How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)
NEURAL EVOLUTION AND GOD
6. DOES GOD HAVE A HEART?
Compassion, Mysticism, and the Spiritual
Personalities of the Brain
What is God's personality?
When a team of sociologists at Baylor University asked a nationally representative sample of Americans to describe which qualities symbolized their impression of God, they discovered that four distinct personalities emerged.1 These personalities not only tell us a great deal about our religious landscape, they also illuminate the inner neurological landscape of the American soul. In the Baylor study, which was co-facilitated by the Gallup organization, 34 percent of the participants were evangelical Protestants, 22 percent were mainline Protestants, 21 percent were Catholics, 5 percent were associated with black Protestant congregations, and 2.5 percent identified themselves as Jews. Approximately 5 percent associated themselves with other religions such as Buddhist, Christian Science, Mormon, Hindu, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslim, Christian Orthodox, and Unitarian. Another 10 percent considered themselves unaffiliated with a specific denomination or creed. Responders were spread over all ages, from eighteen on up, and represented a variety of levels of education, socioeconomic status, and locations throughout the United States.
Before I share the Baylor findings with you, take a few minutes to think about God. What type of qualities come to mind? Is God loving, or critical, or both? Does God seem friendly or frightening, motherly or fatherly, forgiving or punitive, gentle or severe? How much does God care about the world? Do you see God as distant observer, or as a force that actively interacts in the world?
Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all assign a personality to God, which appears to be neurologically based on the nature of our own personality and beliefs. Different people have different ways of imagining God, and these preferences deeply influence the way we see the world.
THE FOUR GODS OF AMERICA
Many people use the word “God” to express what they feel is a universally understood concept, but when you look more closely, the definition of God becomes extraordinarily diverse. According to the Baylor research, some see God as kindly and loving, but twice as many Americans see God as punitive and stern. Some see God as distant and unconcerned, but many experience God as being actively involved in their lives. In fact, 20 percent even believe that God favors a specific political party. For example, during the 2004 presidential campaign, 30 percent were convinced that God looked favorably on George W. Bush.
When they put the data together, the Baylor researchers concluded that the Americans sampled tended to embrace one of four different personalities of God: authoritarian, critical, distant, or benevolent. But these four categories could not be easily assigned to any specific denomination or sect. For example, some evangelicals embraced a benevolent God, most saw God primarily as an authoritarian, and a few saw God as a distant entity who does not involve himself in human affairs.
THE AUTHORITARIAN GOD
Those who believe in an authoritarian God represent 32 percent of America. They believe that God is very angry and willing to punish anyone who is unfaithful or who acts in an ungodly way. They may even believe that God causes earthquakes and human disasters as a wake-up call about the sinful behavior of people.
This God is highly involved in world events and the personal lives of individuals, and the people who embrace an authoritarian God want our government to be run according to Christian-based values. One might suspect that the majority of these people would be very negative toward members of non-Christian sects, yet only 22 percent believed it was important to convert others to their belief.
Over half of evangelical and black Protestants assign to God an authoritarian personality. They attend church more often (51 percent go weekly), and nearly half believe in the literal truth of the Bible. This helps to reinforce the image of a wrathful, punitive God. These findings are similar to a University of Rochester study that found that more than 60 percent of American born-again Christians and Catholics believe they will “suffer negative consequences if they disobey their religion.”2
THE CRITICAL GOD
Another 16 percent of Americans believe that God is critical but will neither punish nor comfort his flock. This God has an unfavorable view of society. He does not intervene with the world, but he will cast judgment on people in the afterlife.
Interestingly, every religious category had close to the same proportion of people who saw God as a critical entity. Catholics and Protestants were only a few percentage points higher than evangelicals, Jews, and those unaffiliated with religious groups.
Only 4 percent of this group felt that it was important to convert others to their religious belief, far less than those who embrace an authoritarian God. Religious observance took low priority, and only 10 percent attended church weekly. After all, if God shows little interest in you, why should you care about God?
Interestingly, when it comes to protecting the environment, this group takes the strongest stance, although I want to point out that the other groups also favored environmental protection. Believers in a critical God were also more likely to favor the equal distribution of wealth and Affirmative Action programs, but again, the percentages were only slightly higher than the other groups. Perhaps if you believe that God is uncaring, this places greater responsibility on society, and on one's own shoulders, to manage the affairs of the world.
The different perspectives on God obtained in the Baylor University survey.
When combined with the first group of believers, nearly 50 percent of all Americans embrace a God that is cold, critical, and harsh. This, to me, reflects an underlying pessimism about the human condition and the moral state of the world.
THE DISTANT GOD
The second largest group, comprising 24 percent of the American population, sees God as distant and uninvolved. He does not hold opinions about the world or about personal behavior; thus we are left to our own free will to decide what is right and wrong. This God is less of a person and more like a cosmic force that set the laws of nature into motion.
