Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Our Thinking About God


[The way we think about God, ourselves and other spiritual matters (or anything for that matter) plays not only a tremendous role in our spiritual lives, but could also affect our mental, emotional and physical health. Furthermore, as the study below points out, our thoughts about God, ourselves and spiritual matters can also play a big role in our interactions with other people. In essence, negative views of God have negative effects while positive views have positive effects.

Of course, this study is nothing new to Orthodox Christians. Our inheritance has already addressed all of these psychological issues being studied about religion today, and has even gone far beyond them. The Fathers of the Church have written a tremendous amount on the role thinking, doctrine and way of life interact with one another to lead man to union with God and love for all of humanity for the ultimate benefit towards ourselves and society in general. We know that in order to be able to identify ourselves as christians we must seek to imitate Christ and the Saints in all things, so that we may heal our selfish desires and become utterly selfless before God and our fellow human beings. We also know that to cultivate our own humility in our relationship with God and people is the ultimate key to our well-being and the well-being of society. Orthodoxy is thus ultimately about healing the human person of all the negative psycho-somatic issues brought on by our thoughts and desires that have lead us to vices and seperation from God. - J.S.]

This Is Your Brain on Religion

Faith can bring out the best in people (love, generosity, compassion) — and the worst (fear, hatred, violence). Whether people are the former or the latter depends on how they view the God they worship.

By Andrew Newberg
USA Today
June 15, 2009

When I was in high school, I dated a girl whose family regarded themselves as "born-again" Christians. It was my first encounter with devoutly religious people who strongly disagreed with my perspective on faith. They were always pleasant to me, but they were quite clear that in their view I had deeply sinned by not turning to Jesus. Oh, and because of this, I was going to hell.

It's tough enough being a teenager, but this was too much. The family's judgment disturbed me on two levels. First, I didn't like the thought of going to hell, but at the same time, their beliefs also challenged me to evaluate my own beliefs vigorously.

Distress and anxiety followed, and I realized that this was the first time that I had ever experienced such strong negative feelings about religion. And 30 years later, this episode still resonates as I conduct extensive research on religious practices and beliefs and their impact on the human person.

The research that I have come across, if not definitive, seems clear: Religion and spiritual practices generally have a positive effect on one's physical, emotional and neurological health. People who engage in religious activities tend to cope better with emotional problems, have fewer addictions and better overall health. They might even live longer than those who lead more secular lives. Indeed, many studies document that religious and spiritual individuals find more meaning in life.

Our studies at Penn's Center for Spirituality and the Mind (in conjunction with colleague Mark Waldman) of the effects of different spiritual practices, such as meditation and prayer, also reveal significant improvements in memory, cognition and compassion while simultaneously reducing anxiety, depression, irritability and stress (even when done in a non-theological context). One might come to the conclusion, then, that being religious or spiritual is a good thing. Perhaps God is great.

But not so fast. We also discovered that religion's influence on people depends very much on how they view their God.

Which God?

There seems to be little question that when people view God as loving, forgiving, compassionate and supportive, this more likely results in a very positive view of themselves, and of the world around them. But when God is viewed as dispassionate, vengeful and unforgiving, this can have deleterious effects on one's physical and mental health. Again, the research is clear: If you ruminate on negative emotions, they activate the areas of the brain that are involved in anger, fear and stress. This can ultimately damage important parts of the brain and the body. What's worse, negative emotions can spill over into outward behaviors that generate fear, distrust, hatred, animosity and violence toward people who hold different or opposing beliefs. Thus, it becomes more easy to believe that "I, and my religion, is right and you, and your religion, are wrong." It is this destructive religious rhetoric that atheists are quick to point their fingers at when focusing on the negative qualities of faith. In fact, reading some of the following quotes could be bad for your brain if it evokes a fearful, anxious or hateful response:

"I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good. … Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country." — Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, one of the more extreme anti-abortion groups, 1993.

"You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that and the other thing. Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. I can love the people who hold false opinions, but I don't have to be nice to them." — Televangelist Pat Robertson, 1991.

Fortunately, surveys suggest that only a small percentage of Americans hold such hostile beliefs. Unfortunately, this minority often attracts the greatest amount of camera time and ink, too. But what is truly frightening is the fact that 1% translates into 3 million potentially violent citizens in our country alone. And this certainly plays out on the global stage, as beliefs conflict and terrorism fosters fear, hatred and ultimately violence.

There is another potential dark side to religion. As I have witnessed at the hospital in which I work, when people feel that they contracted a disease because God is punishing them, such individuals may not follow doctor's orders, keep appointments or take medications as directed. After all, why try to get better when God is trying to punish you? Research confirms that people who hold a punitive image of God can compromise their immune system and psychological health, thus prolonging their suffering and illness. Currently I, along with researchers at other universities, am developing simple strategies to show people how they can turn negative religious attitudes into a more positive framework that will help them deal more effectively with their health problems, and thus improve their quality of life.

So how can a person of faith guard against the negative side of religiosity and spirituality? Our research findings suggest that all one needs to do is to stay intensely focused on positive and loving concepts — of ourselves, others and our deepest values and beliefs. Obsessively focusing on any form of negativity — be it religious, political, or interpersonal — damages social empathy and cooperation.

In this sense, one can argue that religious and spiritual activities might not only be beneficial, they also might be necessary for helping people find more compassionate approaches toward themselves and toward others. God only knows that politicians and CEOs aren't doing much to generate compassion these days. So it is easy to argue, from a sociological perspective, that religion serves an essential role by directing people into their deepest values concerning life. In this way, God may be good, if not great, at helping people to be compassionate, forgiving and loving.

Battle in the brain

Virtually every religion — including the most conservative sects — preaches positive concepts, such as "love thy neighbor" and "to forgive is divine." Religions often encourage us to seek positive emotions such as joy, peace and hope. But we must always be aware of the eternal battle between those parts of the brain that are prone to push others away, and the parts that are inclined to build cooperative alliances with our fellow human beings in times of need.

In this sense, whether we embrace spiritual or secular values, the ultimate goal is the same. For as Albert Einstein stated when he described the similarities between spiritual and scientific epiphanies, it is the overwhelming awe and beauty of the universe and the deep sense of connectedness to the world that we all seek, if not crave. At their best, both science and religion can evoke inspirational meaning in our lives, and when this occurs, God and science are great.

But we always have to watch out for the times when God, religion, or science can turn a blind eye toward others. We have a brain that is filled with both loving and hateful ideas. We can turn to religion and spirituality as a way to foster the good in us, except, of course, when we don't.

Andrew Newberg is associate professor of radiology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He and Mark Waldman are co-authors of the new book How God Changes Your Brain.
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