How God Changes Your Brain – A Study Guide First HalfPosted: May 6, 2013
Ch 1: “Who Cares About God?” We all do, argue the authors, who introduce basic concepts of neuroplasticity, the “war” between atheists and fundamentalists, and why religious beliefs generate both anger and compassion in virtually everyone’s brain.
Page 10: Our research also disclosed that when it comes to God, there are few “true believers,” for even the most devoted believers expressed some doubts about the validity of their spiritual beliefs. Do you think this is true, and if so why is it important?
Page 11: . . . The problems isn’t religion. The problem is authoritarianism, coupled with the desire to angrily impose one’s idealistic beliefs on others. . . As we documented in our previous book, human beings have a neurological and biological propensity to act in profoundly hostile ways. On the other hand, our research shows that the majority of spiritual practices suppress the brain’s ability to react with anger or fear. Have you ever considered “spiritual practices” as an antidote to anger, fear and violence? If that is true, how might that inform the ministry of United Church? How important are non-authoritarian religious communities?
Page 13: Our research, along with major studies conducted at other universities points to an overall decline in traditional religions that has been quietly going on for thirty years. But it has been replaced by a growing interest in spirituality. . . . Thus, God is as popular as ever, but as we will describe throughout this gook, it is a God that significantly differs from historical religious beliefs. Do you think this is true, and if so how might this inform the re-visioning process at United Church?
Page 14: . . . religious and spiritual contemplation 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. And the underlying mechanism that allows these changes to occur relates to a unique quality known as “neuroplasticity:” the ability of the brain to structurally rearrange itself in response to a wide variety of positive and negative events. Do you think your brain can be changed? In what ways would you be willing to try to change your brain?
Page 18: . . . Contemplative practices allowed our ancestors to envision a better world – and possibly after worlds – and the creative processes within our brain gave us the power to make some of those visions come true. But most important, contemplative practices helped us to become more sensitive and compassionate toward others. Do you think contemplative practices encourage us to become more sensitive and compassionate? If so, how can a faith community encourage its members to engage in contemplative practices and advertise itself as a community of spiritual practices?
Page 19: We can use spiritual practices to become less hostile and greedy and feel more compassionate toward others, but internal compassion is not enough to deal with the problems we must face in the world. Thus we must find ways of bringing our spirituality into dialogue with others. But how do you neurologically promote peaceful cooperation between people, especially between those who hold conflicting points of view? Do you see any ways for promoting cooperation between people with conflicting points of view? Even within United Church we have conflicting points of view. How do you think we can model cooperation within our faith community? If churches can begin to model how people with differing viewpoints can cooperate, what do you think that would mean for “faith sharing?”
Page 20-21: . . . Faith is embedded in our neurons and in our genes, and it is one of the most important principles in our lives. . . wherever you choose to place your faith, you must still confront a deeper question: What is your ultimate pursuit and dream? What do you truly desire in your life – not only for yourself, but for the world as well? Do you believe faith is in our neurons and genes? How do you respond to the author’s question about your ultimate pursuit and dream?
Ch 2: “Do You Need God When You Pray?” The authors describe a new study showing how a mantra meditation practice improved memory in older people with mild cognitive impairment (a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease).
Page 27 and 29: Not only does activation in the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulated improve memory and cognition, it also counters the effects of depression, a common symptom in age-related disorders. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients also show reduced metabolic activity in the anterior cingulated, and this suggests to us that the meditation technique should slow down the deterioration caused by these diseases. . . Gus’s scans showed that it takes less than two months to alter the overall neural functioning of the brain. This is amazing because it demonstrates that we have the power to consciously change our brains and improve neural functioning, in less time than scientists used to think. Does the research described in this chapter inspire you to consider using a program of meditation for brain and memory health?
Page 29: In our brain-scan studies of nuns and Buddhists, we also found decreased activity in the parietal lobe. . . We don’t fully understand the reason for it, but it appears that a loss of self-consciousness enhances one’s intention to reach specific goals. A loss of one’s sense of self also appears to improve one’s ability to perform a variety of tasks, with greater pleasure. In sports it’s called “in the zone,” and in psychology, this state of optimal experience is called “flow.”
