There is new evidence that humans are
hard-wired to believe in GOD!
By: Vince Rause
Los Angeles Times Magazine
O NE NIGHT last April, 2001, the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared in the attic of a house a few miles from my home. The Virgin manifested herself upon a closet door as a blur of soft golden light, suggesting a figure draped in flowing robes. The owner of the house explained that the image appeared only at night, when the street lights came on and the casement window facing the street was open. Outside the house, hundreds of people stood in line, waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of the miracle. As I watched it on TV, I asked myself: How is it that in our enlightened society, so many people could be lured into the night by such a sorry excuse for an apparition of glory? And second: What latent, restless urge was nagging me to drive right over there and take my place in line?
VINCE RAUSE collaborated on Why God Won’t Go Away with neuroscientist Andrew Newberg.
I’m having lunch with Andrew Newberg at a restaurant in suburban Philadelphia. Newberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and I have met to discuss his biological theory of religion, which he believes provides a neurological basis for the great human hunger for God. The theory has made Newberg, 35, a leading figure in the emerging science of neurotheology, which explores the links between spirituality and the brain. Newberg tells me something I’m not sure I can grasp: that the fabled “higher reality” described by mystics might, in fact, be real. “You mean figuratively real.....“ I say with a troubled squint. “No,” he says. “As real as this table. More real, in fact.” “You’re saying your research proves this higher reality exists?” I ask. “I’m saying the possibility of such a reality is not inconsistent with science,” he says. “But you can’t observe such a thing in a scientific way, can you?” Newberg grins. He hasn’t simply observed such a state; he has managed to take its picture.
NEWBERG’S THEORY is based on research begun in the 1970s by the late, great Eugene d’Aquili, a psychiatrist and anthropologist. D’Aquili’s theory described how brain function could produce a range of religious experiences, from the profound epiphanies of saints to the quiet sense of holiness felt by a believer during prayer. In the early 1990s, d’Aquili teamed up with Newberg, a radiologist. The two refined d’Aquili’s theory and began testing it. They used an imaging technology called SPECT scanning to map the brains of Tibetan Buddhists meditating and Franciscan nuns engaged in deep, contemplative prayer. The scans photographed blood flow—indicating levels of neural activity—in each subject’s brain at the moment that person had reached an intense spiritual peak.
When the scientists studied the scans, their attention was drawn to a chunk of the brain’s left parietal lobe they called the orientation association area. This region is responsible for drawing the line between the physical self and the rest of existence, a task that requires a constant stream of neural information flowing in from the senses. What the scans revealed, however, was that at peak moments of prayer and meditation, the flow was dramatically reduced. As the orientation area was deprived of information needed to draw the line between the self and the world—the scientists believed—the subject would experience a sense of a limitless awareness melting into infinite space. It seemed they had captured snap-shots of the brain nearing a state of mystical transcendence—described by all major religions as one of the most profound spiritual experiences. Catholic saints referred to it as “mys- tical union” with God. A Buddhist would call it “interconnectedness.”
These are rare experiences, requiring an almost total blackout of the orientation area. But Newberg and d’Aquili believed lower degrees of blockage could produce a range of milder, more ordinary spiritual experiences, as when believers “lose themselves” in prayer or feel a sense of unity during a religious service. Their research suggests that all these feelings are rooted not in emotion or wishful thinking, but in the genetically arranged wiring of the brain. “That’s why religion thrives in an age of reason,” Newberg says. You can’t simply think God out of existence, he says, because religious feelings rise more from experience than from thought. They are born in a moment of spiritual connection, as real to the brain as any perception of “ordinary” physical reality. “Does this mean that God is just a perception generated by the brain, or has the brain been wired to experience the reality of God?” I ask. “The best and most rational answer I can give to both questions,” Newberg answers, “is yes!”
T HE PATH that led me to Newberg began years before we met. I was happily married, was doing the work I loved, and had a large extended family. In a few years, however, the scales of fate tipped with a vengeance. My mother died of cancer. My brother Joe succumbed to heart failure. I lost my grandmother, four uncles and an aunt. The cumulative effect of all the grief sent me reeling. I tried to find solace in prayer, but the words felt all wrong in my mouth.
I tried to remember what it felt like to believe. I thought of myself as a kid, sitting in our chapel, my bones quivering with the rumble of Latin chants. But when I tried to recall the experience of faith—what it felt like to really believe—the emotions wouldn’t rise to the surface. What I did recall was the terrible secret holiness that gathered in the darkest corners of the church. It was in the candlelight, the music and the ritualistic gestures of the priest. It was huge, mysterious, sacred.
As I got older, I forgot all about holy things lurking in the shadows. I thought of myself as a rational guy who had outgrown superstition. Then, with middle age encroaching and the universe baring its teeth, I didn’t know where to turn. I had fallen into a spiritual no man’s land. During those restless months, my agent told me about Newberg, who needed a writer to collaborate with him on a book about religion and the brain. A month later we met, and the book began to take shape. It wasn’t easy. As I delved into the chapter on mysticism, I was lost in a mind-bending hall of mirrors: An Islamic mystic says, “We and our existences are nonexistences.” A Buddhist offers this: “It has never existed. It has never been nonexistent.” And the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart notes that God “is being beyond being: He is a nothingness beyond being.” I was so deeply confused I didn’t know which way to turn.
Then I stumbled on a passage written by Bede Griffiths, a contemporary Benedictine monk. Griffiths describes his boyhood experience of walking one night when he was suddenly dazzled by the beautiful song of a flock of birds. Their singing awakened senses he’d never used before. Instantly the world seemed transformed, he says, as if he’d stepped into “the presence of an almost unfathomable mystery. which seemed to be drawing me to itself.”
That was it:. no burning bushes, no flaming chariots. Just a gentle, subtle awakening, a soft epiphany that many might simply shrug off. But it changed Griffiths’s life forever. Soon I found accounts of similar revelations: people surprised by a thrill of wonder as they read poetry, pondered the cosmos or prayed. Mystical experience, I was beginning to understand, was not a magical ascension into some distant literal paradise. It was a quiet, personal epiphany that the miraculous and the mundane are one and the same, and that both are right before our eyes
For the first time since I was a kid, I felt the presence of something mysterious and fine. What that something was, I couldn’t fathom, and somehow, I didn’t need to know. Soon I learned that, for the mystics, it is only when the self is pushed aside during meditation that we can see reality as it truly is. Indeed, Newberg’s scans suggest the brain may be able to experience two realities. In one reality, awareness reaches the mind through the filter of the self. In the other, the self is swept aside, and •the mind’s awareness grows broader and more unified. ‘And there’s no way to say one is more real than the other?” I ask. Newberg smiles. Reality, he the- orizes, is a matter of degree—what feels most real is most real. “The mystics tend to experience this [transcendent] state as more real than ordinary reality,” he says. I am silenced. I can’t swallow the notion that mystical insights should help shape our practical view of existence. Then I found this passage by Albert Einstein: “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead.”
Soon I discovered Einstein’s view was shared by other great scientists—Niels Bohr, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg—who concluded there is room in a rational universe for in comprehensible wonders.
AFTER COMPLETING the book, I can’t say I’ve found religion. But I have come to realize that the biggest, most fascinating mysteries are to be savored, not resolved. And mystery is all around us: We just need to humble our hearts and pay attention. “My salvation is to hear and respond,” wrote Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk. “For this, my life must be silent. Hence, my silence is my salvation. And that, I’ve decided, is my new master plan: To forget about being informed or interesting or rational. To just shut up and listen for a while.
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