Those who perceive God as distant have higher levels of income and education than any other group. Almost half never go to church, and 38 percent never pray. In contrast, only 2 percent of those who believe in an authoritarian God never pray. It makes one wonder: Does a fear of God make one want to pray more often?
Approximately a third of all Catholics, Protestants, and Jews believe in a distant God, yet this group is more open-minded when it comes to gay rights, abortion, and premarital sex. Within this group, many people question the existence of God.
THE BENEVOLENT GOD
In contrast to 72 percent of Americans who believe in an authoritarian, critical, or distant God, only 23 percent see God as gentle, forgiving, and less likely to respond with wrath. Like those who believe in an authoritarian God, believers in a benevolent God think he is very active in their lives. He listens, responds to prayers, and cares deeply about the suffering of others, but he sometimes causes suffering and pain.
Only a quarter of Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals embrace a loving God, whereas less than 14 percent of black Protestants and Jews see God as a benevolent force. And of those who are un-affiliated, only 5 percent see God in a kindly way. Since most of the Old Testament describes a wrathful God, this may be the primary reason why so few people see God as a symbol of eternal love. To see God as primarily loving, a person must embrace a liberal interpretation of the Bible, ignoring or rejecting the vindictive passages.
Only half of those who believe in a benevolent God strongly advocate Christian values for the rest of the country and the world, while the other half believes in exercising tolerance toward people who hold different religious views. Thus, believing in a loving God is not enough to sway many believers toward accepting a pluralistic nation or world.
THE NEURAL PERSONALITY OF GOD
The personality you assign to God has distinct neural patterns that correlate with your own emotional styles of behavior. For example, according to the Baylor study, most of those who embrace an authoritarian God tend to favor the death penalty, want to spend more money on the military, want to give the government more power to fight terrorism, and insist that prayer should be allowed in public schools.
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. Thus, the brain is primed to fight, and so it should come as no surprise that the strongest advocates of an authoritarian God often call themselves “God's warriors.”
However, when you perceive God as a benevolent force, a different part of the brain is stimulated in the prefrontal cortex. Loving, compassionate images, faces, or thoughts activate a circuit that involves a tiny area in the front part of your brain called the anterior cingulate. It conveniently sits between the limbic and prefrontal structures, and when stimulated, it suppresses the impulse to get angry or frightened. It also helps generate feelings of empathy toward others who are suffering or hurt.∗1
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.
Anything that you value will also stimulate different structures in your limbic system, but if the emotional circuits in your brain are weakly stimulated, then God will have little meaning in your life. This is what we think we saw in the brain scans we've taken of atheists. Frontal lobe activity went up, signifying that they were thinking about God in an abstract way, but we saw little activation in the areas that generate meaning, value, pleasure, or discomfort. This suggests that people who perceive God as distant are not emotionally stimulated by the idea. Neurologically, such a God would feel less real, or more distant, and would incline an individual toward agnosticism or disbelief.
In the four personalities described in the Baylor study, God maintains an “otherness” in the mind of the believer. Neurologically, activity in the parietal lobe is responsible for maintaining this quality of otherness about God. The parietal lobe makes God an object that has a specific location in the universe, separate from yourself. You see this most clearly in children's drawings: God is “up there” in heaven, and we are “down here” on earth.
The religious philosopher Martin Buber believed that one must maintain an “I-Thou” separateness and otherness in order to have a personal interaction with God,3 and this makes perfect neurological sense. For example, when we brain-scanned Pentecostals while they were speaking in tongues, activity in their parietal lobes increased as they experienced the Holy Spirit talking to them. Other forms of contemplative meditation decrease parietal activity, which allows the practitioner to feel more unified with God. God, then, appears to be everywhere and nowhere, a formless energy, both universal and unique. This God was frequently identified in our studies and surveys, but was not reflected in the Baylor study.
THE MYSTICAL PERSONALITY OF GOD
Our Survey of Spiritual Experiences, which we described in Chapter 4, illuminated a fifth personality of God that we think the Baylor study missed. The Baylor researchers provided a checklist of qualities one might associate with God, but they did not include terms that could reflect unitary spiritual experiences in which God transcends the biblical image of a heavenly powerful deity. Instead, their list of “personality” terms was biased toward the otherness of God. For example, they chose words that are easily associated with human traits, like motherly, fatherly, kingly, etc. Other questions also reinforced an anthropomorphic image by asking if the respondent saw God as angry, concerned, involved, or uninvolved in one's affairs. Only one question allowed the participant to describe God as a “cosmic force in the universe.”
