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Spirituality, Consciousness, God, Conscious Machines & the Atheist Mind.
The “God gene?”
An interesting take from another angle comes from Dean H. Hamer, a behavioral geneticist at the National Cancer Institute. In looking for a genetic propensity for religious beliefs, he identified brain chemicals at play during the deep meditative states of Zen practitioners, and Roman Catholic nuns during prayer. A man of faith who nevertheless is described as agnostic in his beliefs, in a nod to objectivity, he also included mystical trances among users of mind-altering drugs - including peyote - in his research. In looking at samples provided by his subjects, he managed to isolate among them a gene known as VMAT2, which seems to code for the production and flow of chemicals to the brain that play a key role in emotions and consciousness. Subjects with the nucleic acid cytosine in one particular spot on the gene “showed the highest abilities to feel self-transcendence,” according to Hamer. (As best as we can tell, again no atheists were included in this study, apparently we aren’t supposed to experience the state referred to by believers as self-transcendence and are therefore of no use in any of these studies. Not even as controls!)
He regrettably dubbed VMAT2 the “God gene” in his book “The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes,” published in September 2004. At least he puts on a show of scientific detachment, by not couching his findings as proof that God exists, instead hedging his bets by suggesting it as a reason for why we believe in God. Unfortunately it still steers people to thinking that belief in gods or God or other deities must therefore be a natural and valid phenomenon and not perhaps a warping of some other possible survival trait that we have interpreted into a need for a God. AB.net observes that many social creatures in the wild, (including primates), willingly subject themselves to a dominant member of their group because that member takes responsibility for leading the group to safe grounds, for protecting and being in front and taking the greatest risk in facing predators and enemies, and finding food and water for the group. Could it be that as social creatures ourselves, as leadership becomes an ever more remote and impersonal factor, we have one more reason to invent a God or superheroes or rest our trust in mere men as leaders in its place to admire and look up to for protection and favors?
Simplistic perhaps, but how more simplistic than asserting a “God” gene? “Time” magazine, in its October 25, 2004 issue, devoted NINE pages, a significant chunk of that issue, to discussing Hamer’s hypothesis, in an article written in piously lyrical language by Jeffrey Kluger, and heavily slanted towards affirming God’s existence. There are token acknowledgments of other positions: for example, quoting Michael Persinger, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., who is accorded a few lines saying “God is an artifact of the brain.” “Time” continues from what appears to be an assumption in the existence of God. This article is well-written and worth reading for a lesson in bias and how information can be cleverly massaged into proving whatever you want it to prove, but not as instruction in clear-eyed exposition. Considering how many major articles and how much cover space both Time and Newsweek have devoted to religion and particularly Christian beliefs of late, one begins to wonder if they should just change their names to These Christian Times and The Christian News!
Tibetan Buddhists, Take Three
Benefits of Meditation, Not Necessarily for Christians Alone.
Richard Davidson and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have also done studies using Tibetan Buddhist monks skilled in meditation. One finding was that the monks’ baseline prefrontal cortex activity in their left cortexes was related to positive outlooks and temperament, which is consistent with findings of other studies. Davidson then did tests on volunteers from a high-tech Wisconsin company. One group received meditation training, the other did not. The meditation-trained volunteers reportedly showed greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex at the end of the test than they had before, which was also greater activity than the volunteers without meditation training. All participants received flu shots, but the meditators reportedly showed a healthier immune response afterwards. So it seems that meditation may be a very good thing for the mental health of humans. The particular advantage of engaging in spiritual activities (whether religious or not) through meditation or some other body/thought-discipline training is that if you happen to not be a “joiner,” or don’t live in a community with which you feel you share common interests or beliefs, you can still obtain the mental and physical health benefits without having to merge yourself into a community mentality as with the regular churchgoers above. Or else you could go to a concert for music you love, but watch out for those overly exuberant fellow attendees !
