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Spirituality among atheists, Part 1

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About AtheistBible.net

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Suggested for Reading:

The True Believer, Eric Hoffer

The Science of Good & Evil, Michael Shermer

How We Believe, Michael Shermer

The End of Faith, Sam Harris

Tower of Babel, Robert T. Pennock

Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett


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Spirituality, Consciousness, God, Conscious Machines & the Atheist Mind.

(cont'd from the previous page)

II. THE RESEARCH WITH A PRIMARY RELIGIOUS AGENDA. There’s quite a lot of it because there are so many intensely religious people around who are dedicated to furthering their side of the religion debate, even in scientific pursuits supposedly free of bias. You ought to know about these studies, knowing your “enemy” is always a good route to self-defense, but if you would rather wade through them later, skip ahead to Part III.

Using Tibetan Buddhists to Try Advancing Christian Beliefs, Take One An early study was done by Andrew Newberg, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. A so-called “neurotheologist,” he sought to leapfrog the discovery of consciousness in the brain and go directly into finding what he considered to be neurological evidence of religious spirituality. With Eugene d’Aquili, a psychiatrist and one of neurotheology’s founding fathers, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, he began looking for proof of his theory that the brain’s “machinery of transcendence is set in motion by a mind willing itself toward the divine.” Using advanced imaging equipment, he studied the brains of several Tibetan Buddhists as they immersed themselves in meditative states. Later he repeated the experiment with Franciscan nuns as they engaged in deep, contemplative prayer. No atheists or agnostics were included for baseline comparison results.

Meditating brains showed changes in neural activity from a non-meditating one. Brain images showed increased activity in the frontal lobes and a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, the latter believed to be the part of the brain which recognizes the physical self and distinguishes it from other sensory information. Newberg’s amazing interpretation of this particular result was that it indicates that the brain is genetically wired to believe in God by blurring its connection to reality while in a meditative trance. It’s wildly non-scientific to draw such a conclusion when that part of his results more likely just shows that the brains of these subjects during meditation had simply become expert at shutting out extraneous distractions, any student desperately trying to bone up before an exam while others are noisily carousing outside knows all about that; but that doesn’t negate the usefulness of the work itself. AB.net thinks that this research data might prove more interesting and actually show something very useful about different conscious/unconscious states when set beside other brain data, as perhaps from sleeping subjects or selected comatose persons, or persons in hypnotic trances or under the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, for obvious reasons that their awareness of external events is also changed or impaired at the time, albeit in differing ways, this being the point of this observation.

Other Studies Intended to Advance Christian Beliefs:
Professor Diane Becker at Johns Hopkins, with funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), also did research from a theological angle, this time looking for connections between faith, the role of prayer, and healing. So too Dr. Mitchell Krucoff of Duke University. Also Dr. Dale Matthews of Georgetown University who authored “The Faith Factor,” which has a similar agenda. Since psychosomatic illnesses and the use of placebo pills in medicine have shown there is a real mind /body cause and effect where states of health are concerned, AB.net is not surprised that improvements were reported for devout women with breast cancer who prayed for themselves to get better (“petitionary prayer”), although improvements were generally measured in terms of survival rates which poses a number of problems: How was the study conducted and results measured, for example, and would these results change if all the “soft” self-reported data was thoroughly investigated and accounted for? Did non-survivors die from the breast cancer itself or some other unrelated cause the subjects didn’t include as part of their prayers ? How were survivors differentiated from non-survivors in terms of whether they had many supportive significant others, and what was the type, severity and degree of malignancy of their tumors when treatment began? Also, how did each approach the prayer session, how long was the prayer session? What of their different economic circumstances, their health before being diagnosed? There are too many inadequately covered variables to be asked and answered to call this a real scientific study, but it does open the way to show that mental attitudes when channeled through the use of a focusing method such as prayer, or meditation (see “Tibetan Buddhists, Take Three”), or by practicing yoga for example, are likely to have a positive effect, without assuming that the benefit comes from prayer itself.

As to the report’s claimed improvement (acknowledged to be small) of subjects as a result of “distant healing” (“intercessory prayer,” or praying for a sick person by strangers), this is almost laughably ridiculous. Still, support is support, and if the subjects knew they were being prayed for and believed it would help, their own belief in its power might benefit a positive mental outlook. A supportive environment usually works better than a hostile one, but seems to have a disproportionate effect on health. But the most effective support is usually that which comes from your significant others, not strangers. A report in the January 2003 journal American Psychologist seems instructive here: it found that regular churchgoers enjoyed health benefits over non-churchgoers, but people who relied on religion alone as a coping mechanism fared worse than sick patients who did not. The report of the National Institutes of Health three-scientist panel in that study wondered if religious people might have believed that God had abandoned them, or whether if they depended on their faith rather than their medical treatment, they subverted the success of their recovery. There are all the usual problems that can be levied against this type of study, but it implies that participating in a community activity such as attending church may confer benefits on the participants, although another study below suggests that virtually any community activity will do. Could the collective euphoria that emerges in audiences at a concert have a similar beneficial health effect? The concert goers often seem pretty hale and hearty, which of course assumes the elation of individuals at the concert doesn’t get out of hand which can lead to audience members getting beaned or worse, which likely wouldn’t benefit the beanee’s health! Clearly, though, emotional states matter, and for most people they seem to be tied to our communities and our inner feelings of belonging and being accepted and needed.