Can you think of anyways that our life together at United Church might contribute to the experience of “flow” in people’s lives. In what ways might we alter worship and prayer life at United Church to help people get “in the zone?” Are the spiritual practices that help you to get “in the zone?”
Page 30: This suggests to us that movement based mediations, more so that passive meditations, should strengthen the neural functioning of those parts of the brain susceptible to many age-related diseases. Do you think walking and praying a labyrinth could help in slowing some age related deterioration?
Page 35: We believe that this meditation is more likely to show improvement in memory and cognition because it incorporates six different neural-altering techniques: relaxation, breathing, chanting (mantra/word/sound repetition) coordinated finger movements, background music, and intense concentration. Does this summary of elements in Gus’s meditation suggest any elements you might begin to incorporate into your own spiritual practices?
Page 38: . . .researches at the Stockholm Gerontology Research Center and the Aging Research Center in Sweden discovered, if you custom design your own memory-enhancing program, you’ll show even greater improvement, along with an increased willingness to practice. Does this research inspire you to begin your own schedule of spiritual practices?
Ch 3: “What Does God Do to Your Brain?” This chapter explores the neural varieties of meditation and prayer, and how different parts of the brain create different perceptions of God. They also discuss how different neurochemicals and drugs alter spiritual beliefs.
Page 48: In the summer of 1999, I had the opportunity to study a group of nuns who had been practicing the Centering Prayer for a minimum of fifteen years. . . . we discovered that the neurological were significant and very different from how the human brain normally functions. Even more surprising, the neurological changes were nearly the same as those recorded from a group of Buddhist practitioners, who obviously nurtured very different beliefs. This evidence confirmed our hypothesis that the benefits gleaned from prayer and meditation may have less to do with a specific theology than with the ritual techniques of breathing, staying relaxed, and focusing one’s attention upon a concept that evokes comfort, compassion, or a spiritual sense of peace. What do you think of the conclusion that the theological content of faith is less important than the spiritual practices and rituals of faith?
Page 52: We also found that advanced meditators had a higher level of parietal activity when they were not meditating. This suggests that meditation, over time, strengthens one’s sense of self in relationship to the world, as well as the spiritual dimensions of life. It also suggests that conscious manipulation of parietal activity strengthens this part of the brain in the same way that intellectual activity strengthens the frontal lobe. Indeed, increased parietal activity is associated with increased consciousness, alertness, and the ability to resonate to other people’s feelings and thoughts. Do you think increased consciousness, alertness and the ability to resonate with other people’s feelings and thoughts is a desirable goal?
Page 53: Contemplative practices stimulate activity in the anterior cingulated, thus helping a person to become more sensitive to the feelings of others. Indeed, meditating on any form of love, including God’s love, appears to strengthen the same neurological circuits that allow us to feel compassion toward others.
In contrast, religious activities that focus on fear may damage the anterior cingulated, 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. Brain-scan studies have shown that once you anticipate a future negative event, activity in the amygdale is turned up and activity in the anterior cingulated turned down. This generates higher levels of neuroticism and anxiety. Highly anxious individuals may be attracted to fundamentalist religions because they offer a highly structured belief system that reduces feelings of uncertainty. In this respect, membership in a strict religious order can reduce feelings of anger, anxiety, and fear. And, once you are accepted as a member, you will be joyously embraced by the entire congregation. This, we believe, will have a positive effect on the anterior cingulated in the development of compassionate feelings toward oneself and other members of the group. However, if the community emphasizes disdain toward members of other groups, this will ultimately inhibit the functioning of the anterior cingulated.
If you want to maintain a healthy anterior cingulated cortex, frontal cortex, and limbic system, by all means meditate and pray, but only on those concepts that bring you a sense of love, joy, optimism, and hope. We believe that meditation is particularly important for the brain because it counteracts our biological propensity to react to dangerous situations with animosity or fear. However, it also appears to make us more sensitive to the suffering of others, which may explain why those traditions that emphasize meditation are often involved in community charities and peacekeeping ventures. Do you find these findings helpful in understanding some of the psychological dimensions of fundamentalism? What other religious experiences do these findings help you to understand? How do you think United Church fits into these findings about anterior cingulated and the amygdale?
