This week I have had several debates on Twitter about my book. A number of skeptics have been challenging my thesis that religious practices promote mental health and function. As I have pointed out repeatedly, this is more than a religious teaching; it is also a scientific finding—one that is being taken very seriously by the medical establishment.
Now, over the course of these Twitter skirmishes, some of my interlocutors have complained that I am not responding to their tweets. The problem is that Twitter forces us to limit explanations to 140-character bites. This is just not adequate if you are trying to carry on a debate of any depth. The result is an exponential multiplication of Tweets, whence it becomes increasingly easy to lose track of them. So I have decided to move the conversation to my blog site. I have more space to explain myself, and so do they.
The first point that must be made is this. Skeptics need to know that the research that I cite in my book is no pseudoscience. It comes from every major research institution in the world—Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford, Duke . . . . No serious student of science any longer denies the evidence that shows that religious and spiritual practices benefit the mind. Even New Atheist Sam Harris acknowledges this, for that is the topic of his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion:
There is now a large literature on the psychological benefits of meditation. Different techniques produce long-lasting changes in attention, emotion, cognition, and pain perception, and these correlate with both structural and functional changes in the brain. This field of research is quickly growing, as is our understanding of self-awareness and related mental phenomena. Given recent advances in neuroimaging technology, we no longer face a practical impediment to investigating spiritual insights in the context of science. Harris, Sam (2014-09-09). Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (p. 8). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
From this groundbreaking neuroscientific research, and with the help of sacred Scripture, I draw a revolutionary conclusion: science is discovering the truth of Christianity. In my book, I point out that the Bible teaches exactly what neuroscience is discovering—spiritual practices produce psychological and cognitive benefits: From Isaiah 11 we learn that the gifts of the Holy Spirit include the cognitive powers of the mind like wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and counsel. And Galatians 5 teaches that the fruits of the Spirit include psychological benefits: joy, peace of mind, and self-control. These are the antidotes to the four major categories of mental illness. Joy and peace of mind protect us against depression and anxiety disorders respectively. And self-control protects us against the other two categories of mental illness: substance abuse and impulse control disorders.
Thus, we find in these ideas a most surprising convergence of religion and science, or, more accurately, Christianity and science, just as John Paul II predicted in The Theology of the Body. And he predicted that it would all take place in the area of human psychology—what he called “the moral psychology of the Bible.”
But this “convergence of faith and science,” as John Paul called it, is by no means a perfect one. It is a convergence that includes many divergences, and one of the major divergences is over the question of causation. What explanation is there to account for the salubrious impact of religion on the mind?
It is over this question where the party ends, and religion and science go their separate ways. For by including them as “fruits of the Spirit,” St. Paul is saying about our mental health qualities that they depend on a spiritual power. He is saying that one must live a spiritual life in order to cultivate communion with that spiritual Power. And what is the nature of this spiritual life according to St. Paul? It is Christian, of course. St. Paul is saying that the fruit of mental health is irreducibly spiritual—irreducibly Christian, even. More radically, St. Paul is saying—the whole Bible is saying—that the human mind needs Christianity to function properly. (In my book, I show how this is in fact the hidden message of the New Covenant as it is described for us by the prophets—Ezekiel in particular.)
It goes without saying that Sam Harris, along with most of the scientific world, dissents from this Christocentric model of mental health and function. Here is Harris from Waking Up. (Bold print is my emphasis):
Spirituality must be distinguished from religion— because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that this is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience— self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light— constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.Harris, Sam (2014-09-09). Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (pp. 8-9). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
To see how these opposing views of spirituality work out in practice, we should focus on prayer and meditation, for these are popular subjects of study for neuroscientists. Both Christian and Eastern methods of prayer have been linked to improved mental function. A religious explanation would say that the content of the prayer or meditation is important. For Catholics, the fact that they are praying a rosary or the Divine Office is not irrelevant. But, as Sam Harris points out, the content can’t be important since religious content and belief differ from religion to religion and are often contradictory.
Neuroscientists have a logical theory to account for the common mental health benefits of conflicting faith traditions: It must be what they have in common that counts. Consequently, it is not the words of the prayer that count, but rather, it is the quiet environment, the unique prayer posture, the disciplined breathing, the practice of concentration, the repeated and chanted language, the use of candles and incense, etc.
Thus, what these different faith traditions have in common is not spiritual, but physical. According to this neuroscientific explanation, the mental health benefits of prayer come from the physical attributes of prayer. There is nothing spiritual going on, and no spiritual or religious explanation is needed to account for the health benefits of religious devotion. Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman are two researchers whose experiments have led them to this conclusion. Here is an excerpt from their book, How God Changes Your Brain. It comes from chapter two: “Do You Even Need God When You Pray?” Their answer to this provocative question is provided below. Bold emphasis is mine:
MEDITATION WITHOUT GOD
This was our first real evidence that a meditation practice, even when removed from its spiritual and religious framework, can substantially improve memory in people suffering from cognitive problems. This is good news for millions of aging Americans, because it is easy to get into the habit of meditating twelve minutes a day. Our study also shows that meditation can be separated from its spiritual roots and still remain a valuable tool for cognitive enhancement.Newberg M.D., Andrew; Mark Robert Waldman (2009-03-20). How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (Kindle Locations 555-559). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
You can see that the argument that spirituality is an entirely natural phenomenon utterly devoid of any supernatural/spiritual influences is quite good. It is logical, coherent, and it is backed up with plenty of empirical data. So what response can be made on behalf of the supernatural? What evidence do we have that spirituality is not totally reducible to natural, somatic processes?