In contrast, when we asked our survey participants to describe their spiritual experiences, many talked about God as an emotional presence, using words like peace, energy, tranquility, or bliss. God was not a separate entity, but rather a force that permeated everything. God didn't create the universe, God was the universe, a radiance that extended throughout time and space. God was light, God was freedom, and for many people God was consciousness itself. For them, a mystical God often cannot be described with words.
Generation Y is a loosely defined term for people born between 1978 and 1989. Many of these Y'ers are in college today, and when we gave them a broader list of “God” qualities to choose from, we found evidence to dispute the Baylor study. Most of these students, as we reported in Chapter 5, see themselves as freethinkers and agnostics. They are actively involved in questioning every aspect of religion, which is why I'm calling them Generation “Why.” In the survey we handed out, some of the most commonly selected words were mysterious, indescribable, and unknowable, qualities we associate with a mystical God. Other popular choices included: everywhere, nowhere, transcendent, nothing, everything, and metaphoric. However, many of these people also selected a wide range of contradictory terms—punishing, caring, even illusionary—again suggesting that young adults see a multidimensional God that cannot be easily categorized. However, those who strongly disbelieved tended to see God in primarily negative terms.
A mystical God is neither “he” nor “she,” nor is it punitive, critical, or distant. People who embrace this type of God are often attracted to religious groups that fall outside of mainstream denominations, and often see different religions as reflections of a single underlying spiritual truth. They are more accepting of religious differences and more willing to sample other spiritual traditions and beliefs. Others join nondenominational spiritual groups that liberally apply teachings from different religions and philosophical views. According to sociologist Robert Wuthnow, there are approximately three million active, small spiritual groups in America,4 and most are not mentioned in public opinion polls.
Based upon national surveys conducted by the Barna Group, 11 percent of Americans believe that God is “a state of higher consciousness that a person may reach.” Eight percent define God as “the total realization of personal, human potential,” and 3 percent believe that each person is God.5 Overall, it's fair to estimate that a quarter to one-third of all Americans believe in a nontraditional mystical God that is neither authoritarian, critical, nor distant.
In fact, the percentages may even be higher because there are many members of traditional religious groups who also embrace a unitary vision of God. And if you include the spiritual practices of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, Jainism, Sufism, Bahá'í, Shinto, and others, the mystical God emerges as the primary spiritual belief system in the world, with over two billion followers and believers. In non-Western cultures, supreme deities are seen as enormously loving and rarely depicted as being angry, critical, or distant.
THE 99 ATTRIBUTES OF ALLAH
In Islam, the various personalities of God are named, to be meditated upon in silence. Some are loving, some are cruel, and others are unique to the Muslim and Sufi traditions. Allah is: compassionate, merciful, sovereign, holy, bestower of peace, grantor of security, guardian, mighty, irresistible, majestic, creator, organizer of all, perceiver, illustrious, all inclusive, everlasting, all able, determiner, expediter, delayer, the first, the last, victorious, hidden, patron, supreme, kind and righteous, relenting, avenger, pardoner, pitying, owner of all, majestic, equitable, unifier, all rich, emancipator, defender, harmful, benefactor, light, guide, incomparable, immutable, inheritor of all, teacher, timeless, fashioner of forms, forgiver, subduer, bestower, provider, victory giver, all knowing, abaser, exalter, giver of honor, giver of dishonor, all hearing, all seeing, arbitrator, just, kind, all aware, indulgent, infinite, all forgiving, grateful, sublime, great, preserver, nourisher, reckoner, majestic, generous, watchful, responsive, vast, wise, loving, glorious, raiser of the dead, the witness, truth, dependable, strong, steadfast, friend and helper, praiseworthy, originator, producer, the restorer, giver of life, bringer of death, ever living … and the ninety-ninth name of God is sustainer.
Although many people may believe in a mystical God, we suspect that less than half—or far fewer—have had a personal mystical experience. Usually, such experiences happen either spontaneously or after many years of intense spiritual practice. Our research supports the idea that our brain is built in such a way that we can have occasional mystical experiences, but we suspect that the more intensely you meditate or pray, the more likely you are to experience a mystical or transcendental state.
THE NEURAL EVOLUTION OF GOD
In practice, most people maintain multiple images of God. But just as human personalities evolve, so does one's concept of God. I'm going to suggest that the different personalities of God—authoritarian, critical, distant, benevolent, and mystical—correlate to the neurological evolution and development of the brain.
I'm also going to go a step further and argue that authoritarian gods are associated with the oldest, most primitive structures of the brain, whereas a benevolent or mystical God is experienced through the most recently evolved parts of the brain, structures that appear to be unique in human beings. This developmental view, by the way, roughly parallels the cultural evolution of religious traditions throughout the world. For example, the mythological gods of nearly every tribal community had nasty personalities. Zeus was an arrogant bully, Huitzilopochtli—the bloodthirsty god of the Aztecs—needed a steady diet of human sacrifices, killing everyone in her path, and the God of the early Hebrews wiped out nearly every living creature with forty days of rain. But as societies and religions developed, you tend to see the emergence of kinder deities and gods.
