Friday, July 31, 2009

Is God a useful idea?

A colleague of mine recommended a book, How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Waldman. Among other findings, the authors talk about results which show that people who believe in a God tend to be more compassionate*. There are other benefits, too – lower incidence of dementia, for example.

* right now, some of you are preparing responses of this sort: “I know of person X who claims to believe in God, and they do A, B and C, all of which are horrific things.” Don’t bother – the claim isn’t that people who believe are automatically nicer, or that people who don’t believe aren’t. The claim is that belief in a God, like other activities, such as meditation, can strengthen the parts of the brain that allow us to feel compassion. But, it’s not guaranteed, and it’s not the only way.

So, here’s an interesting philosophical question. Imagine that you don’t believe in God (which is surely true for some people reading this). But, imagine that you become convinced that acting as if you believe in God can/will have significant, positive benefits for you. Or, imagine that convincing yourself that you believe (which is different from just acting that way) will give you those benefits. Would you do it?

For me, it’s a real quandary. I am, by nature, somewhat philosophical. I place a high value on Truth. I don’t want to believe that which isn’t true, and I get very frustrated by those who equate all belief with belief in irrational things. But, what if I were to decide that my insistence on rigorous truth is actually a detriment to my life? What if I’d be happier/nicer/healthier, if I could just get over myself, and pretend to believe that which I don’t believe? Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face, by sticking with Truth?

In the end, I don’t think so – in my case, it’s just too far to go. So much of my thinking, and my religious identity, is based around this concept of truth, that to go away from it would be a lie, and probably an unsustainable one. But, it still leaves the question an open one, and an interesting one, so I’ll put it to you, dear reader: if you don’t (or hypothetically didn’t) believe in God, but believe that it’s better to believe, would you / could you fake it?

By the way, here, according to the book (according to my colleague), is the list (I believe in order of effectiveness) of ways to exercise your brain:

  1. Smile
  2. Stay intellectually active
  3. Consciously relax
  4. Yawn (though hopefully not during this sermon!)
  5. Meditate
  6. Aerobic Exercise
  7. Dialogue with others
  8. Have faith.

1 comment:

msands said...

BTW, I thought I should mention -- I'm *still* thinking about this one, and trying to figure out my personal answers to the very good questions you pose without giving completely free reign to the often black and usually cynical humour with which I ordinarily tend to engage such things. All in good time, I suppose.

Great post, in any event. I've thought so from the very first time I read it, and I've read it many, many times now.

Mike