I address this question at the end of chapter three of my book, and I answer it at the end of chapter 4. The key to my answer is contained in Sam Harris’s words above. (See the words I highlighted in red.) Sam Harris assumes that the results produced in laboratories and those produced by “spiritual but not religious” atheists are roughly equivalent to the results from Christian and Buddhist prayer professionals. In fact, the truth of this assumption is absolutely essential to the materialist model of mind: if there is nothing spiritual or supernatural going on when one engages in spiritual/religious practices like prayer, then the results from skeptics ought to match those produced by religious believers.
Consider the alternative. Imagine two people who are equally adept at prayer and meditation. One believes in God; the other is an atheist. Now imagine that both are diagnosed with cancer. For the sake of this thought experiment, let us stipulate that the cancers are identical in kind and severity—identical in every way. Let us further imagine that both people use their prayer practice as a healing method. The atheist gets a 50% reduction in the cancer mass. The God-believer gets a total healing. Let us further imagine that, in a million cases, the atheist can never get better than 50%, while believers are consistently at 100%. Furthermore, in many of the atheist cases, the cancer comes back, but believers consistently experience a complete healing. In such an admittedly very hypothetical case, could you honestly say with a straight face that “you don’t need God when you pray?” No, you could not. The argument that “you don’t need God when you pray” necessarily demands that the results of atheist spirituality be identical in kind and quality to the results produced by religious believers. Have they gotten the same results?
My book says no. My defense of the Christocentric model of mind argues that the mental health benefits of Christian spirituality are immeasurably superior to those produced by any alternative. What is my evidence? History is. Let’s start with cognitive function. As noted above, Newberg and Waldman claim to have produced “cognitive enhancements” using a religion-free spirituality in their laboratories. But history shows that the Church has produced infinitely more in the way of intellectual achievement. The Church built Western civilization:
We have just seen that numerous historians and scholars give credit to the Church for “building Western civilization.” The Church invented the very idea of the university, and this contribution alone is responsible for the Scientific Revolution, for without the universities, no sustainable scientific progress would have been possible. The Church has given us unrivaled advances in art, architecture, music, science, law, economics, agriculture, and technology. Certainly it is fair to classify such contributions as “cognitive enhancements,” as Newberg and Waldman call them. (The Immoral Landscape of the New Atheism, p. 159)
And how about the contributions of the Eastern religions,which are older than Christianity and so have had more time and opportunity to demonstrate their power? I’ll let Sam Harris answer this one:
We can also grant that Eastern wisdom has not produced societies or political institutions that are any better than their Western counterparts; in fact, one could argue that India has survived as the world’s largest democracy only because of institutions that were built under British rule. Nor has the East led the world in scientific discovery. Nevertheless, there is something to the notion of uniquely Eastern wisdom, and most of it has been concentrated in or derived from the tradition of Buddhism. Harris, Sam (2014-09-09). Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (p. 28). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
As I show in my book, one can make a very strong case for Christianity as the greatest intellectual and creative force of all time. And nothing that neuroscientists have produced in their laboratories has come close to challenging this inconvenient truth. Unless skeptics can produce psycho-cognitive benefits equal to that of Christianity, we have every good reason to put our faith in the authentically spiritual and supernatural Source of our faith.
In addition to the evidence of history, we have the terrifying testimony of our own age, namely that, as Christianity has disappeared from the culture, mental illness and disorder have been increasing. Research shows that religious affiliation in America is the lowest it has ever been at the same time that mental illness is skyrocketing. And the evidence on this score is mounting daily. Here are some alarming statistics on suicide in the U.S. just released by the CDC a few days ago:
Data from the National Vital Statistics System, Mortality
- From 1999 through 2014, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States increased 24%, from 10.5 to 13.0 per 100,000 population, with the pace of increase greater after 2006.
- Suicide rates increased from 1999 through 2014 for both males and females and for all ages 10–74.
That mental dysfunction would accompany the loss of Christianity was prophesied in the Epistle of Jude, and this raises another important and related issue. What about prophecy? It is certainly part of orthodox, traditional Christianity that some people might receive special powers of the mind that enable them to see the future. If such mental powers could be verified by empirical methods, this would require skeptics to produce prophecies of like kind and quality in order to prove that nothing supernatural was involved. It is safe to say that few atheists are worried about such a challenge. Being the muggles that they are—and a more arrogant and presumptuous lot than these New Atheist muggles you would be hard-pressed to find—they have happily concluded that since they possess no such powers, then no such powers exist. So permit me to step forward with a challenge to this assumption. In early April, I received prophetic information that a terrible disaster would occur on April 16, 2016, and that many lives would be lost.
I posted this prophecy on the morning of the 16th and tweeted a link to it, which you can see below. Here is what this website looked like on April 16:
The prophecy included the description of an earthquake. As you know, the 7.8 Ecuador earthquake hit on that very day, just hours after I posted the prophecy. Maybe it’s a coincidence; maybe a hoax. But just maybe—it’s the real thing. You can decide for yourself. If it is the real thing, it means that the time has come for Judgment, and the only way to save yourself is by repentance.
Here is another tidbit of the supernatural that arrived just this morning from Medjugorje. It is a message from the Blessed Virgin Mary to her disciples, which includes me:
My children, my words are neither old nor new, they are eternal. Therefore, I invite you, my children, to observe well the signs of the times – to ‘gather the shattered crosses’ and to be apostles of the revelation. Thank you.
There is much more to say. It will have to wait for a later post. JG