Page 55: We would argue that the more you meditate on a specific object – be it God, or peace, or financial success – the more active your thalamus becomes, until it reaches a point of stimulation where it perceives thoughts in the same way that other sensations are perceived. And if you exercise an idea over and over, your brain will begin to respond as though the idea was a real object in the world. . .
The thalamus makes no distinction between inner and outer realities, and thus any idea, if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality. Your belief becomes neurologically real, and your brain will respond accordingly. But for someone else, who has meditated on a different set of beliefs or goals, a different reality will seem true. What concepts are neurologically “true” for you? Can you see how other concepts might become “true” for other people? What happens if a person’s thoughts focus on anxieties or fears? What do you think happens when people focus their thoughts on hurts real or imagined?
Page 56: Indeed, the ability to believe in spiritual realms may be dependent upon the amount of dopamine that is released in the frontal lobes, and too little dopamine may bias a person toward skepticism and disbelief. On the other hand, high levels of dopamine may bias a person to foster paranormal beliefs. Other research has suggested that the balance of activity between the brain’s left and right hemispheres could regulate a person’s predisposition to spirituality or atheism. Would you tend to agree that spirituality or atheism may be linked to brain chemistry? Based on this observation do you think you tend toward more or less dopamine in your brain? Do you think you tend to be a right brain person or a left brain person?
Page 60-61: Even going to church will change your brain and your health, but only if you go frequently, or for many years. . . No matter how you want to interpret the findings, the evidence is clear that religious involvement has little down side and very often has a beneficial effect, especially when one feels positive about his or her religious beliefs. . . Do you think religious faith is a positive influence in your life? What spiritual practices are most helpful to you in coping with life and maintaining your health?
Page 63: By manipulating our breath, body, awareness, feelings, and thoughts, we can decrease tension and stress. We can evoke or suppress specific emotions and focus our thoughts in ways that biologically influence other parts of the brain. From a neuroscientific perspective, this is astonishing because it upsets the traditional view that we cannot voluntarily influence nonconscious areas in the brain. Only human beings can think themselves into happiness or despair, without any influence from the outside world. Thus, the more we engage in spiritual practices, the more control we gain over our body, mind and fate. Do you think we can exercise some control over the nonconscious functions of our brains? How do you think that affects us spiritually? Are there parts of your life, where you would like to have more control?
Ch 4: “What Does God Feel Like?” The authors’ data shows that, for most people, God is more of a feeling than an idea, that everyone’s spiritual experiences are unique, and that mystical experiences often generate long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness, and love.
Page 67: . . .one of my non-believing friends, who doesn’t even like to discuss religious issues, replied in all sincerity that God felt “warm and fuzzy.” It was the same answer than an evangelical colleague had given me the previous day.
“But you do not believe in God,” I said to my atheist friend.
“No, but I do believe in transcendent experiences – you know, those moments that reveal a deeper dimension of life.” His answer reminded me that spiritual experiences can be defined in either religious or secular terms. Does the atheist’s response that he believes in “transcendent experiences” perhaps help us to understand some people who claim to be spiritual but not religious? How close is the atheists response to your own faith? Can you describe a “transcendent” experience you have had?
Page 70: I also wanted to know how tolerant people were when they encountered individuals with different religious beliefs, and so we developed our own survey that we called “Belief Acceptance Scale.” The results were surprising – and somewhat disheartening – because we discovered that nearly 30 percent of those queried had difficulty in accepting others who held different religious beliefs. In fact, more people were willing to marry someone of a different race or ethnic background (85%) than someone with a different religious orientation (72%). Do you think this finding was correct, that people were more open to interracial marriage than interfaith marriage? If this is true, what does it say about us?
Page 73: When we asked our participants about how spiritual experiences affected their religiosity, we kept the definition of that term purposely vague to see how they would answer without any prompting. About half said they felt more religious, a third said their religiosity didn’t change, and 11 percent said they felt less religious. Numerous respondents said that their spiritual experiences were not adequately addressed by religions in which they were raised, and so they turned away from them to engage in more individualized pursuits. In a new survey we have just begun, we are finding that college students express very strong interests in Eastern spiritual philosophies, especially when compared to Western religious traditions. These results support the idea that America is gradually becoming less religious but more spiritual and that the quality that governs this shift is influenced by the use of spiritual practices that integrate meditation and prayer into one’s daily life. Do you think this observation is true? If it is true, how might this observation inform United Church’s effort to re-vision itself?