In Eastern cultures a similar development can be seen. Hinduism, one of the oldest religions in the world, is filled with every sort of deity imaginable, but as Asian culture evolved, the gods of love dominated the popular literature in India, China, and Japan. Buddhism went a step further, rejecting religious hierarchies, and its evolution showed a gradual movement toward a neutral or mystical spirituality. Of course, you'll still find remnants of hostile deities in the folk religions of the East—for example, the demons portrayed in Tibetan Buddhist art—but they are viewed as metaphorical reflections of our inner weaknesses and faults.
Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame this authoritarian God. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways. Our research shows that they are the same structures stimulated when we meditate and pray, which is what allows us to consciously envision a loving and compassionate God. Without these new neural connections, humans would be limited in their ability to develop an inner moral code or a societal system of ethics.
A hundred thousand years ago the consciousness embedded in our frontal lobes began to dominate human behavior, and this, we believe, is when humanity first developed a primitive conception of God. We formed communities that were partly governed by supernatural beliefs, and we built primitive temples to symbolize the power of these unseen forces of the universe. When we eventually learned to write and sculpt, we carved our deities into the surfaces of the temple walls.
As a species, we have overly active frontal lobes that continue to create, imagine, and rearrange a seemingly endless variety of ways to envision and change the world. As far as we can tell, no other living species has a brain that is capable of manipulating inner and outer worlds.
THE CULTURAL EVOLUTION OF GOD
Today, our frontal lobes continue to envision spiritual realities, along with new ideas and definitions of God. Archeological records suggest that the earliest public structures were temples, and even the artwork found in prehistoric caves suggests that humans drew pictures of their gods. But different brains, in different parts of the world, create different religious beliefs.
Yet, for most of human history, religion and society were inseparable. Thus, from a cultural perspective, our earliest images of God were inextricably tied to the rules and punishments that dictated social behavior and morality—realms that clearly reflect the authoritarian personality of God. As Albert Einstein noted:
The Jewish scriptures admirably illustrate the development from the religion of fear to moral religion, a development continued in the New Testament. The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples of the Orient, are primarily moral religions. The development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step in people's lives. And yet, that primitive religions are based entirely on fear and the religions of civilized peoples purely on morality is a prejudice against which we must be on our guard. The truth is that all religions are a varying blend of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of social life the religion of morality predominates.6
In Western culture, the authoritarian notion of God dominated human thought until the 1400s, when a series of events undermined the power of the church. The Black Plague wiped out half the population of Europe, which helped to undermine religious authority. Science gained favor, and God retreated farther into the heavens. In a minority of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian texts, God's wrath also declined, to be replaced by images of a more benevolent and mystical force.
For the next two hundred years, Europe experienced a series of conflicts between competing Christian theologies. The Catholic Church splintered as people pulled up their roots in their search for a more personal God. And where did they seek the freedom to practice religion as they saw fit? In the colonies along the North American coast.
GLIMMERS OF AMERICAN MYSTICISM
Many of the people who first came to America were religiously persecuted in Europe, and yet they continued to embrace an authoritarian God. In the 1500s, Protestant England found a toehold along the northeastern seaboard, but times were harsh, and this too was reflected in the Puritan vision of God.
Slowly, Puritan severity gave way to more moderate Anglican parishes, which under English law was the only sanctioned religion allowed. But by the early 1700s the Anglican establishment was challenged by the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. These Protestant dissenters shared an evangelical fondness that made God more personal and joyful. Compared to earlier religious traditions, early American evangelism represented a true liberation from a state-controlled religious authority.
Still, the founders of our country continued to battle over issues of religious freedom. Eventually, the then-vague notion of church/state separation won out, and people were free to envision God in any way they saw fit. America became the first world nation to encourage religious pluralism, and for the most part American religious ideology was liberal, antislavery, antiwar, and supportive of women's involvement with the church. On the other side of the religious coin, many hell-and-brimstone preachers continued to flame the images of a wrathful God.
Then something unusual occurred in the mid-1800s. Small groups of people—many of them wealthy, educated, and culturally sophisticated—became enamored of various esoteric, spiritualistic, and transcendental philosophies imported from Europe and Asia. These were the people who introduced the notion of a truly mystical God, and the movement captured the imagination of America. One could argue that the “spirit” of Christianity was reborn, and it spawned new sects across the country. For example, Christian Science practitioners embraced the notion that God was entirely good and perfect and that, through divine love, all forms of sickness could be healed. Evil was simply an absence of truth.
