belief and activity. That’s really interesting, and it in no way threatens religion.

    What science cannot tell us is which comes first. Is the religious experience driven by the brain function, or does the brain function reflect the religious experience?

    It looks to me like either can drive the other. If this is the case, then for those of us who find religious experience desirable, brain science just puts another set of tools into our hands, not different from ancient spiritual practices in that way. (and I suspect those were all arrived at sort of empirically, although with less technological backup).

  • Carl

    You’re all deluded fools. You believe in “sights” and “smells” that come from “an external world.” Ha! You’re too weak to realize that it’s all just the brain! MRI studies consistently show that certain parts of the brain light up when you are exposed to lights and odors. Therefore, it’s all a comforting illusion inside your head that cannot possibly be related in any way to an external experience. Weak-minded Sheep! Wake up a realize that there is nothing real outside of your own body!

    Seriously, articles like this are really dumb. Would even a Christian Scientist deny that the excitations of the brain are correlated with mental and spiritual experiences? Sure, they may believe that the causation works in the opposite direction that scientists do, but anyone who’s read Hume knows that science can’t tell us squat about the difference between causation and correlation.

  • Carl

    Seriously, this is a headline at the NYTimes science section:

    “In Pain and Joy of Envy, the Brain May Play a Role

    Envy is a vice few can avoid yet nobody craves.”

    Really? The brain may play a role in the feeling of emotions? Is there actually some tiny chance that there could possibly, maybe be a correlation between what our brain is light up like and what emotions we feel? You think we can speculate that there might somehow perhaps be a link between the brain, the body, and the mind?


    Ugh! In what sense is this news!? How can they honestly publish such trash without realize that, yes, everyone freaking knows that the brain and the mind are linked. Duh. I went to a fundamentalist Christian elementary school, and even they still made me memorize what parts of the brain control what emotions in 5th grade science class. There is no controversy here! No news! Give it up! Ugh!

  • Albion

    Christian Science: a ‘science’ that does no research, nor updates it’s textbook to include advanced thought. Ask the Christian Science Church Board members, how many patients died in your Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts ‘sanatarium’ & you won’t get a straight answer. Ask them where their ‘science’ research labs are, where experiments are run before a ‘treatment’ is administered to a patient on their nursing floors. What kind of ‘health care’ science are they exactly running, by the way? Hearsay written support accounts of ‘healing’ are not objective, lab tested, proven methods of healthcare. These charatans should have been run out of business legally years ago.

  • Martha

    Stoo, I’m just waiting for the research that locates the part of the brain responsible for believing the reporting of research projects like this one :-)

    Granted, I may be incredibly ignorant, but doesn’t this boil down to saying basically, when you think, things happen in your brain?

    Though it is interesting, in a “Huh – fancy that” kind of way, to know exactly which bits start flashing like Christmas tree lights.

  • Stoo

    I read it more as, experiences people claim as spiritual or transcendant could have a physical explanation in terms of processes in different bits of the brain.

  • Dave

    I used to know some scientists in this field, and they were not as scientistic as Time makes the current researchers seem. One of the points they would underscore is that religiosity arises in the healthy brain, contra the psychoanalytic postion that it’s a neurosis. The chap I knew best, the late Eugene D’Aquili, was a devout Roman Catholic who did not think his research in any way threatened his religion.

  • Dale

    I read it more as, experiences people claim as spiritual or transcendant could have a physical explanation in terms of processes in different bits of the brain.

    That definitely is the suppositional foundation of the Time article. What isn’t explored is the possibility that quantifiable physical phenomena, like electrical activity in the brain, could have a ‘spiritual’ explanation in the subject matter, or quality, of people’s thoughts. Or that the relationship between thought and brain activity is reflexive, that it may be misleading to characterize one as determinative over the other.

  • Martha

    Stoo, you’re a physical process in a bit of my brain (and I’m a physical process in yours).

    I’m really out here as well, though, and I’m taking it on faith that you are, too. :-)

    Stick an electrode into the right part, stimulate those neurons, and your subject could report when asked what happened that “I got a sudden image of an orange – I could see, smell, taste and feel it.”

    It’d be a big leap from that to conclude that this proved our experience of oranges was only the result of a physical process in parts of the brain.

  • Martha

    Okay, I don’t want to sound as if I’m hammering the scientists. They seem to be saying “Our research shows that when people are praying/meditating really hard, and they do it for a while, these parts of the brain are affected.”

    It’s the reporters who are dashing ahead with the “Had a religious experience? It’s only ‘cos your parietal lobe got zapped!” conclusions.

  • Stoo

    Oranges are a part of this physical universe we can measure and test for. Supernatural stuff isn’t. Scientifically speaking, we assume it isn’t there until given good reason to think otherwise.

    I’d agree journalists can leap to conclusions on this kinda thing, tho.

  • Dave

    But, stoo, those measurements, like the oranges themselves, are registrations on our brains. They don’t tell us if stuff is really out there. There’s a term for this, solipsism, and it actually has no solution. It’s not part of scientific inquiry because you can’t go any further once you posit solipsism. (Kind of like Intelligent Design ;-) )

    This is freshman philosophy, but well above the pay grade of most of the mainstream media.

  • Stoo

    Well I agree but this is an article on science, not philosophy.

  • Ben

    This is freshman philosophy, but well above the pay grade of most of the mainstream media.

    Yes, because we journalists haven’t gone to college and couldn’t hack freshman philosophy if we had. Thanks!

  • MJBubba

    Be careful about freshman philosophy. It varies tremendously from one professor to another, and frequently contains a lot of junk.
    I’m surprised that Time didn’t schedule this for Holy Week. They must be planning something else even more likely to shake the faith of those poor souls who still trust them as responsible journalists.

  • Stoo

    I don’t see how this particular article is irresponsible journalism.