Page 74: Finally, I found confirmation that spiritual experiences alter one’s sense of reality in a significant way. At the time of the (spiritual) experience, 63 percent said that it was more real than their normal experience of reality, and 7 percent said it felt less real. Looking back, only 46 percent said the experience felt more real. I appears that the impressions left by the altered states of reality can dissipate over time. . .
. . . Furthermore, it appears that some relatively universal sensory elements make these experiences what they are, even though they are described in vastly different ways. Cognitive processes turn God into an idea, but sensory processes turn God into a generalized feeling that changes the way we perceive the world. Have you ever had a spiritual experience you “felt?” If so, how did that differ from “thinking about God?” If having a sensory input makes the experience of God “more real,” how might this information suggest changes in worship and programming in churches?
Page 80: A related study at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the trend toward exploring alternative forms of spirituality is growing. In 1982 less that 20 percent of the student population indicated no religious preference. In 2004 31 percent of the incoming freshmen students claimed no religious affiliation, yet over three-quarters said that they were “on a spiritual quest.” One-third of the students also felt it was important to use college as a place to encourage their “personal expression of spirituality.” Other surveys on religion and spirituality reflect similar changes in beliefs. Ironically, as spiritual interests increase, church attendance declines. What do you think the information presented here means, and what can United Church learn from this information?
Page 82: . . . If our survey sheds any light on the question, it will be a God that maintains its mystery, a very intimate experience that cannot be captured by words. And if the trend toward personal spirituality continues, we should see a world where many notions of God coexist. Hopefully, this will inspire greater tolerance between people of different religious faiths as they realize the underlying unity and diversity of these experiences.
How will traditional religious institutions respond? In the same way they have in the past – reinventing themselves to meet the needs of the next generation of seekers. . . .
Religion and spirituality are constantly changing and evolving, and this is a good thing, for both society and the human brain. New ideas challenge us to think more deeply about personal values and survival, and the more you think about the mysteries of human nature, the more likely it is that you’ll have an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about. Do you find anything in these observations helpful to your own spiritual journey? What can United Church learn from this material in “reinventing” itself.
Ch 5: “What Does God Look Like?” The authors collected adult drawings of God and compared them with pictures drawn by children. It turns out that the most sophisticated drawings are made by liberal believers, atheists, and agnostic college students. However, many atheists maintain childhood images, which could explain why God doesn’t make any rational sense to them. The authors suggest that everyone has “God” neuron or circuit in their brain.
Page 83: God is both a feeling and an idea, but which comes first? Spiritual experiences appear to emerge spontaneously in human brains, but as far as we can tell, they rarely occur in early childhood. Instead, you children are introduced to the idea of God by their parents. Through storytelling and simple religious rituals like prayer, a child begins to grasp the concept of God and what it represents. This becomes our neurological basis for future religious beliefs, and they will color our spiritual experiences for the rest of our lives. How do these observations help you to understand your own early childhood religious education? How can these observations help United Church in developing its own religious education program for children.
Page 87: Young children do not have the cognitive skills to articulate abstract concepts of God, but they can use their visual imagination to comprehend spiritual realms. Even in the adult brain, ideas appear to be associated with internal visual processes, and mathematicians often think in pictures when they describe the invisible forces of the universe. Even when we imagine the distant past or future events, we activate the visual-spatial circuits in the brain. In fact, if you cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something, the brain’s first impulse is to assume that it doesn’t really exist. Thus, for anyone, the brain’s first response is to assign an image to the concept of God. We you contemplate God, what images come to your mind? How important is helping children to develop images of God?
Page 95: Does this imply that adolescents as a group are less religious that adults? Yes, we know, for example, that religious interests rapidly decline during adolescence and that many teens will reject their parents’ values as they attempt to redefine their spiritual beliefs. Indeed, for many people religiosity continues to decline through the rest of life, a trend that has continued since 1970. In looking back at your own adolescence, did you experience a decline in religious interests? As you have grown older, have you become more interested in religion or spirituality? How do you account for the change? If the author’s observations are true, trying to reinvent United Church will be like bucking a trend. What do you think we can learn from this information that will help United Church buck the trend?
