St. Paul, Neuroscientist for the Ages: How Neuroscience Agrees with the Apostle That the Loss of Religion Means the Loss of Our Minds and Souls

I had been a complete foreigner to social media until only just recently. After a long struggle with temptation and faced with the need to promote my new book, I finally caved in and joined the Twitter world. And after the first day, I realized how much I had been missing.  The vast dynamic network makes it possible to discover so much in the online world that one might never see otherwise.

And I want to share with you one of the gems I discovered through this new world.  It comes from an essay by the philosopher Julian Baggini.  Apparently the atheist was invited to deliver a sermon—of all things— to what could only be described as a hopelessly progressive church in England.   There is much in his essay to commend it, and I will probably devote more than one blog post to it. In the excerpt I share with you now, Baggini is writing about those people who could be described as “spiritual, but not religious.” His point is that such people hold to a view of spirituality that is compatible with atheism. Such spirituality Baggini contrasts with what he calls literal spirituality, which he describes for us below. The bold print is my emphasis:

There is, of course, another way of understanding “spiritual” that almost all atheists do reject. I called this “literal spirituality”, since it asserts the literal existence of spirits of some kind. This is the idea that as well as the substances and forces that are described in the physical sciences there are other kinds of substances and forces that are governed by their own laws, if governed by laws at all. This is the kind of spirituality that asserts the existence of souls as well as bodies; of a heavenly realm that occupies a different time and space to that of the earthly realm; of a creator God who is not made of carbon, oxygen or any of the elements that make up physical beings.  Source: Preaching to the converted | New Humanist

What Baggini is calling literal spirituality is the kind of spirituality that I go for, and it is this kind that I advocate for in my book.  I advance an empirical argument that relies quite a bit on neuroscience to demonstrate that the world is governed precisely by the very spiritual laws whose existence is denied by atheists.

The spiritual theory that I describe in my book is not my own. It comes from the Bible, specifically, from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapters 5 and 6. There we find an almost clinical description of spirituality, in which is described the benefits of a healthy spiritual life as well as the harmful symptoms of spiritual neglect. The benefits include a set of human qualities that Paul identifies as the fruits of the Spirit. Here they are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, observed what should be obvious to anyone, namely, that Paul’s list seems to focus on qualities of the human mind.[i] Joy, peace, and self-control pick out psychological qualities and indeed identify the four major categories of mental health recognized today. Joy protects us against depression. Peace of mind protects us against anxiety disorders. Self-control protects us against the other two major categories of mental disorder: impulse control and substance abuse.

St. Paul is telling us that mental health is a spiritual thing, that the mind is governed by spiritual laws—an empirically verifiable theory if ever there was one. There are many things in the Bible that an atheist can accept—Jesus was a real person; so were his Apostles; he was really crucified, etc.—but St. Paul’s theory of mind and mental health is not one of them. And this is because it is a classic example of the sort of literal spirituality, to borrow Baggini’s phrase, that runs counter to everything atheists hold near and dear. The trouble for atheists on this score is that it now appears that neuroscience is confirming exactly what St. Paul preached and wrote 2,000 years ago.

Ask yourself why New Atheist Sam Harris has written a book about spirituality. It’s because he’s also a neuroscientist, and he knows what the research shows. Many people have begun to take notice of this very significant fact—that the spiritual practices of traditional religion turn out to be the best therapy for the mind and mental health. This is a fact that has been repeatedly demonstrated in one scientific study after another.

The standard skeptical reply is to say—correctly—that other studies have contradicted these findings. While this is true, Dr. Harold Koenig, author of the thousand-page Oxford University Press tome Handbook of Religion and Health, claims that between two-thirds and three-fourths of the studies support the connection between spiritual practice and improved mental health and function, meaning that skeptical studies are in the clear minority.[ii]

The research in fact has been so convincing that even medical schools have taken notice. Back in 1990, coursework on the connection between spirituality and mental health was practically nonexistent. But in less than twenty years, the percentage of medical schools offering such coursework climbed to more than 90%.[iii] Today, at top research institutions like Duke and the University of Pennsylvania, you can find organizations with names like “The Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health” and “The Center for Spirituality and the Mind.”

Not many people are aware that John Paul the Great actually predicted this “convergence of faith and science” in the early pages of The Theology of the Body.