AB.net’s editor wants to caution here once more about how much confidence should be placed in these studies. This AB.net’s editor, having actively conducted psychological testing in the past, has seen firsthand the pitfalls and problems inherent in all of these mushy types of testing on human subjects involving hard to pin down specifics when there are so many intervening factors. It’s no secret that by designing a study just so, it’s easy to obtain the very results you desire. So it always has to be asked: How was data collected, interpreted, and how reliable, replicable and scientifically valid were the tests themselves? Another problem: AB.net’s own investigations have often shown that university medical researchers tend to heavily reference their own or their close colleagues’ earlier studies, a classic way of leading to magnified flaws in possibly already-flawed testing.

Research using Tibetan Buddhist monks, Take Two :
How Meditating Affects the Brain
Around September or October 2004, another discussion involving Tibetan Buddhist monks took place in Dharamsala, India, at the Dalai Lama’s home. Besides the monks and the Dalai Lama, five neuroscientists were present. Their focus was the brain’s neuroplasticity. It was once thought to be an absolute truth that by the time we became adults, our brains had no further ability to change or repair themselves, but like many another absolute, this assumption has proven wrong. Neuroplasticity is the name given the brain’s newly discovered ability to increase and decrease in certain areas depending upon its owner’s physical experiences and stimuli from the outside world. The neuroscientists in this study were seeking to find if the brain also changes its structure in response to internal stimuli such as thoughts, and Buddhist monks again appear to be ideal subjects for this research because of their traditional experiences with meditation.

First, monks experienced in meditating were connected to functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment, and asked to practice “compassion” meditation while their brains were scanned. Then novices with less meditation experience repeated the same experiment. During meditation, increases in gamma waves were seen, extreme in the experienced monks, less so in the novices. Gamma waves are thought to show a type of neuronal activity which unites the various regions of the brain. The region found to show the most extreme increase in activity was the left pre-frontal cortex, which is where feelings such as happiness seem to originate (keep in mind this was an exercise in “compassion” meditation). At the same time, activity in the right pre-frontal cortex, seat of negative emotions and worry, was greatly diminished. Also seen were increases in activity in an area of the brain which reacts to the sight of suffering and regions controlling planned movement, as if there was a desire to respond to the compassionate feelings by giving appropriate aid, even though the exercise was purely mental and not tied to a specific event or disaster. (Study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 2004.)

If this line of research ends up proving that the (physical) brain can even respond to self-generated conscious thoughts alone in a similar way that exposure to an actual incident might elicit responses within it, there are some interesting implications which might bear testing. It resonates with the above studies of women with breast cancer experiencing improvements when praying for themselves. Although it’s probably not politically correct to say so, and it’s certainly not scientific, there are people you can guess, without first being told that they are very devout, who have convinced themselves they are special in the eyes of their deity and think themselves superior to the average throng. Is it something in the smoothness around the brow, a gaze that suggests that the person has in his/her mind focused “beyond” mere human concerns (a.k.a. “reality”) and into their vision of a blessed eternity. This of course is a totally unscientific observation. But what if this unnaturally serene facial expression in some who exhibit it signals not just a disconnect with reality but also reflects an actual physical change in the brain itself that was brought about by an intense and persistent belief in one’s own righteousness? And what are the implications if the person is obsessively thinking negative right prefrontal cortex self-stimulating thoughts instead of the positive ones of Buddhist monks? It certainly brings to mind thoughts about suicide bombers and alienated teenagers and the curiously detached and disassociative characteristics seen in them and in some other persons in history who have unleashed untold pain and misery upon whole populations of humans. Monks typically focus on peaceful and positive thinking, they are aiming for a transcendental state and connection with a higher plane of existence, of becoming almost completely spiritual. The al Quaida bombers were also focused on their own elevation to a higher level of existence, all in the name of their religious beliefs too. But how can you reconcile the latter’s vile acts upon a peaceful citizenry with any vision of blessed eternity? Let’s posit for a moment the existence of such gods as the ones of al Quaida devotees, AB.net just can’t imagine that such treacherous actors would be welcome in their kingdoms, the idea of any god wanting that would be repulsive, who could or would want to worship such a god?


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