Page 98: Current evidence supports the notion that changes in the spiritual beliefs of young adults will dramatically alter the spiritual landscape of America. Why? Because young Americans appear to be very critical of religious organizations, and in particular, mainstream Christianity. For example, research shows that only 20 percent of “churched” teens remain spiritually active by the time they reach age 30, and although most consider themselves Christian, it is in name only. According to research conducted by the Barna Group, a nouveau Christianity is emerging, filled with rootless values: “While young Americans have adopted values such as goodness, kindness, and tolerance, they remain skeptical of the Bible, church traditions, and rules or behaviors based upon religious teaching.” David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, found that these young Americans see present day Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, boring, overly political, anti-homosexual, insensitive toward others, and out of touch with reality. How do you think this information can speak to United Church as we re-invent our congregation? How do you think this information might inform United Church as it considers whether or not to become an Open and Affirming Congregation?
Page 99: Our ongoing research continues to demonstrate that all humans beings develop multiple images of God, many of which are largely hidden from consciousness. Yet these images affect the way we think and feel. We also believe that asking people to “draw a picture of God” encourages children and adults to articulate spiritual values and concerns that are often difficult to convey. It’s a fun exercise to do in classrooms, churches, and family gatherings, and it generates the kinds of conversations that help people of all persuasions to appreciate the wide differences of religious and spiritual beliefs. Try drawing your image to express God. What does it look like? Bring it to class and share it with other people in the group. Do you think this suggested exercise would be helpful to try in the larger congregation?
Page 103: For the genuine mystic, God transcends every concept the brain can possibly generate. But what happens in such a brain? What happens when you go against your biological propensity to turn God into an image? At first your brain rebels. It doesn’t like uncertainty, and when it encounters a problem that appears to be impossible to solve, it releases a lot of neurotransmitters, which put you on alert. You’ll feel an odd combination of anxiety, curiosity, irritability, frustration, and excitement – feelings that stress chemicals trigger in your brain. And if you don’t find a solution, you could easily end up depressed. In religious circles this is called the dark night of the soul.
Yet those who embrace a mystical vision of God rarely suffer psychological angst for extended periods of time. Instead, they find new ways to make sense out of the unimaginable realms to which they feel drawn. . . This indeed is a creative process, which means they have interrupted habitual patterns of thinking. . . And for these people, there is nothing more gratifying than looking at the world with new eyes. New images are formed, and if they prove useful in life, the old images will be dismissed.
Based upon the research we have accumulated, we believe that the more you examine your spiritual beliefs, the more your experience of God will change. And if you cannot change your image of God, you may have trouble tolerating people who hold different images of God, and that may threaten our planet’s survival. . . Have you ever experienced a dark night of the soul? Does the author’s neurological explanation of the dark night of the soul help you to understand any of your own experiences? The author suggests that dark nights of the soul are not long lasting. How do you think he would respond to the reports of Mother Theresa suffering a dark night of the soul that lasted for 50 years? If meditating and questioning images of God and theological ideas can trigger anxiety, curiosity, irritability, frustration, and excitement, how do you think we can help more conservative and traditional adult engage in Adult Religious Education? Does this discomfort in changing ideas about God help you to understand some of the resistance to change in religious communities?
Ch 6: “Does God Have a Heart?” They examine the Baylor University survey depicting four “personalities” of God, but they present evidence showing that a previously unrecognized and large segment of Americans maintain a mystical and loving vision of nature, God, and people.
Page 107: Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all assign a personality to God, which appears to be neurologically based on the nature of our own personality and beliefs. Different people have different ways of imagining God, and those preferences deeply influence the way we see the world. Do you think it is true that how we imagine God is determined by our own personalities? What do you think your image of God says about your personality? If our images of God are individualistic, how can a religious community come together to share spiritual experiences?
Page 107: When they put the data together, the Baylor researchers concluded that the Americans sampled tended to embrace one of four different personalities of God: authoritarian, critical, distant, or benevolent. As you read through the descriptions of these four basic personality types for God, ask yourself, do you think there are more general personality categories for God? If so how would you describe them? Does your image for God’s personality fit into any of these categories? Do you think most people at United Church share a God that fits into one of these categories?