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John Paul predicted that “the moral psychology of the Bible” would one day be vindicated by science.[iv] That day would appear to be close at hand. Actually, it is already upon us, or so I argue in my book, The Immoral Landscape (of the New Atheism).

As I point out in my book, this “convergence of faith and science” on the subject of mental health goes quite deep.  Let me call your attention to a rather bold assertion in St. Paul’s theory of mind. He claims in Galatians 6: 7 that we reap only what we sow, meaning that, to reap the fruit of the Spirit and good mental health, we must live a spiritual life. St. Paul is telling us that mental health is essentially spiritual in nature—a quite logical position to take if you believe that the mind is itself spiritual rather than physical, which of course is the orthodox Christian position on the ontological status of the mind: it is either identical to—or an essential dimension of—our spiritual souls: that part of us that survives the death of the body and spends the rest of eternity in heaven or hell. And what makes these two spiritual realms so respectively wonderful or terrible is the fact that the soul carries with it the consciousness of our minds, meaning that for eternity we will be fully mindful of our respective blessings and punishments. In describing the qualities of the soul, St. Alphonsus Liguori includes these obviously mental attributes: memory, intellect, and will. Thus the mind is a spiritual entity according to Christian tradition and is therefore subject to the spiritual laws of the universe. And the consequences of obedience or rebellion are laid out for us in exacting clinical detail in Galatians 5 and 6.[v]

If it is true, as St. Paul claims, that mental health is exclusively a spiritual phenomenon, then the ramifications of such a bold theory are dramatic—and, more importantly, verifiable. For the clear implication of this theory is that spirituality is the only path to unlocking the powers of mind and mental health. If the theory is true, it means that spiritual people should enjoy a distinct, measurable mental health advantage over their skeptical counterparts.

And that is exactly what neuroscientific studies are consistently showing. Regular church-goers, for example, enjoy a mental health advantage over church-abstainers, as I document in my book.[vi] The same is true for those who regularly pray or meditate: such spiritual people enjoy a mental health advantage in terms of lower rates of depression and stress.[vii] The implication here is important: it means that secular people are not succeeding in finding a secular alternative to spirituality to meet their mental health needs. This is a fact that contradicts many of the preconceived ideas that secular people entertain about religion. For one, many people reject religion for Freudian reasons: they believe that religion is psychologically harmful in some way. And many people reject religion because they believe that they will be happier if they were liberated from the guilt trip that religion is accused of producing. But studies show quite the opposite: the religious are in fact happier and show a lower incidence of depression and mental illness than people who are not religious.

St. Paul’s theory of mind predicts this outcome and offers an explanation: secular people are failing to find a secular path to mental health because no such path exists. The powers and qualities of the mind are the exclusive property of the spiritual life. They are subject to the spiritual laws of the universe, which must be respected in order to derive the mental health benefits that are essential to a good and flourishing human life. Grace is often thought of in quite fuzzy and nonspecific terms, but in truth, grace is a real and empirically verifiable dimension of human life. One of the most important concrete manifestations of grace is to be found in the regulation of mental health and our mental powers. This is what Paul teaches us in Galatians. In my book, I call this the Grace Hypothesis of mind and mental health.

And the consequences of the Grace Hypothesis, if true, are too important to ignore. For mental health is quite obviously the single most important dimension of a flourishing human life. The loss of a healthy, functioning mind necessarily introduces a host of plagues into society: disability, substance abuse, suicide, and violence are just some of these social manifestations. If St. Paul’s Grace Hypothesis is correct, and mental health is essentially a product of the spiritual life, then a decrease in spiritual practice ought necessarily to result in an increase in mental illness and the many social ills that accompany mental dysfunction. This is the second prediction of the Grace Hypothesis. (The first predicted a mental health advantage for the spiritually observant.) Is there any evidence to confirm or contradict it?

The big news story in religion this past year was the Pew study released last May that showed that religious affiliation in America was the lowest it has ever been. The study showed that Millennials were the least religious subgroup of the study (see table below). This is the same group identified by a 2012 APA survey as among the most mentally ill, exactly the correlation predicted by St. Paul’s theory.

pew-2015-table

As Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School pointed out in an interview with USA Today, there is doubt among some about whether the apparent increase in mental disorders represents a real increase or is indicative of something less foreboding—like overzealous diagnosing, as is suspected by some people. One way to get a more accurate picture of America’s mental health is to focus on more objective criteria that are typically associated with mental illness. Suicide, for example, is a very reliable indicator since approximately 90% of suicides are committed by people with a previously diagnosed mental health issue. By looking at rates of suicide and other typical markers of mental illness, we can arrive at a relatively accurate and objective picture of the collective condition of our nation’s mental well-being.

