Time: Biology explains belief

chimp_brain_in_a_jarIn a recent article, Time magazine gives professor after professor a chance to explain the effect religion has on an individuals' health. Unfortunately, people who specialize in religion, such as preachers and theologians, aren't given much of a voice by Time in discussing "the biology of belief" unless they have a strong scientific background. The primary religion ghost that jumped out at me in reading this rather long article, is that Time apparently didn't talk to any Christian Scientists. Their unique and varied perspective is not reflected in the article. One would think that Christian Scientist's beliefs on healing would be considered for an article on whether prayers provide healing:

If you've ever prayed so hard that you've lost all sense of a larger world outside yourself, that's your parietal lobe at work. If you've ever meditated so deeply that you'd swear the very boundaries of your body had dissolved, that's your parietal too. There are other regions responsible for making your brain the spiritual amusement park it can be: your thalamus plays a role, as do your frontal lobes. But it's your parietal lobe -- a central mass of tissue that processes sensory input -- that may have the most transporting effect. (Read "Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs".)

Needy creatures that we are, we put the brain's spiritual centers to use all the time. We pray for peace; we meditate for serenity; we chant for wealth. We travel to Lourdes in search of a miracle; we go to Mecca to show our devotion; we eat hallucinogenic mushrooms to attain transcendent vision and gather in church basements to achieve its sober opposite. But there is nothing we pray -- or chant or meditate -- for more than health.

Health, by definition, is the sine qua non of everything else. If you're dead, serenity is academic. So we convince ourselves that while our medicine is strong and our doctors are wise, our prayers may heal us too.

A review of the sources quoted in the article indicates that Time didn't find it necessary to talk to anyone who doesn't believe that religious emotions and health are completely controlled by one's brain. The article is about the science of religion, but when one talks to individuals who completely buy into one's racial thesis, it is difficult to get any contrary criticism. Or perhaps science has decided this matter as settled, but I doubt that.

The article is primarily an analysis piece, and it is Time (which has been curiously silent as Newsweek goes through its spasms of attempting to transform into a "thought leader"). Unfortunately, the magazine approached this topic with the pre-conceived concept that science can in fact explain everything religious.

There were a couple of quotes worth highlighting from individuals who have what seems to be solid religious expertise:

A similar analysis by Daniel Hall, an Episcopal priest and a surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found that church attendance accounts for two to three additional years of life. To be sure, he also found that exercise accounts for three to five extra years and statin therapy for 2.5 to 3.5. Still, joining a flock and living longer do appear to be linked. ...

Even doctors who aren't familiar with Kristeller's script are finding it easier to combine spiritual care and medical care. HealthCare Chaplaincy is an organization of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Zen Buddhist board-certified chaplains affiliated with more than a dozen hospitals and clinics in the New York City area. The group routinely provides pastoral care to patients as part of the total package of treatment. The chaplains, like doctors, have a caseload of patients they visit on their rounds, taking what amounts to a spiritual history and either offering counseling on their own or referring patients to others. The Rev. Walter Smith, president and CEO of the chaplaincy and an end-of-life specialist, sees what his group offers as a health-care product -- one that is not limited to believers.

What patients need, he says, is a "person who can make a competent assessment and engage a patient's spiritual person in the service of health. When people say, 'I'm not sure you can help because I'm not very religious,' the chaplains say, 'That's not a problem. Can I sit down and engage you in conversation?'"

That's all wonderful, but why wasn't there room for anyone who still believes in good old fashion prayer or the biblical laying on of hands? Or has that simply been discredited to the extent that Time didn't find it worthwhile to mention?

Photo of a chimpanzee's brain, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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