How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)
NEURAL EVOLUTION AND GOD
7. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN GOD GETS MAD?
Anger, Fear, and the
Fundamentalist in Our Brain
As we have argued throughout this book, most Americans have greatly benefited from their personal relationships with religion, spirituality, and God. But when it comes to sharing our religious beliefs with others, certain problems may arise, especially if we want them to embrace our spiritual points of view. If we use our powers of persuasion to reach a general consensus of belief—which, from an evolutionary point of view, is essential for social cooperation—we are bound to create conflicts with those who hold different religious beliefs.
The culprit is not religion per se, but what our brain is biologically inclined to do when we encounter people who embrace different visions of “truth.” One part wants to reject opposing ideas, while another part tries to understand, cooperate, and compromise. In essence, we all have two brains—one selfish and suspicious, another open-minded and kind. Since we live in a world filled with uncertainties, both brains are constantly on the alert.
THE TWO WOLVES
Once upon a time, or so the Cherokee legend goes, a young Indian boy received a beautiful drum as a gift. When his best friend saw it, he asked if he could play with it, but the boy felt torn. He didn't want to share his new present, so he angrily told his friend, “No!” His friend ran away, and the boy sat down on a rock by the stream to contemplate his dilemma. He hated the fact that he had hurt his friend's feelings, but the drum was too precious to share. In his quandary, he went to his grandfather for advice.
The elder listened quietly and then replied. “I often feel as though there are two wolves fighting inside me. One is mean and greedy and full of arrogance and pride, but the other is peaceful and generous. All the time they are struggling, and you, my boy, have those same two wolves inside of you.”
“Which one will win?” asked the boy.
The elder smiled and said, “The one you feed.”
We all harbor a pack of neurological wolves in our brain. The old ones reside in the limbic system, and they are filled with aggression and fear. They're fast, efficient, and potentially deadly, and they've been running the show for 150 million years. The younger ones reside in our frontal lobes and anterior cingulate, where empathy, reason, logic, and compassion reside. These pups are playful and imaginative, but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain.
So, when it comes to making sophisticated moral decisions, which one will win? The selfish brain or the cooperative one? Again, as with the two wolves, it depends on the one you feed. If you allow anger and fear to dominate, you will lose the neurological ability to think logically and act compassionately toward others. In fact, it is nearly impossible to find peace and serenity if your mind is preoccupied by negative, anxious, or hateful thoughts.
Excessive anger or fear can permanently disrupt many structures and functions in both your body and your brain. These destructive emotions interfere with memory storage and cognitive accuracy, which, in turn, will disrupt our ability to properly evaluate and respond to social situations.1 Anger makes people indiscriminately punitive, blameful, pessimistic, and unilaterally careless in their logic and reasoning skills.2Furthermore, anger encourages your brain to defend your beliefs—be they right or wrong—and when this happens, you'll be more likely to feel prejudice toward others.3 You'll inaccurately perceive anger in other people's faces,4 and this will increase your own distrust and fear. It's an insidious process that feeds on itself, and it can influence your behavior for very long periods of time.5 Eventually, it will even damage important structures in your brain.
Nor is it good for your heart. Regardless of your age, gender, or ethnicity—anger, cynicism, hostility, and defensiveness will increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular problems.6 What makes anger particularly dangerous is that it blinds you to the fact that you're even angry; thus, it gives you a false sense of certainty, confidence, and optimism.7
When people use their religion or politics—or even humor or teasing8—as a weapon to aggressively disparage others who embrace different beliefs, they unwittingly stimulate the other person's brain to retaliate with similar aggression. Aggression and hostility shut down activity in the anterior cingulate and striatum—the two key areas of the brain that control anger and fear—and when this occurs, the amygdala takes over, generating a “fight or flight” response that is spread through every other part of the brain.9
In fact, brain-scan evidence suggests that you won't even be able to read this chapter without having some of your “limbic buttons” pushed, because the moment the brain hears or sees words that have a negative meaning, your amygdala goes on the alert.10 Words like anger, fear, selfish, danger, and punish—which are used more than fifty times in this chapter—are neurologically unpleasant, whereas emotionally positive words like love, compassion, and trust activate the striatum and other parts of the brain that are related to pleasure, happiness, peace, and the sense of impending reward.11 In this chapter, we'll be addressing the positive and negative aspects of “fundamentalism,” but because the word has become so closely associated with authoritarianism, right-wing conservatism, and terrorism, it is virtually impossible to talk about this important societal issue without stirring up feelings of discomfort.