III. ANALYZING THESE STUDIES FROM AN ATHEIST VIEW
But first, We Take This Moment
to Report One More Study, With Unseemly Glee
The recently well reported results (late March/early April 2006) from another study funded by the John Templeton Foundation, again working with therapeutic “intercessory” prayer, and involving research with some 1,800 patients at 6 academic medical centers who were recovering from coronary-bypass surgery, found that the group of patients who knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post surgery complications than two other groups of patients told they may or may not receive prayers. We’re thinking it’s because that knowledge created expectations (and possibly fear they were not good enough to receive the blessings of a godlike intervention) in that group which resulted in additional stress upon them. In the latter two groups, one group received prayers and the other did not, and the result of their recovery rates was identical, revealing to any logical observer that the prayers themselves had ABSOLUTELY ZERO EFFECT! All we atheists can say is : “Gee, too bad, make sure not to pray for us.” The shocked researchers are of course busy drumming up explanations for their results which let their god off the hook and alleging flaws in the design etc. etc. including rationalizations like ‘faith can’t be scientifically analyzed.’ Well DUH!, and good luck.
What The Above Studies Suggest:
While several of the above brain studies revealed various areas of the brain which become active during specific thinking exercises, none actually pinned down either consciousness or spirituality other than to locate much of the brain’s consciousness and spiritual activity in the pre-frontal cortex. What the studies do allow investigators to see is the brain in action, but it’s not spirituality, nor is it consciousness per se, it is the effects of consciousness. Rather like trying to record the sun’s energy with ordinary cameras and film, where what you capture is the effects via illumination and shadows, but without special equipment you aren’t seeing the energy itself. One thing though, which emerges fairly consistently from studying meditating individuals, is that by engaging the mind in what is considered spiritual exercises, without any regard to the meditator’s belief in a god, there seems to be an increase in immune system response, as well as some other mental and physical health benefits. Participants seem calmer and generally happier in their outlook on life. Combining spiritual exercises such as meditation, possibly with Yoga, or Zen or Tai Chi style physical exercises, which also require concentration and focus, therefore gets our unqualifiedly enthusiastic stamp of approval for all people, whether stressed or not. So go forth and “Ommm,” (or something else, apparently “ommm” refers to god ) all you atheists! You should be trying this.
It wasn’t clear from the above studies if meditating resulted in actual physical changes in the brain itself (although see below, study by Sara Lazar), but another interesting finding was that holding a particular conscious thought or feeling in the mind seems to cause reactions within the brain which may mimic the brain reactions that the actual event itself might cause. See “Research using Tibetan Buddhist monks, Take Two” above. The decrease in parietal lobe activity while meditating may dampen an actual overt physical response to such thoughts; but AB.net has not seen data to show whether such thoughts cause changes within the endocrine system or of the neurotransmitter chemicals themselves. Wet (day)dreams, anyone? The serious aspect of this refers back to the beginning of this article where we contemplated how atheists might find comfort while grieving over the loss of someone close. Whether it would be beneficial for an atheist to actively meditate on feeling the presence of someone who they had loved and lost, or whether it might prolong the grieving process, is perhaps something worthy of a study.
Although one of the studies above seemed to show that there are people who might have a genetic predisposition to be able to engage in meditation more easily than others (atheists would call it a “meditation gene” and skip references to deities), it is obvious that, with practice (and with or without those VMAT2 genes), anyone can become accomplished at meditating.
Studies of meditating continue since the ones above, and they confirm its benefits, some even claim such dramatic improvements from meditation that being skeptics it almost makes us want to reconsider , but no, we think meditating really is good for you as a way of toning up and improving your spiritual senses and clearing your mind and helping you through extreme emotional distress. More modern forms involve a Western-style of meditation called “mindfulness” or “insight meditation.” In a recent study by Sara Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital, it appears that as little as just 40 minutes of meditating a day thickens the brain’s cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for attention, memory, and decision making; the way into the meditating state used by Lazar’s subjects includes focusing on an image or sound (our preferences would be a waterfall or classical music or something else soothing or perhaps the Gregorian chants referred to above, but whatever works for you) or on one’s breathing. You must also deliberately let go of and stop all thoughts but for concentrating on the chosen sound/breathing (etc.) Your mind is going to struggle to jump into one of those random thoughts that start passing through (rather like naughty kids you told to behave so they just act up even more), as you learn to meditate you will find your mind fighting to make you attend to it. You must always put the extraneous thoughts aside and come relentlessly back to your chosen path into meditating; eventually it will get easier. Once you have this skill under control, you may begin to focus on single subjects of choice, start off with simple things and don’t get too ambitious too quickly. There’s also no guarantee of answers if your subject of choice is a question, but you may still define more clearly what the underlying question is and ways to cope with the problem that was the source of the question.
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