Gary Gutting, New York Times: Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed …
An uncertain refuge
I remember the day I realized I was an atheist. I was sitting on an S-Bahn in Stuttgart, reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker for the second time – this time paying more attention. I finally came to know that for my purposes there was no credible need to believe in the god I had been raised to worship. The ties were already very loose by then. Dawkins just helped me to be honest with myself.
There has always been some kind of searching going on in my life (if you are reading this blog then there is no need to explain that idea). I had tried out Buddhist meditation a few years previously and found it to be good thing. But then I started travelling, living a whole new life with lots of money and lots of fun. Meditation had given me a kick start, and now I had moved on. The moment of realization on that S-Bahn brought me to the conclusion that there was no need to seek any more. Silly me.
The question about whether or not there is a god takes up a lot of space on YouTube these days, but I’ve come to see it as a bit dull. Once you’ve answered the question for yourself – in whatever way that works for you – the really interesting questions remain: How do I live well? What is the nature of mind and experience? And who the hell is asking, anyhow? I’ve never been comfortable calling myself Buddhist as it has too many associated assumed beliefs to which I don’t adhere and which I don’t wish to defend. But something has moved in the years since The Blind Watchmaker, and again I find myself forced into honesty.
On the 44th anniversary of the moment I started breathing air, and at the end, more or less, of the 4th year that I have returned to observing that breath in Buddhist meditation, it seemed like as good a day as any to acknowledge what has changed. I still choose not to call myself a Buddhist. But there remains the realization that I have already taken refuge in the Buddha – as much in my own presumed Buddha nature as in the historical seeker and scientist Gotama.
I have already taken refuge in the Dhamma – it describes in a very satisfactory way the things I experience in life, and much of what I read about in the sciences.
And now in the past few months, I have taken refuge in a very special Sangha: the Wildmind Community.
These are not refuges into which one flees in fear to avoid uncertainty, but towards which one gravitates in hope and confidence but with some trepidation. Whatever word I might or might not use to describe myself, there is a path ahead of me now that I cannot imagine leaving.
Faith rites boost brains, even for atheists
Reuters: Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns boost their brain power through meditation and prayer, but even atheists can enjoy the mental benefits that believers derive from faith, according to a popular neuroscience author.
The key, Andrew Newberg argues in his new book “How God Changes Your Brain,” lies in the concentrating and calming effects that meditation or intense prayer have inside our heads.
Brain scanners show that intense meditation alters our gray matter, strengthening regions that focus the mind and foster compassion while calming those linked to fear and anger.
Whether the meditator believes in the supernatural or is an atheist repeating a mantra, he says, the outcome can be the same – a growth in the compassion that virtually every religion teaches and a decline in negative feelings and emotions.
“In essence, when you think about the really big questions in life — be they religious, scientific or psychological — your brain is going to grow,” says Newberg, head of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu, or an agnostic or an atheist,” he writes in the book written with Mark Robert Waldman, a therapist at the Center.
In his office at the University of Pennsylvania’s hospital, Newberg told Reuters that “neurotheology” – the study of the brain’s role in religious belief – is starting to shed light on what happens in believers’ heads when they contemplate God.
Science and religion are often seen as opposites, to the point where some in each camp openly reject the other, but this medical doctor and professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies sees no reason not to study them together.
“The two most powerful forces in all of human history have been religion and science,” he said. “These are the two things that help us organize our world and understand it. Why not try to bring them together to address each other and ultimately our world in a more effective way?”
Atheists often see scanner images tracking blood flows in brains of meditating monks and nuns lost in prayer as proof that faith is an illusion. Newberg warns against simple conclusions:
“If you see a brain scan of a nun who’s perceiving God’s presence in a room, all it tells you is what was happening in her brain when she perceived God’s presence in a room.
“It may be just the brain doing it, but it may be the brain being the receiver of spiritual phenomena,” said Newberg, whose research shows the short prayers most believers say leave little trace on the brain because they are not as intense as meditation.
“I’m not trying to say religion is bad or it’s not real,” he added. “I say people are religious and let’s try to understand how it affects them.”
NO “GOD SPOT”
Another notion Newberg debunks is the idea there is a single “God spot” in the brain responsible for religious belief: “It’s not like there’s a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God.”
Instead, religious experiences fire neurons in several different parts of the brain, just like other events do. Locating them does not explain them, but gives pointers to how these phenomena occur and what they might mean.
In their book, Newberg and Waldman sketch out some of the “God circuits” in the brain and their effects, especially if trained through meditation as muscles are through exercise.
Meditation both activates the frontal lobe, which “creates and integrates all of your ideas about God,” and calms down the amygdala, the emotional region that can create images of an authoritative deity and fog our logical thinking.
The parietal-frontal circuit gives us a sense of the space around us and our place in it. Meditation suppresses this sense, giving rise to a serene feeling of unity with God or the world.
“Even 10 to 15 minutes of meditation appear to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation and psychological health,” the authors declare in the book.
Newberg, who grew up in a Reform Jewish family and has studied many religions, said his work might help both believers and atheists understand religious feelings, which he said were “among the most powerful and complex experiences people have.”
But he cautioned against expecting “neurotheology” to come up with surprising insights soon: “As good as our techniques are, they are still incredibly crude. We have a long way to go.”