The Unity School of Christianity went a step further. Founded in 1889 by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, it transformed the idea of God into a benevolent presence that lives within each person. Thus, all people are spiritual beings who can shape their lives through the use of affirmative positive thoughts and prayer.
These “New Thought” churches changed the religious landscape of America by taking the authority of God completely out of the hands of the clergy and giving it to their congregants. Suddenly, God was no longer a distant heavenly power, but an internally active force that anyone could directly experience and use. Evangelical revivalism swept through the nation as tens of thousands of people were touched by gifts of the Holy Spirit.∗2 The mystical God had arrived.7
DOES GOD HAVE A WALLET?
Spiritual optimism and the belief in personal transformation became so widespread that they flowed beyond the walls of the church and into the business and secular communities. God took up residence on Wall Street, and many authors promoted the notion that faith in oneself was enough to bring both spiritual and material wealth. Here is an example of what one could call secular spirituality, written in 1901 by William Atkinson, editor of the popular magazine New Thought:
I believe that the mind of Man contains the greatest of all forces—that Thought is one of the greatest manifestations of energy … that not only is one's body subject to the control of the mind, but that, also, one may change environment, “luck,” circumstances, by positive thought taking the place of negative…. I believe that Man is rapidly growing into a new plane of consciousness, in which he will know himself as he is—will recognize the I AM—the Something Within. I believe that there is an Infinite Power in, and of, all things. I believe that, although today we have but the faintest idea of that Power, still we will steadily grow to comprehend it more fully—will get in closer touch with it. Even now we have momentary glimpses of its existence—a momentary consciousness of Oneness with the Absolute.8
Atkinson placed this spiritual power in the human brain, and his ideas ignited a flurry of books on the powers of positive thinking and power to manifest wealth. Others, like Ernest Holmes, used similar ideas to create the Church of Religious Science, founded in 1926. In this evolution of New Thought theology, God, oneself, and the universe are interconnected, creating new doorways to happiness and success.
Along with the Unitarians, Unity Churches, and Quakers, the Church of Religious Science developed philosophies of greater open-mindedness by proclaiming the inner divinity of the human being and extending kindness to every person regardless of their religious orientation or belief. In these churches, God, consciousness, morality, and science are melded into a universal human spirit that is simultaneously mystical and materialistically pragmatic. In many ways these modern churches reflect the same deist philosophy that had captured the imagination of the eighteenth-century leaders of the Enlightenment. God had fallen out of heaven and taken up residence in the mind.
OLD GODS NEVER DIE
In reaction to these new, liberal, and modernistic theologies, Milton and Lyman Steward produced a twelve-volume set of books in 1910 called The Fundamentals.9 Their basic tenets insisted on the inerrancy of the scriptures, the virgin birth and the deity of Jesus, the doctrine of atonement solely through faith and God's grace, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the authenticity of Christ's miracles, and his imminent return. But the books went much further, specifically attacking Catholicism, socialism, New Thought philosophy, atheism, Christian Science, Mormonism, Spiritualism, and evolution. For many decades the movement was small, but after World War II, and with the rise of “televangelism,” fundamentalist churches burst forth on the American scene, waging war against what they saw as a rampant immorality throughout the world. The authoritarian God became a genuine political force, and it landed on the White House steps. But a question remains: How dangerous is the belief in an authoritarian God?
The Baylor study found that the more people attend church, the less likely they are to read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Those affiliated with non-Judeo-Christian religions were three times more likely to read the book than Evangelicals.
THE WAR BETWEEN THE AMERICAN GODS
Of all the hate crimes conducted in America, victims of religion are ranked as second, although well below those related to race. According to the FBI, 68 percent of the religious hate crimes were against Jews and 13 percent were against Muslims.10 So the question naturally arises: How tolerant are we as a nation? It is difficult to tell. On the average, there are 1,400 religious hate crimes carried out each year, compared to 800,000 violent crimes. But is 1,400 an “acceptable” number? Not for a country that was founded on the principles of religious tolerance, especially considering that underneath these statistics a larger problem looms: religious prejudice.
Percentage of hate crimes reported by the FBI in 2004.11
According to the Baylor study, more than half of Americans are intolerant of non-Christian values, which is not surprising considering that half of those surveyed embraced an authoritarian or critical God. This may also explain the constant Supreme Court battles we see concerning the attempts to introduce religious values (such as prayer and Intelligent Design) into the public school system, or attempts to insert the Ten Commandments and references to God into government activities and facilities.