According to St. Paul’s spiritual theory of mind (the Grace Hypothesis), a decline in spiritual practice should be accompanied by an increase in mental illness and the markers of mental illness like suicide. And that is exactly what the evidence turns up. For example, at a time when religious affiliation is at record lows, the rate of disability associated with mental illness is the highest it has ever been. Here are the disability numbers that I found in the outstanding book by Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic:  The number of adults disabled by mental illness doubled in just twenty years, from 1987 to 2007.  And the 2007 number is six times higher than the 1955 rate. The numbers for children are even more alarming:

In 1987, approximately 16,000 children were officially classified by the federal government as disabled by mental illness. These accounted for only five percent of the total number of disabled children in America. But just twenty years later, mental illness became the number one cause of disability in children, accounting for half of the total number in our country. By 2007, a half million children were psychologically disabled, a staggering thirty-five fold increase in just twenty years.[viii]

These disability numbers show up in society a number of ways. American colleges, for example have been reporting a rise in the number of students who don’t graduate. Different theories have been offered to explain this. One persuasive theory says that the exorbitant cost makes it more difficult to complete a college education. But there is another theory out there that deserves our attention. Colleges have also been reporting an alarming increase in mental illness on their campuses, both in terms of the number of students with symptoms and in the severity of those symptoms (See also here). Might the increase in mental illness have anything to do with these rising dropout rates? According to a Michigan State study, it has everything to do with it. According to the 2011 study, which surveyed over 1,100 students at American colleges, financial pressures were indeed significant, but the most common factor responsible for dropout? Depression.

As other reports indicate, dropout rate is one of the minor problems associated with rising rates of mental illness in college. The table below is an excellent summary of the host of plagues that accompany rising rates of mental illness. Notice that the number of students who were hospitalized for mental health issues increased almost 50% in two years, up to 10.3% from 7% in the 2010–2011 school year. Actual suicide attempts rose by more than 10% in the same two-year period.

And the rising suicide rate is a trend that we are seeing nationwide according to multiple studies reported on in the media: here and here. Different reports indicate that suicide is rising among Millennials and the middle-aged. According to the CDC, since 2009, more lives have been lost to suicide than from traffic accidents.

Violence is another marker of mental illness, as one can see from the table above. The number of incidents in which a college student seeking mental health services “intentionally caused serious harm to another person” increased approximately 50% over the 2011–2012 rate. These statistics are consistent with a report from the FBI that shows that college campus violence has been increasing dramatically in recent decades. (See the table below:)

And let us bear in mind that these disturbing statistics about college students—all of which point to a mental health crisis out of control—are coming from the Millennial generation: the least religious generation in America. Neuroscience supports St. Paul’s theory that this is no coincidence. It is no accident that the least religious show the worst manifestations of mental disorder.

Table 3: Directed Assaults by Decade, 1900-2008 [FBI report]

Decade N= %
1900s 1 0.4
1910s 0 0.0
1920s 3 1.1
1930s 8 2.9
1940s 1 0.4
1950s 13 4.8
1960s 19 7.0
1970s 25 9.2
1980s 40 14.7
1990s 79 29.0
2000s* 83 30.5
Total 272 100.0

* Data collected through 2008.

The problem of escalating violence has not been limited to the college campus, however. As has been reported widely, 2015 shattered all records for mass shootings. For most of the twentieth century, the average number of mass shootings was 1–2 per decade. But last year averaged that number per day. Some people dispute these statistics, claiming that the numbers aren’t as bad as all that. The best discussion of this controversy that I have seen comes from this New Republic article by Gwyneth Kelly. And what her article shows is that, no matter whose accounting method you use, last year certainly saw more than 1–2 mass shootings per decade. Perhaps it was only three or four per month or 1 per week instead of 1–2 per day. Whatever accounting method you prefer, though, there can be no denying that the rate of mass shootings in 2015 was astronomically higher than the norm for most of the twentieth century. And the common denominator for most of these shootings? Mental illness. Thus, the dramatic increases in suicide, violence, college dropout rate, and disability tell of a true and catastrophic mental health crisis. Contrary to the opinion of some, the mental illness epidemic is no illusion.