SELFISHNESS AND MORALITY
As we reported in detail in our previous book, a tremendous amount of research points to the fact that we are born with a selfish brain and that, when given a choice, we have a biological tendency to act in self-serving ways, especially if no one is watching.12 Children do not know how to behave morally because their brain has not developed the cognitive skills to comprehend abstract ethical principles. And as every parent has learned, different degrees of punishment are needed to train young brains to follow societal rules. In fact, from the perspective of evolutionary biology, it appears that social forms of mild punishment enhance most people's propensity to behave in altruistic ways.13
Not only are we neurologically inclined to act selfishly, but we are also neurologically equipped to detect acts of selfishness and deceit in others.14 When we do, we unconsciously react in a punitive, authoritarian manner. Even when adults play games, if they sense that their partner is being overly aggressive or unfair, they will react more punitively, with less compassion.15 Indeed, a balanced combination of punishment and reward tends to foster cooperation between individuals and groups. As a recent article in Science explains:
Research indicates that strong reciprocity—the combination of altruistic punishment and altruistic rewarding—has been crucial in the evolution of human cooperation. People often reward others for cooperative, norm-abiding behaviors, and they punish violations of social norms. For thousands of years, human societies did not have the modern institutions of law enforcement—impartial police and impartial judges that ensure the punishment of norm violations such as cheating in an economic exchange, for example. Thus, social norms had to be enforced by other measures.16
One such measure was the institutionalization of religion, which, for centuries, has struggled with ways to promote group coherence by demoting socially destructive behaviors. Thus, it is not surprising to find that the “Two Wolves” tale has been used as a metaphor by different religious groups.17 For example, a young Southern Baptist pastor named John Bisagno used it to describe a spiritual struggle that went on in the heart of a Native American who had been converted to Christianity:
At the instant of conversion God places into our being an entirely new nature, His own nature. Now we possess two natures—the old and the new, the carnal and the spiritual, the flesh and the spirit…. An old missionary returned to the home of a convert among the Mohawk Indians. When the missionary asked him how he was doing, old Joe said, “Well, it seems that I have a black dog and a white dog inside of me and they are always fighting.” The missionary asked him, “Which one wins?” and Joe said, “The one I feed the most.” Our daily fellowship with God is determined by which nature we feed the most.18
The tale illuminates a person's inner struggle between spiritual and physical pleasures, and Billy Graham used a version to portray “the inner warfare that comes into the life of a person who is born again.”19Bisagno and Graham intuitively identified the neurological struggle that exists any time we attempt to embrace higher ethical principles and ideals. However, if a person dwells obsessively on the inner warfare, he or she can do as much damage to the brain as a lifetime of alcoholism or drugs.20
TAMING YOUR SELFISH BRAIN
We all begin life with a biological propensity for selfishness, and evidence shows that we rarely, if ever, completely abandon these traits. We may suspend them temporarily in order to get along with others, but even then, altruism frequently appears to be a by-product of mutually satisfying each individual's personal desires.21 In one intriguing experiment, subjects were asked to assign two jobs, one to themselves, and another to a participant whom they could not see. One task was interesting and offered a financial incentive, but the other was boring and offered no reward. Most individuals chose the beneficial task for themselves. Another set of participants were told they could flip a coin to help with the decision-making process. Half used the coin, but the majority still assigned themselves the more enjoyable job, even when the coin toss went against them. However, when a mirror was placed in front of those making the assignment, they acted more fairly.22
Perhaps they did so out of guilt, or because they were reminded that another real person was involved. Interestingly, when researchers at the University of British Columbia introduced the concept of God during a simulated competition or “trust” game, participants—whether they were religious or not—acted far more generously toward their opponent.23 Clearly, spiritual incentives can induce people to act morally, but the researchers found that thoughts or images of police or civic authorities also increased generosity. This study does lend credence to the notion that authoritarian concepts can help tame the uncooperative “wolves” in society, which may explain why most ancient religions were filled with punitive gods and rules. But there is a fine line that needs to be walked, for as I mentioned earlier, too much focus on the negative can lead to anxiety, fear, and neurological distress.
