Religion and the Brain

Here’s a piece from yesterday’s USA Today that explores more of the biology of religion. It’s by Andrew Newberg, associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the new book How God Changes Your Brain. His studies show that

spiritual practices, such as meditation and prayer … reveal significant improvements in memory, cognition and compassion while simultaneously reducing anxiety, depression, irritability and stress (even when done in a non-theological context). One might come to the conclusion, then, that being religious or spiritual is a good thing.

But his studies also show

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.

In other words, it matters what we believe.

This should come as no surprise to Pagans. The modern Pagan view of the Great Mother Goddess – with all the nurturing, caring, and unconditional loving we generally associate with the best of mothers – arose precisely because of the dominant religions’ view of a God with all the stern, angry, punishing attributes generally associated with the worst of fathers.

We cannot know Ultimate Reality, therefore we cannot say one version of “God” is any more correct than another. But we can say that some versions are more helpful than others. Pagans have long argued that the concept of a Father God is meaningless without a Mother Goddess. Now we see there are clear, physical advantages to our beliefs.

Blessed be!

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • Batbogey


    This very sort of information is used by both the faithful and those who disdain faith.

    My journey to Unitarianism was largely motivated by a massive shift in the way my small human brain perceived The Holy.

    It's almost as if we are wired to seek meaning in the universe and our lives. It's as if the craving is knitted into our very DNA.