In our survey, of the people who reported spiritual experiences, only one-third said they were uncomfortable with those who held different religious beliefs. Still, that represents as many as 100 million Americans. Two other studies conducted in 2002 also showed high degrees of intolerance.12 They found that 17 to 18 percent of Americans—50 million people—believed that their religion should be the only true religion in the world. Seventy-one percent said that we should not try to convert people of other religious faiths, but that still leaves close to 60 million Christians who want to convert every Muslim, Jew, Hindu, and Buddhist to their religion. Interestingly, our online survey found that people who took up Eastern spiritual practices were more tolerant and accepting of other religions than those who were involved in Western monotheistic traditions.
If you put all the surveys together, there appears to be a slow decline in religious intolerance, especially over the last five years, and many religious leaders are speaking out about the need to embrace a different perception of God. Marcus J. Borg, professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University, points out that the emerging paradigm of tolerance creates a new but difficult vision for traditional Christian followers.13 If you see the Bible as metaphorical, it becomes an inspirational text, not a literal document by which you should govern your life. This transforms Christianity into a tool through which people can transform their lives in the here-and-now. Religion becomes a guideline, not a truth, and this allows people to see different traditions as paths that also lead to personal and spiritual growth.
Similar sentiments have been recently voiced by leaders of the Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities. For example, the Episcopalian bishop John Spong believes that Christianity must reinvent itself, and that “theism, as a way of defining God, is dead.” He argues that a “new way to speak of God must be found.”14 Spong's message reflects a strong rebellion against religious conservatism, a view that is mirrored by many recent surveys and polls. According to one study, within the evangelical community, a quarter of its young members feel that their religion has lost touch with the basic teachings of Jesus.15 The study noted that in each new generation, more Americans shift their allegiance from Christianity to other faiths or systems of belief. Some embrace agnosticism and atheism, and as our college student survey showed, many prefer to see themselves as spiritually inclined but unaffiliated with any religious group. As a recent Gallup survey found, Americans may maintain their belief in God, but in general, Protestantism has been slowly declining since 1965.16
Fundamentalists will continue to argue for a return to biblical orthodoxy, but Americans seem bent on reinventing Atkinson's creed. Consider the phenomenal success of Rhonda Byrne's The Secret after endorsements from Oprah and Larry King.17 The funny thing is that the philosophy behind New Thought religion and materialism comes very close to several fundamental neurological truths:
· Your thoughts clearly affect the neurological functioning of your body.
· Optimism is essential for maintaining a healthy brain.
· Positive thoughts neurologically suppress negative thoughts.
· When you change the way you think, you begin to change your outward circumstances.
· Consciousness, reality, your mind, and your spiritual beliefs are profoundly interconnected and inseparable from the functioning of your brain.
Today, for many people, God has become a metaphor for our search for ultimate truths and our ability to imagine a better future for all. And, as a recent UCLA study found, this search for meaning is usually viewed as a spiritual pursuit, not a religious one.18
The cultural evolution of God follows the neurological evolution of the brain. The circuits that generate images of a wrathful God are closely tied to the oldest structures in the brain, and the circuits that allow us to envision a compassionate and mystical God are in the newest part of our brain. We can't get rid of our old limbic God, which means that anger and fear will always be part of our neural and spiritual personality. However, we can train the newer structures in our brain to suppress our biological tendency to react with anger and fear.
EXERCISING YOUR COMPASSIONATE NEURONS
The emotional circuits of our limbic brain have less plasticity than the frontal lobe.19 For example, we all get angry or frightened in the same way, but everyone experiences love in surprisingly different ways.20 Still, it's not fair to call our reptilian brain primitive, for it too has co-evolved with the frontal lobe and now has the ability to adapt and respond with increased appropriateness to new situations and stress.21 Other primates do not exhibit this adaptive skill. Unexpected changes frustrate them and they often lash out because the limbic structures in their brain are less flexible, with far fewer connections with their frontal lobe.
To bridge this gap between our “old” and “new” brains, a special structure appears to have recently evolved—the anterior cingulate.22 As I mentioned earlier, it connects our emotions with our cognitive skills, playing a crucial role in emotional self-control, focused problem-solving, and error recognition. Most important, it integrates the activity of different parts of the brain in a way that allows self-consciousness to emerge, especially as it applies to how we see ourselves in relation to the world.23
Since meditation stimulates this circuit, we believe there is also a coevolution of spirituality and consciousness, engaging specific neural circuits that allow us to envision a benevolent, interconnecting relationship between the universe, God, and ourselves. The circuit that extends from the frontal lobe to the limbic system has a rich interconnection of neurons centered in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is activated whenever we see someone who is suffering, and this allows us to feel empathy and compassion.24 If you can't resonate to other people's pain, then you are less likely to come to their aid. The anterior cingulate is a delicate structure, and damage to this area can change your personality in unpleasant ways.25 You can become depressed and lose your ability to be empathetic and sensitive to the feelings of those around you.