Page 110-111: Envisioning an authoritarian or critical entity – be it another person or God – will activate the limbic areas of the brain that generate fear and anger. Thus, the brain is primed to fight, and so it should come as no surprise that the strongest advocates of an authoritarian God often call themselves “God’s Warriors.”
However, when you perceive God as a benevolent force, a different part of the brain is stimulated in the prefrontal cortex. Loving, compassionate images, faces, or thoughts activate a circuit that involves a tiny area in the front part of your brain called the anterior cingulated. It conveniently sits between the limbic and prefrontal structures, and when stimulated, it suppresses the impulse to get angry or frightened. It also helps to generate feelings of empathy toward others who are suffering or hurt.
We suggest that the anterior cingulated is the true “heart” of your neurological soul, and when this part of the brain is activated, you will feel greater tolerance and acceptance toward others who hold different beliefs. The God of the limbic system is a frightening God, but the God of the anterior cingulated is loving. Does this neurological explanation of the authoritarian/ critical image of God versus the benevolent image help you to understand any religious groups or individuals? Where do you think your own image of God falls in this explanation? Do you think it is important to promote and share a loving benevolent image of God?
Page 112-113: Our survey of spiritual experiences, which we described in Chapter 4, illuminated a fifth personality of God that we think the Baylor study missed. . .
. . .when we asked our survey participants to describe their spiritual experiences, many talked about God as an emotional presence, using words like peace, energy, tranquility, or bliss. God was not a separate entity, but rather a force that permeated everything. God didn’t create the universe, God was the universe, a radiance that extended throughout time and space. God was light, God was freedom, and for many people God was consciousness itself. For them, a mystical God often cannot be described with words.
A mystical God is neither “he” nor “she,” nor is it punitive, critical or distant. People who embrace this type of God are often attracted to religious groups that fall outside of mainstream denominations, and often see different religions as reflections of a single underlying spiritual truth. They are more accepting of religious differences and more willing to sample other spiritual traditions and beliefs. . . What do you think of the author’s description of this fifth mystical personality of God? Does the mystical God resonate at all with your own image of God? Do you think the mystical God resonates with many people at United Church? What did you think of the author’s description: People who embrace this type of God are often attracted to religious groups that fall outside of mainstream denominations. . .?
Page 115: I’m also going to go a step further and argue that authoritarian gods are associated with the oldest, most primitive structures of the brain, whereas a benevolent or mystical God is experienced through the most recently evolved parts of the brain, structures that appear to be unique in human beings. This developmental view, by the way, roughly parallels the cultural evolution of religious traditions throughout the world. . . But as societies and religions developed, you tend to see the emergence of kinder deities and gods. . .
Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame this authoritarian God. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways. Our research shows that they are the same structures stimulated when we meditate and pray, which is what allows us to consciously envision a loving and compassionate God. Without these new neural connections, humans would be limited in their ability to develop an inner moral code or a societal system of possible to generalize from neuroscience to cultural anthropology? If the author’s observations are true, how important are spiritual communities that continue to promote evolution in our cultural view of God? How do you think United Church might contribute to the spiritual legacy of our culture?
Page 120: In reaction to these new, liberal, and modernistic theologies, Milton and Lyman Steward produced a twelve-volume set of books in 1910 called The Fundamentals. Their basic tenets insisted on the inerrancy of the scriptures, the virgin birth and the deity of Jesus. . . But the books went much further attacking Catholicism, socialism, New Thought philosophy, atheism, Christian Science, Mormonism, Spiritualism, and evolution. . . with the rise of “televangelism,” fundamentalist churches burst forth on the American scene, waging war against what they saw as a rampant immorality throughout the world. The authoritarian God became a genuine political force, and it landed on the White House steps. But a question remains: How dangerous is the belief in an authoritarian God? Does the author’s observation help you at all in understanding the roots of fundamentalism? How dangerous do you think is the belief in the authoritarian God?
Page 122: . . . Marcus J. Borg, professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University, points out that the emerging paradigm of tolerance creates a new but difficult vision for traditional Christian followers. If you see the Bible as metaphorical, it becomes an inspirational text, not a literal document by which you should govern your life. This transforms Christianity into a tool through which people can transform their lives in the here-and-now. Religion becomes a guideline, not a truth, and this allows people to see different traditions as paths that also lead to personal and spiritual growth. Do you agree with this observation from Marcus Borg? A fundamentalist might argue, if Christianity isn’t the truth, then why believe it. How would you respond to that argument?