Young children have a particularly difficult time with stories describing God's anger. For example, we know that nightmares are directly related to a child's reaction toward frightening images and hostile words,24 and we know that images of a punitive and authoritarian God increase children's anxiety, not just in Christians, but in Muslim children as well. In a study conducted in the United Arab Emirates, psychiatrists explored the prevalence of fear in 340 adolescents. Of the sixty fear items listed, belief in the devil and fear of breaking a religious law evoked extremely negative reactions in 50 percent of the subjects. According to the researchers, “Nearly half of the children reported that the fear caused considerable distress and interfered with daily activities.”25
How do we find the “right” balance between punishment and reward? It is a question that has never been satisfactorily answered from either a psychological or theological perspective. Nor has anyone been able to conclusively show that religion strengthens moral convictions. For example, one study found no relationship between honesty and religiosity,26 while another study found that students associated with religious organizations were more academically dishonest than those who practiced spirituality on their own.27 And although many individuals believe that their conversion to a deeper religious life helped them to abandon destructive behaviors, one study found that “saved” men were just as likely as “unsaved” men to read pornography and abuse their wives.28
So is there something more definitive that we can do to tame our selfish brain? Neurologically, the answer is surprisingly simple, because all we need to do is consciously exercise kindness and fairness toward others. As many studies have shown, the more compassionate we become, the more generous those around us become.29 And when we perceive others as being sensitive to our needs, our brains respond with greater generosity, a condition known as reciprocal altruism.30 This is the phenomenon we casually refer to as “you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.” Thus, when we treat others with kindness and respect, even those who hold different beliefs will respond in kind. An upward spiral is created that stimulates the anterior cingulate, a crucial part of the true heart and soul of the brain. As neuroscientists at the University of California in Los Angeles point out, activation of the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex “reflect the active suppression of unwanted racial biases.”31
We live in a pluralistic society, and this is enough to trigger a biological response toward prejudice, but research has shown that those who consciously strive toward embracing pluralism and a diversity of beliefs tend to treat others with greater equality, fairness, and generosity.32 In fact, many studies have demonstrated that the more friendly contact you have with members of different religious, cultural, ethnic, and racial groups, the less prejudice you will harbor in your brain.33
Research has also shown that when people embrace egalitarian beliefs, they become less authoritarian in behavior.34 It even appears that human beings have a biological and evolutionary drive toward creating equality between competing groups and individuals,35 and when equality is established, cooperation improves.36 This, indeed, provides a foundation of hope when dealing with the overwhelming number of conflicts that currently involve many nations throughout the world.
AN “US VERSUS THEM” MENTALITY
Although we can train ourselves to be less prejudiced and more accepting of others, we will still harbor elements of an exclusivist mentality deep within our brain, dismissing the relevance of other people's beliefs. In fact, we are all biased toward perceiving our own beliefs as true, even when the evidence clearly contradicts our points of view. For example, in a study assessing how religious and nonreligious students evaluate the beliefs of the other group, both groups tended to see the other side as illogical, yet failed to see the illogic in their own perspectives and beliefs.37 In other words, our minds are always biased toward seeing evidence that only supports our point of view. To put it another way, our brain has a preference for consistency, and this is what helps us to maintain our systems of belief.
Our brain automatically places objects and people into separate, distinguishable groups, and then we select a preference for one group over the other. We will root for our favorite baseball team and disparage the challenging team, and we will tend to distrust whatever the opposing political party says. The same holds true for anyone we perceive as being a member of a “different” group—be it religious, political, or ethnic—and when we do this, the tendency is to treat the other group unfairly. As many studies have confirmed, the “in” group will always orchestrate scenarios that are less than favorable for any “out” group.38In-group morality is also associated with intergroup conflict.39
An “us versus them” mentality exists even when the division is arbitrarily assigned in an experiment or game. When individuals were randomly placed into different groups, they felt stronger about their own group and tended to feel negatively about other groups, even when issues of religion, sexual identity, and culture were factored out.40 In other words, simply being a part of a group results in feelings of ill will toward others, and this evokes the desire to isolate oneself from them.
But there is a simple solution. As Princeton University professor Susan Fiske explains, if you want to decrease your natural tendency toward prejudice and out-group bias, don't “categorize” yourself. People, she states, can get beyond—and even prevent—“their automatic use of category-driven impression formation and decision making.”41 You'll do your brain, and society, a lot of good if you don't identify yourself as a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or atheist. Even labels like Democrat, Republican, or American can trigger an unconscious “us versus them” mentality in your brain.
