Friday, October 2, 2009

This is your brain on god...

In an article for Newsweek, Lisa Miller ( on a study which Sam Harris and his colleagues have been conducting on the brain-- specifically looking to see if people who believe in god are wired differently than people who do not believe in god. Interestingly, the results of the study show that religious beliefs are carried in the same part of the brain as the part that contains empirical fact. So-- there is no difference in how a child learns about math or science than how they learn and understand god. The authors go on to point out that people who believe in god are just as emphatic about the reality of god as a mathematician would be about the speed of light. (The difference I would point out would be that people who are in mathematical or scientific studies DO modify their beliefs about math and what it tells them when the evidence demands a reevaluation while believers... well, you know) At any rate, at the end of the article, she says, "While the brains of believers and nonbelievers do not differentiate between beliefs about God and about mathematics, the believers themselves do, a little. Participants retrieved their religious beliefs and their historical facts from the same place and in the same way, but they showed less certainty when thinking about the religious statements. It took them a little longer to push the button, and a part of the brain having to do with uncertainty, or cognitive dissonance, lit up. If even the strongest believers are a little unsure about God, and the strongest atheists are a teeny bit anxious that they might be wrong, there’s room, perhaps, for one person to begin to try to imagine the world view of another, no matter what the brain sees as true."

My response to this statement is: understanding why atheists believe what they do and a believer's willingness to admit her or she also has doubts will hardly end the debate. And atheists do not need to understand why believers believe what they do to understand that they are adding 2 + 2 and coming up with 10. And, point in fact, many of them do understand why believers believe. The argument is not about one group not understanding another. When someone erroneously believes something and then tries to get others to believe this inaccuracy, a problem is being created which needs to be addressed.

And furthermore, the ongoing argument is not simply about god or no god. The argument is really about issues like: teaching evolution in schools (without adding myths about gods creating the earth-- and by the way- why does the christian creation story hold more weight than say the Native American stories?), allowing women to choose what is best for themselves (i.e. abortion and birth control), allowing research on stem cells...

I can go on and on about the damage that is done in the name of belief in god, but you get the point.

There is simply no middle ground.


  1. I'm not surprised that analyzing mathematics and religious beliefs take place in the same region of the brain. Or analyzing anything, for that matter. It seems to me learning math, music, religion, would all have to be broken down and studied. If you know how to play a piece on the piano, you do it almost by rote, but if you're asked to learn a new piece, you have to stop and work on it. When you learn religion, you're told to take it on faith, become a believer. But if you're asked to apply logic or to explain something rather than just take it as fact based on faith, then you have to switch to a part of the brain that analyzes.

    Straight From Hel

  2. No it's not surprising at all-- but the study comes on the heels of a book that was released recently "How god changes your brain" in which the author claims that belief in god somehow improves your brain. However, according to some reviews the authors confuses belief in god with spiritual practices which are not the same thing. Sam Harris also suggests meditative practices and contemplation as a way of improving one's life. But meditation (as any good evangelical will tell you!) doesn't have anything to do with whether there is a god or not.


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