Page 123: . . . The funny thing is that the philosophy behind New Thought religion and materialism comes very close to several fundamental neurological truths:
Your thoughts clearly affect the neurological functioning of your body.
Optimism is essential for maintaining a healthy brain.
Positive thoughts neurologically suppress negative thoughts.
When you change the way you think, you begin to change your outward circumstances.
Consciousness, reality, your mind, and your spiritual beliefs are profoundly interconnected and inseparable from the functioning of your brain.
What do you think of the author’s fundamental neurological truths? Do you think they are important to incorporate in a program of Christian Education?
Page 124-125: The anterior cingulated also contains a class of spindle-shaped cells called von Economo neurons, which are found only in humans, great apes and certain whales. These neurons have an extensive array of connections with other parts of the brain and are believed to be intimately involved in the development of social awareness skills by integrating our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They guide us toward positive emotions and away from negative ones. But they are also disrupted by stress. If you expose yourself to ongoing stress, their functioning is reduced, but if you place yourself in an enriched environment—with a lot of love, communication, and sensory and intellectual stimulation—you strengthen the effectiveness of the von Economo neurons and the anterior cingulated. Since meditation simultaneously reduces stress while stimulating activity in the anterior cingulated, this supports our premise that spiritual practices enhance social awareness and compassion.
We also know that the von Economo neurons are especially vulnerable to degeneration in patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other aging disorders. As we say in chapter 2, patients with cognitive disabilities improved their memory by meditating for only 12 minutes a day, which suggests that spiritual practices may indeed enhance the functioning of this rare primate neuron. Given the author’s observation how important are programs in stress reduction? Do these observations suggest any important methods in helping people cope with Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive degenerative diseases? How important are spiritual practices to the development of healthy cognition?
Page 127: Social interaction strengthens the anterior cingulate’s ability to respond to others with less stress, and so we encourage you to interact with as many different people as you can. Attend social events that include different cultures and ethnicities, and visit different churches. Experiment with unfamiliar forms of meditation and prayer, and share your experiences with others who are on a spiritual path. Given these observations how important are faith communities potentially in our lives? How important is it for our own faith community to be inclusive?
Ch 7: “What Happens When God Gets Mad?” Surprisingly, the authors (one is agnostic, and the other doesn’t believe) found little wrong with religious fundamentalism, except when it involves angry rhetoric. They point out the neurological dangers of hostility, fear, authoritarianism, and idealism, and they suggest that we all have a fundamentalist mentality hardwired in the brain.
Ch 8: “Exercising Your Brain” Included are eight ways to keep your brain physically and mentally tuned-up. Even yawning appears to be an amazing way to calm down a dysfunctional brain, and they have about 40 references to support this (there’s over a 1000 endnotes in this book – wonderful for a professional like me, and important because it shows that they didn’t cherry-pick the research; indeed they admirably point out the weaknesses to their own conclusions and work).
Ch 9: “Finding Serenity” This chapter, and the next, are filled with simple, well tested meditation techniques to help any reader, of any religious or nonreligious persuasion, reduce stress, enhance cognition and memory, develop greater sensitivity and empathy toward one self and others, and generally improve the overall functioning of the brain. The well-documented research shows that nearly any meditation technique can be removed from its theological background to provide beneficial neurological and psychological changes. The authors also provide convincing evidence that only a few minutes of relaxation, breathing, and watching one’s thoughts and feelings can reduce anxiety, depression, and stress.
Ch 10: “Compassionate Communication” This is an original meditation that can be used when dialoguing with others. It takes fifteen minutes to learn, and their research shows that it improves social intimacy by 11%., even with strangers. They also include nearly a dozen ways to quickly resolve interpersonal conflicts.
In the epilogue, the authors talk briefly about their own journeys into the murky domain sciences and religions intersect. This is a “must read” book for believers and nonbelievers alike, and it might even help, as the authors suggest, to bring a little more peace and tolerance into this world. God knows we need it!