Brain-scan studies have helped document the inherent biology of exclusive thinking as it relates to the balance of the limbic system and frontal lobes. One study showed that when we see someone who is a member of a different racial group, our brain reacts with fear in a matter of seconds.42 Fortunately, we can train ourselves to override this prejudicial nature of the brain, but it again requires a conscious commitment to show tolerance and compassion for others.43
Thus, we always have a choice. We can be driven by our negative emotions of the limbic system, or tilt the balance toward the compassion of the anterior cingulate and frontal lobes. Children too have the beginnings of both wolves, and therefore have a biological propensity to exclude other children who fall into a minority group. However, when they are placed in a mixed cultural group and given a project that requires everyone's assistance, prejudices fall away, hostility fades, and group cooperation flourishes.44
FUNDAMENTALISM AND ANGER
Although nearly one-third of Americans consider themselves Christian fundamentalists,45 it is probably the least understood form of religiosity, even by those who are members of fundamentalist congregations. Nor is there a simple definition of fundamentalism. To address the many dimensions of the world's fundamentalisms, University of Chicago professors Martin Marty and Scott Appleby directed a multiyear interdisciplinary study, called the Fundamentalism Project, that culminated in the publication of five encyclopedic books on the topic.46 As a way of generalizing the numerous forms of fundamentalisms and fundamentalist-like movements, the hundreds of experts considered that fundamentalists rely on strict interpretations of their sacred texts. Fundamentalisms usually emerge from conservative, traditional, or orthodox religious cultures, and people in such cultures usually feel threatened by what they see as the modern erosion of traditional values and beliefs. In addition, they sometimes feel they must take vigorous action against those who disagree.
Other scholars have pointed out that fundamentalism is not a unitary religious tradition and that there is a wide range of interpretations within fundamentalist traditions. Some are peaceful and serene, while others are hostile and militant. Thus, there are both positive and negative sides to fundamentalism, but overall, it represents a very personal and complex meaning system for the believer.47
On an individual level, strong religious identification appears to have a beneficial effect on one's health, for as several studies have shown, as religious convictions increase, anxiety and depression tend to decrease.48 In Iran too, higher degrees of religiosity among medical students are associated with lower degrees of anxiety.49 People feel comforted by strong beliefs because it gives them an unambiguous understanding of the world. And within the fundamentalist community, there exists a strong sense of social support. However, family emotional support in general has been shown to be more effective than religion in helping individuals cope with anxiety.50
On the other hand, religious and nonreligious fundamentalists (especially men) appear to have higher levels of trait anxiety,51 which tends to generate distrust toward others in positions of power. Unfortunately, this creates a double bind, for the more we pathologize individuals who distrust us, the more we validate their reasons for distrust.52 Thus, the only alternative is to counter suspicion with understanding and compassion.
As we see it, the neurological problem of fundamentalism does not lie in the firm adherence to a specific set of beliefs. Rather, the problem arises when individuals use their religion to justify angry feelings toward others. Specifically, expressing or listening to angry thoughts can disturb the normal neural functioning of many parts of the brain. In fact, just reading emotionally evocative words stimulates the amygdala and hippocampus in ways that resemble the encoding of traumatic memories.53
When you listen to angry speech—in a congregation or political forum—specific parts of your brain begin to mirror the angry content of the speaker.54 All you have to do is see a harsh, angry, or contemptuous face in a picture, and the same neural reaction will be triggered55 because the circuits involving the human amygdala are particularly responsive to the emotional expressions on other people's faces.56 And the stronger the expression, the stronger your emotional reaction will be.57
Even watching violence on the news, or taking in a violent movie, will make you feel more angry, aggressive, negative, and powerless.58 And the same thing happens in your brain when you listen to songs with hostile lyrics,59 even if they are presented in a humorous way.60 Furthermore, a meta-analytic review of video-game research found that “violent video games increase aggressive behavior in children and young adults.”61 According to University of Iowa researcher Craig Anderson, “the deleterious effects on behavior, cognition, and affect” are directly linked to “serious, real-world types of aggression.”62 No matter how you look at it, exposure to, or expression of, any form of anger is hazardous, not only to the health of the individual, but to society as well.