The anterior cingulate also contains a class of spindle-shaped cells called von Economo neurons, which are found only in humans, great apes, and certain whales.26 These neurons have an extensive array of connections with other parts of the brain and are believed to be intimately involved in the development of social awareness skills by integrating our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They guide us toward positive emotions and away from negative ones.27 But they are also disrupted by stress. If you expose yourself to ongoing stress, their functioning is reduced, but if you place yourself in an enriched environment—with a lot of love, communication, and sensory and intellectual stimulation—you strengthen the effectiveness of the von Economo neurons and the anterior cingulate.28 Since meditation simultaneously reduces stress while stimulating activity in the anterior cingulate, this supports our premise that spiritual practices enhance social awareness and compassion.
We also know that the von Economo neurons are especially vulnerable to degeneration in patients who suffer from Alzheimer's disease and other aging disorders.29 As we saw in Chapter 2, patients with cognitive disabilities improved their memory by meditating for only twelve minutes a day, which suggests that spiritual practices may indeed enhance the functioning of this rare primate neuron.
The best way to describe the relationship between your emotional limbic system, your frontal lobe, and the anterior cingulate is to visualize an imaginary seesaw:
The anterior cingulate acts as a kind of fulcrum that controls and balances the activity between the frontal lobes and limbic system.
In this example, the emotional limbic system, which includes the fear-producing amygdala, has a reciprocal relationship with your frontal lobe and your ability to use logic, reason, and language. The anterior cingulate, which sits right on the boundary between the limbic system and the frontal lobe, acts like a fulcrum, balancing your feelings and thoughts. If you get too emotional, blood flows into the limbic system, stimulating alertness, defensiveness, and fear in the amygdala. Just like a seesaw, as activity goes up in the limbic area, activity goes down in the frontal lobe. Thus, when you're angry or anxious, you stop being logical or reasonable, and your cognitive skills are suppressed.
When the amygdala becomes active, the anterior cingulate shuts down, which allows your reptilian brain to run the show. Empathy and intuition decline, and you lose your ability to accurately assess how other people feel.
On the other hand, if your frontal lobe becomes active, you stimulate the anterior cingulate, which slows down activity in the amygdala. Thus, logic and reason subdue anger and fear. It's that simple. When one side of the imaginary seesaw goes up, the other side goes down. But if the anterior cingulate is damaged—through a stroke, a lesion, or even too much anger—everything becomes unbalanced. Thus, it is essential that you nurture that inner negotiator, which is what meditation and spiritual practices do. They strengthen the frontal lobe—which stimulates the anterior cingulate—and this allows you to pursue your conscious goals in life with greater purpose and serenity. A strong frontal–anterior cingulate circuit also inhibits anxiety, depression, and rage.
EMBRACING COMPASSION AND PEACE
Based on our research and that of others, it seems that the more you activate your anterior cingulate, the less you'll perceive God as an authoritarian or critical force. It's quite easy to do. Simply focus on compassion or an image of peace as you breathe deeply and relax. Hold this thought for at least twelve minutes a day, and in a matter of a few months you'll begin to build and strengthen new neural circuits of compassion, and these will interrupt the neurological tendency to shy away from people who appear to be different than you.
Of course, you don't need to believe in God to establish empathy and serenity; you simply need to absorb yourself in memories associated with the feelings of kindness and love. If you consciously interrupt pessimistic thoughts and feelings with optimistic beliefs—even if they are based on fantasies rather than reality—you'll stimulate your anterior cingulate. Fear, anxiety, and irritability will decrease, and a sense of peacefulness will slowly take its place. However, if you obsess on your doubts and worries, your emotional limbic system will slow down those parts of the frontal lobe that generate logic, empathy, and pleasure. Again, it's a simple seesaw effect. Love goes up, and fear goes down. Anger goes up, and compassion goes down. If you focus on a benevolent God, the authoritarian God recedes. The choice is entirely yours—that's how easy it is to control nonconscious circuits in your brain.
But meditation, prayer, and a belief in a loving God may not be enough to eradicate the limbic system's tendency to distrust people who appear to look or think differently. Instead, you'll need to bring your spiritual practice into your social interactions with others. We'll show you how to do this in Chapter 10.
Social interaction strengthens the anterior cingulate's ability to respond to others with less stress,30 and so we encourage you to interact with as many different people as you can. Attend social events that include different cultures and ethnicities, and visit different churches. Experiment with unfamiliar forms of meditation and prayer, and share your experiences with others who are on a spiritual path.
THE ELUSIVE MYSTICAL GOD
It is easy to embrace the notion of a benevolent God, but far more difficult to experience the qualities associated with mysticism. As our Survey of Spiritual Experiences showed, unitary experiences that transform God into a virtually indescribable sensation appear to happen spontaneously. This is true for advanced meditators as well. Nearly everyone will feel more peaceful and relaxed as they experience deeper levels of awareness, but only a small percentage will report intense altered states of consciousness that rapidly transform their spiritual beliefs. Time and the length of practice clearly influence one's ability to experience mystical states, but as many Eastern teachers have said, there is no promise of enlightenment.
