How can I not give it a thumbs up?
How God Changes Your Brain is a collaboration between neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg and therapist Mark Robert Waldman. I first became acquainted with Dr. Newberg’s work in 2002 when I read Why God Won’t Go Away (co-authored with Dr. Eugene D’Aquili and Vince Rause). It captured my imagination so much that, being in film school at the time, I contacted Dr. Newberg and enlisted his help in writing a screenplay based on his work. Needless to say, I was excited to pick up How God Changes Your Brain.
As expected, the book is eye-opening and challenging, though it is also a bit of a hodge-podge. Part research paper, part guide to neurological health, part how-to meditation manual, the actual discussion of how God changes your brain takes up only a fraction of the text. For purposes of this blog, I will focus on the research because it is, to me, both the most interesting and the most problematic part of the book. That being said, I think everyone could benefit from the health and meditation sections’ practical advice.
Newberg and Waldman studied the effects of religious practices on both the individual psyche and the social world by combining brain-scan techniques, survey responses, and studies in which participants were asked to draw their conceptions of God. To greatly oversimplify, the conclusion is that God is Good for your mental, physical, and spiritual health, as well as for your relationships. The tradition God comes from does not seem to matter (Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc.), although the way in which you perceive God’s “personality” (benevolent, vengeful, etc.) matters greatly.
The importance of this kind of work in a world that is becoming overtly hostile to religion, where God and Science are perceived as enemies, cannot be overstated. In the first chapter, the authors directly challenge the views of writers like Richard Dawkins who have argued that religious beliefs are both personally and societally dangerous. How refreshing to hear respected scientists insist, “The evidence is not there.”
[A]s we will highlight throughout this book, most research… finds religion either neutral or beneficial when it comes to physical and emotional health. The enemy is not religion; the enemy is anger, hostility, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear–be it secular, religious, or political.
Amen and Hallelujah to that.
How God Changes Your Brain is written for a secular audience, and the lens through which the authors view their findings is also secular. However, the work suffers from being written with an oddly dichotomous perspective, the result (I think) of having two authors who hold fundamentally different beliefs. Dr. Newberg ascribes to no particular tradition but “harbors the hope and feeling that God may actually exist,” while Mr. Waldman “finds science more satisfying and mysterious than philosophy or theology.” (Italics are his.) Thus we have a book that simultaneously argues, “Meditation can be separated from its spiritual roots and still remain a valuable tool for cognitive enhancement,” and, “If you incorporate your ethical, spiritual, or religious beliefs into [meditation] practices, they can become even more meaningful and experientially rich.” This tension exists throughout: the need to validate that belief in God is healthy versus the need to validate that atheists can be healthy, too. If the authors had kept in mind that neurological health is not the goal of religious prayer, but rather a side-effect, they could have saved themselves a lot of rhetorical dancing.
The book also falls into a lot of the usual secular humanist potholes: promotion of relativism and divorcing spirituality from religion; a very narrow definition of tolerance; denunciation of seeking to convert others to one’s own point of view while doing exactly that. Worst, in my opinion, is that when the authors discuss the various “personalities” of God, they equate a “biblical God,” (especially in the Old Testament) with an “authoritarian God,” but never with a benevolent or mystical God. These guys need to read the Psalms and the Song of Songs, pronto.
If you can get past all that, however, How God Changes Your Brain is still the kind of mental food that will make you grow new dendrites. When was the last time you stopped to ponder how genetics and evolution have affected your faith (or lack thereof)? Did you know that speaking in tongues creates a dialogue, thus reinforcing the separateness of self and God, while meditation tends to blur the distinction entirely? With such tantalizing headings as “The Chemical Nature of God,” “Is God Primarily a Feeling or an Idea?,” and “Is There a God Neuron In Your Brain?,” the book is rich with insight into the effects the search for truth and meaning have on our existence. If I were a theologian, I would, no doubt, be embarking upon a Theology of the Brain right now… but I am not a theologian. Sigh. I shall have to be content to ponder, grapple, and pray. As Dr. Newberg says in the epilogue, “If you let your curiosity and compassion play with all the possibilities, then you’ll enrich your life, and hopefully improve the world.”