Unfortunately, as far as the brain is concerned, negative speech has a stronger effect than positive speech.63 Negative remarks and memories are more strongly encoded in the brain, and they are the most difficult memories to eradicate. In fact, simply being around negative people will make you more prejudiced, because listening to negative opinions can easily undermine your positive opinions about virtually anything.64
In essence, our brains are designed to mimic the emotional expressions of others.65 Not only does this allow us to feel what others feel, but it causes what is known as “emotional contagion,” a universal neurological process whereby subjective feelings are transferred to other people and spread through social groups.66 So how fast does it take the brain to react to another person's emotion? When you see an angry expression, it takes less than one second for your brain to respond with fear.67
RESPONDING TO ANGER WITH COMPASSION
So how do we deal with someone who persistently uses angry rhetoric to try to change our beliefs? One solution is to walk away, the other is to try compassion. The closest I came to being in such a situation was when I was dating a girl in high school whose family were strong fundamentalists. The family believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible, and since I did not follow their doctrines, I was going to end up in hell. They continuously bombarded me with statements and arguments about why they were right and I was wrong. Sometimes the exchanges became quite heated, and even though we strongly disagreed with each other, we did try to keep the dialogue going.
As an impressionable teenager, I found this experience fascinating, but disturbing. I tried to challenge their beliefs—to no avail—but I was always respectful, and in the process, I learned a great deal about my own personal values and beliefs. I once asked them how they would respond if an alien family from another world came to visit Earth. “If they looked at every religion,” I said, “they would find that each one had its own sacred books, sacred songs, and sacred truths. How would they know what religion to choose?” My girlfriend's family acknowledged that the alien would have a very tough time—that it was ultimately a leap of faith. And perhaps that is something we all need to remember. No matter what our beliefs are, our brain is making a leap of faith.
Because I showed an openness to their ideas, they treated me with respect, and I came away from the experience knowing that this was an essential element when dealing with people who hold fundamentally different beliefs. I also wondered whether it was ever possible to easily alter someone's way of thinking, especially if he or she was a “true” believer. It is a question I have pondered for decades, and the short answer is, “No.” From a neurological perspective, the more we immerse ourselves in a specific ideology, the more the brain responds to that belief as if it were objectively real. Thus, there is no simple technique, or drug, that will change a person's fundamental beliefs.
HURT YOUR BRAIN?
No, but cynicism will. Skepticism implies open-mindedness and the willingness to suspend judgment until both sides of an argument are considered, and this enhances neural functioning, particularly in the frontal lobes. A cynic, however, is a person who has taken their disbelief to a point of emotional distrust and rejection that borders on hostility toward the other point of view. This “limbic” personality is pessimistic and is so neurologically dangerous it can even shorten your life.
The same holds true when dealing with angry people. It is difficult to do, but if we can show compassion for their underlying suffering and pain, their brains will resonate to our kindness. In fact, research has shown that highly empathic people are more likely to respond to an angry expression by smiling.68 Angry people, however, do not have this ability. In fact, highly aggressive people automatically assume that other people will react to them with anger, and thus they will become even more aggressive, even though no hostility was shown toward them.69
In the battle between two wolves, the one who refuses to fight will often walk away unscathed. And as considerable meditation research has shown, people who maintain a mindful state of acceptance tend to have better relationships with others.70 Thus, when we train ourselves to be empathic, interpersonal animosity declines.71 We will explore this principle in greater depth in Chapters 9 and 10.
I believe that the best manner for dealing with strong fundamentalists is through education and exposure to other ideas. Our research has shown that the more you hear, read, and think about different ideas, the more those ideas take root. Over time, distrust toward those who hold different beliefs begins to decline. This was recently demonstrated on a large scale in California's “Bible Belt.” The Modesto public school system created a mandatory course on world religions for freshman high school students.72 The program was accepted by an advisory council of Modesto's religious leaders, and when the students were tested after taking the course, their general respect for religious liberty increased. The students were less willing to express disrespectful opinions toward other religious members, especially Muslims. In addition, they felt greater comfort with their own religious identity and came away with increased understanding and appreciation of the similarities between major religions.
The problem, as we see it, is not religious fundamentalism but authoritarianism and the impulse to impose one's ideals on as many people as possible. In fact, as Philip Zimbardo demonstrated in a famous experiment at Stanford University, it is socially and neurologically dangerous to place oneself in a position of open-ended authority.73 He randomly divided a healthy group of adults into “prisoners” and authoritarian “guards,” then put them into a make-believe prison. All the guards were told to do was maintain discipline and control over the prisoners. In less than twenty-four hours the experiment spun out of control. Prisoners were punished, humiliated, and degraded, and it soon mirrored the same type of behavior that U.S. soldiers doled out at Abu Ghraib, the American military detention prison in Iraq. Zimbardo pointed out that behind every form of religious and political abuse, you'll find “noble ideologies that allow the worst possible destructions, because you could always say, ‘I did it for God.’ “74
Sarah Mancuso, at Oberlin College, also discovered that the ideology itself propels an individual toward violence.75 Ideological rigidity—be it religious or political—leads to less openness toward change. Furthermore, religious and political idealists tend to be dogmatic, closed-minded, and intolerant of ambiguity.76 They have a pessimistic view of others and perceive anyone who holds a different ideology as a threat to their own existence. Furthermore, the more extreme the ideologies become, the greater the degree of intolerance, especially toward those who hold different beliefs.