If you consciously want to explore mystical spirituality, our research suggests that you may need to engage in a daily practice that lasts from twenty minutes to an hour. In Chapter 9 we'll take you through the basic steps of setting up a meditation practice. You might not reach enlightenment, but you will find yourself in a more peaceful and happy frame of mind.
Practitioners from every religious tradition have succeeded in reaching mystical states, but they all seem to concur on one point: God can never be fully known by the mind. The experience is simply too grand, too awesome, and too profound to describe with pictures or words. God becomes the totality of life, and a force that is absolutely and irreducibly real. But it is a God that does not fit neatly into the tenets of traditional religious beliefs. Einstein called it a “cosmic religious feeling,” and he considered it to be “the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”31
Intense meditation appears to be the most direct route to experiencing mystical states. Are there any side effects? During meditation, activity in the amygdala temporarily declines, but we found that the brains of advanced meditators had mildly higher amygdala activity when they were resting. One would expect the opposite, so what might this mean? Is a mystical God frightening? In a certain sense, yes, because many parts of the brain want to clearly identify and label anything it perceives. Your brain just doesn't like mysteries, and people who are overly sensitive to uncertainty might prefer to embrace a more traditional notion of God.
It is also possible that those who are attracted to meditation may have higher initial levels of anxiety, compared to the general population. Therefore, they meditate because it is an effective way to become more serene. However, if meditation makes them more sensitive and aware, it may also make them more emotionally vulnerable when they are around others who are anxious or mad.
Overall, however, the benefits of intense meditation outweigh the risks. For example, in one recent study, advanced meditators were shown to have superior skills at discerning subtle changes in the environment,32 which, from an evolutionary perspective, has significant survival value. The majority of studies also have found that even brief periods of meditation significantly improve your ability to cope with a wide variety of psychological problems and physical disease. Perhaps this explains why the practice of meditation has increased in popularity in recent years. In 1993, five million people said they meditated. By 2003, the numbers soared to ten million,33 and in 2007, fifteen million.34 Church involvement in America is declining, but spiritual practices are on the rise.
THE FUTURE OF GOD
If our description of the neural evolution of religious belief is correct, it might be possible to predict the future of God. Historically, the notion of God has been reinvented a thousand times over, evolving from an authoritarian image toward a symbol of unity and love. Will a mystical God come to dominate the spirituality of the twenty-first century? Perhaps, but history tells us that such a change will be both psychologically and neurologically difficult to achieve. Rather, I think we will see a very slow acceptance of pluralism, in which believers of different faiths struggle to incorporate the disparate spiritualities that populate our world. But as one study reported, this may lead to lower levels of religiosity.35 However, the research we've reported on suggests that spiritual interests will continue to prosper and grow.
The God of the future would have to fill many roles and transcend many interpretations of historical religious texts. But as I have always argued, if God is truly infinite, then God must have infinite manifestations. Each person can only see a very limited version of whatever God or the universe might be. It is like the old story of the blind men who are asked to describe an elephant. The one who touches the trunk says that it is long, flexible, and wet. The one who touches the foot says it is short, stout, and rough. And the one who handles the tusk disagrees with the other two, saying that it is slender, smooth, and hard. They are all correct but will not be able to grasp what an elephant is until they put all the parts together. Perhaps, in a similar way, if we bring together all of our descriptions of human nature, reality, spirituality, and the universe, we might achieve a fuller understanding of what God is.
The enemy of a pluralistic God would reflect selfishness, anxiety, fear, anger, and racism—in other words, all the qualities that manifest themselves in an “us versus them” mentality. But you can't pluck out your amygdala, that neural fundamentalist in your brain. Instead, you must tame it, through education, contemplation, and love. That's what your frontal cortex and anterior cingulate are designed to do. They can imagine a better future, and they can manipulate the world to make those dreams come true. And as long as there are unanswered questions about ourselves, the universe, or the meaning of life, our brains will constantly invent new spiritual frameworks to make sense out of an incomprehensibly complex world.
∗1 As we discussed in earlier chapters, the anterior cingulate performs many essential functions related to assessing social situations. It detects when people lie, and it helps orchestrate strategies for handling conflicts. It reduces anxiety, fear, guilt, and anger, and is involved in learning, memory, and focused attention. The anterior cingulate is strengthened by meditation, which explains why meditation is effective in generating greater social awareness and compassion.
∗2 The evolution of religious beliefs is not as linear as I describe it. For example, few people today realize that having direct access to the Holy Spirit dates back to the Quaker movement of the seventeenth century.