And it is no coincidence that we are seeing the highest rates of mental illness at the same time that we are seeing the lowest rates of religious affiliation. St. Paul predicted this correlation in his Epistle to the Galatians by asserting that mental health was essentially and ontologically spiritual in nature. And current neuroscientific research agrees that the connection between spiritual practice and improved mental health is no accident. For their research consistently documents the physical changes that occur in the brain as a result of spiritual practice and that account for the mental health benefits of spirituality.

Neuroscience also supports St. Paul’s theory that mental health is an essentially spiritual phenomenon, for contemporary research consistently demonstrates that religious and spiritual people enjoy a quantifiable mental health advantage over their secular counterparts. Secular people have not succeeded in finding a secular path to mental health that is in anyway as effective as religious practice, just as Paul predicted and neuroscience has consistently demonstrated. And this is precisely the correlation that studies have found to be a global phenomenon. According to a Gallup study, the highest suicide rates are all found in the least religious countries.

A study just published this past November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences underscores how dire is the need for improved mental health. According to one of the study’s authors, Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, we have lost a generation of humanity to premature death: a half million people have died prematurely due to suicide and substance abuse, both markers of mental illness. And while the focus of the media in covering the story has been on middle-aged whites with less than a college degree (since that was the group most severely impacted), the study showed that death due to suicide and substance abuse has been increasing for all whites: all age groups and all education levels. Here is a case in point as reported by NPR: “At two top-tier high schools in Palo Alto, Calif., the suicide rate is four times higher than the national average over the last 10 years.” There can be no denying this terrible fact, for the handwriting is on the wall and in our daily newspapers: America is in mental-health meltdown. This is a fact that we ignore to our own peril.

In trying to understand this health crisis, the research of neuroscience makes clear that St. Paul’s Grace Hypothesis of Mind should not be dismissed too quickly. Many of this Biblical theory’s predictions are being confirmed by contemporary research. And the Grace Hypothesis makes another dire prediction, namely, that the march of secularization is a death march to mental health apocalypse. Society cannot long survive if it is governed by people suffering from mental disorder. And there is plenty of evidence now, which experts are beginning to notice, that all of America’s elite institutions—in academia, business, finance, and government—are in the death throes of an epidemic of mental illness and dysfunction.

The research of neuroscience clearly suggests that St. Paul was right: the only path to better mental health and function is a spiritual path. But will a secular society increasingly hostile to religion and religious people get the message in time?[ix] JG

Bibliography

Gravino, J. (2015). The Immoral Landscape (of the New Atheism): How Human Nature Poisons Everything and Why the Church Is Our Only Hope for Survival. Apex , North Carolina, United States of America: CreateSpace.

Pinsent, A. (2012). The Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit. In B. Davies, & E. Stump (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas (pp. 475-488). New York, New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press.

Notes

[i] (Pinsent, 2012, p. 481)

[ii] (Gravino, 2015, pp. 115–116)

[iii] (Gravino, 2015, p. 116)

[iv] (Gravino, 2015, pp. 21–22)

[v] Nothing in this spiritual theory of the mind contradicts what we also know to be true, namely, that the brain is the physical component of the mind. The Church is not unaware of the fact that we humans inhabit physical bodies. It merely asserts that there is more to our existence than the physical, that we are a “composite of flesh and spirit,” as the Catechism teaches.

[vi] (Gravino, 2015, pp. 95–96)

[vii] (Gravino, 2015, pp. 88–89)

[viii] (Gravino, 2015, pp. 133–134)

[ix] In my book, I argue that the evidence points to a spiritual reality. But I cannot adequately defend that controversial thesis in the cramped space of this essay. However, what this essay does successfully establish is that spiritual practice might be indispensable to mental health, whatever the ultimate explanation for this fact may be.   Maybe there is a natural explanation for this—maybe not. Certainly many neuroscientists including Sam Harris think so. And I concede that religious belief still demands a leap of faith. But I also believe that neuroscience is helping to make that leap a smaller and more reasonable one.

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