Mainstream conservatism—be it religious or political—does not reflect the kind of cognitive rigidity that I am describing here.77 In fact, the number of American religious groups that are outwardly hateful is relatively small when compared to the general population. Thus, when it comes to fundamentalism, religion is not the problem. Even the authoritarian ideologies that lie behind them are not the source of the problems we see in the world today. Anger is the problem. And when anger is married to a specific ideology and organized into an institution—be it religious or political—then there is a real danger that individual hostilities will feed upon each other until an emotional tipping point is reached. At that moment, destructive irrational behaviors can more easily be expressed in the world. This is the underlying neurological basis for violence, and it all begins with the primitive fundamentalist traits that exist within the limbic brain.
WHEN GOD GETS ANGRY WITH YOU
Some people struggle so deeply with their inner wolves that they reach a point where they feel that God may be punishing them for the way they have led their lives. As a physician, I have often seen this in people who are dealing with certain types of disease, especially cancer and substance abuse. They first ask the question, “Why me?” They wonder if God is angry at them, and they often ruminate on guilt, asking, “Why did I get this problem when I have always tried to be good?” In the cases where young children are involved, I sometimes hear the parents lament, “Why would God allow this to happen to such an innocent being?” This is tantamount to the question about why bad things happen to good people, a theme that has occupied the minds of theologians for several thousand years.
When things don't go the way we think they should, the brain will wonder what went wrong. If you blame the world or God, you've relinquished self-responsibility, and that certainly won't solve the problem. But if you blame yourself, guilt can shut your frontal lobes down. If that happens, you lose your ability to analyze the situation, and the longer you stay focused on negative self-beliefs, the more likely you are to become depressed.78
In hospital situations most patients don't understand the medical reasons for their illness, and many blame themselves in a variety of creative ways: “I didn't eat right, or exercise, or properly pray.” And if you're religious, you may wonder if you have sinned. If not, you might blame your subconscious mind. Sometimes these individuals don't even try to get better—they don't want to. They won't take their medications, they won't try abstinence programs, and they don't try to rework their lives. It's a very difficult cycle to break, especially for those who hold deep religious beliefs. Research has shown that religious fear and guilt can evoke feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide, particularly for people who believe they have committed an unforgivable sin.79
Often, logic and medical reasoning has little effect on these patients. However, most university hospitals have come to realize that for many patients, the problem is as much a spiritual issue as a medical one. Thus, our medical facility, like many others, has added spiritual counseling and pastoral care for those who wish to use it. As doctors, we have come to realize that people need to deal with their spiritual pathology in addition to their physical and mental concerns. In this context, I am reminded of the biblical story of Job, who suffers terribly, even though he lives a virtuous life. His friends believe that he is a sinner and is being punished by God. Job questions God, but God declines to answer, until he finally says, “Where were you when I created the world?” The implication, at least for me, is that we can never know the mystery that is God. Nor should we be so arrogant as to think that we truly understand how the world works. This is where faith comes in, be it in ourselves, in medicine, in science, or in God. Faith tempers our anxiety and fears, and it may even temper one's belief in an angry God. The beauty of Job's story is that it reminds the suffering believer that God is ultimately compassionate. And from the perspective of medicine and neuroscience, compassion can heal the body as well as the soul.
In the evidence we've cited throughout this book, it is obvious that most forms of spiritual contemplation lead to a healthier brain, and most likely to a healthier society as well. But you must exercise that brain by exposing yourself to new ideas. Think about God and spirituality in different ways, as deeply as you can, and you will learn to appreciate the diversity, fallibility, and mystery of human beliefs.
But no matter how open-minded you become, and no matter how tolerant or compassionate you think you are, there will always remain the remnants of a neurological exclusiveness and fundamentalism in your brain—a wolf that will respond with fear and anger to all that is different and new. The struggle between good and bad, between tolerance and intolerance, between love and hate, is the personal responsibility of every individual on this planet. The question remains: Which wolf will you feed, and which wolf will you tame?