So I’ve been reading a book by a relatively agnostic neuroscientist who suggests that pretty much everyone – believer or atheist – has their brain do positive, expansive, compassionate things that are good for them when asked to think about God. (In case you’re curious, those few who do not respond well are those – believer or atheist – who associate the word God with fear or anger. They would best stop thinking about that God as soon as possible.)
So this is troubling. I feel bad having my brain stretched while all the fine atheists out there seldom get the chance. In the spirit of friendship, I thought I would offer a temporary “Create-a-God Kit” to any atheists who might want their brains to get some of this benefit. Disclaimer: this is an imaginative exercise and should not be construed as orthodox according to anyone whatsoever.
1. Spend some time in a quiet space, preferably in or near something natural. Give yourself about ten to twenty minutes to think of what you would consider the best, most compassionate, most deeply beautiful things that you might think of. Let yourself love these things. Delight in them. If a little sense of wonder or awe arises, let it be.
2. Imagine where that goodness or compassion or beauty comes from (not the means but the source) – or even whatever it is in you that recognizes these traits as worthy of meaning – and maybe give that source a name, “God” (you could also call it Bob or something different but this may lessen the neurological gains involved). However, if that is simply too loaded try something still mystical but less tainted: the Source or Flow or Spirit.
3. Pause for some deep breaths and recall this is just using your imagination rather than figuring out reality.
4. Now recall any time in which you ever felt somehow invited to live better or go deeper or ponder meaning or open up to something new – and imagine that this invitation is somehow connected with what you just imagined and called “God” (or Bob or whatever).
5. Finally, ponder whether there is any chance that people might care about each other a tiny bit more if they did something like this more often.
6. That’s it – congratulations! If you did this, you just exercised your brain in ways that (apparently) have the potential of improving your cognitive functioning while increasing your sense of purpose and empathy towards others and reducing fear and anxiety.
Before this sounds too easy, there may be an undesired side effect. The authors state that such ideas “if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality.” And, unfortunately, if they’re not practiced regularly, benefits are minimal.
Here are some quotes from what I’m reading:
But religious and spiritual contemplation [as opposed to contemplating scientific big scientific questions] changes your brain in a profoundly different way because it strengthens a unique neural circuit that specifically enhances social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions. This is precisely the kind of neural change we need to make if we want to solve the conflicts that currently afflict our world.
….In contrast, religious activities that focus on fear may damage the anterior cingulate, and when this happens, a person will often lose interest in other people’s concerns or act aggressively against them. We suspect that fear-based religions may even create symptoms that mirror post-traumatic stress disorder.
[About those who suggest that religion is unhealthy:] The psychological, sociological, and neuroscientific data simply disagree. The problem isn’t religion. The problem is authoritarianism, coupled with the desire to angrily impose one’s idealistic beliefs on others.
– from How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman (Ballantine, 2010)