Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

June 7, 2009: “Religion as Placebo: Is It All in Our Head”

British philosopher Bertrand Russell, famous also for his outspoken atheism once said, ‘If there isa God, I think it very unlikely that he would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt his existence.’

It is show and tell day at the school, and the children were   requested to bring an item that represented their religious beliefs.   David stands up and says: I am a Jew, and I brought a star of David.   Dorothy stands up and says: This is a crucifix, I am Catholic. Jimmy   gets up and says: 'I'm a Unitarian Universalist, and I brought a   recycling bin'

There is an ancient Sufi story about an old Holy man, a priest or   Mullah as the Moslems call them, who was intent on proving his   holiness and devotion by walking on water, a sure sign of holy   success.  Every day, after saying all the right prayers, he would walk   to the lake nearby and attempt the miracle.  Everyday, of course, he   would fail.  He did not give up, but instead vowed to work on becoming   more holy.

One day, right after his latest sinking, he heard a voice wailing   the name of God in prayer.  But most upsetting to the Mullah, this   voice was mispronouncing the proper name of God.  "Blasphemy of   blasphemies!" thought the Mullah; "this wretch must learn the correct   way of praying to God ."He realized that the voice was coming from an   island a short way out in the lake.  So, he quickly found a boat and   rowed there.

Once on the island he discovered an old woman in a shack, kneeling on a ratty prayer rug. He sharply and angrily rebuked her about mispronouncing the proper name of God and told her she would be cursed if she did not say it correctly. He instructed her in the right way and then left. As he was paddling back from the island, feeling quite satisfied that he had done his religious duty, he suddenly heard what sounded like footsteps upon the water. He turned to see the old woman running across the water towards him. She finally reached his boat and said, “I’m sorry; I don’t remember well. What was the correct pronunciation again?”

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam; most Moslems don't consider   Sufis to be true Moslems! Mystics are always suspect, you see, because   they take religion personally, not corporately. That is, the mystic is   not interested in the institution of religion and therefore usually   seen by that institution as  a threat to it, whether it be Christina   or Moslem. But the institution itself usually begins to split into   competing institutions before long, into schisms, etc., each claiming,   of course, they hold the truth, the one and only way to God, until one   wonders what the acid test is for authenticity, how anyone really   knows, at least until one dies and wakes up to find themselves in the   place promised by one group or the other. Heaven, hell, you know. Of   course, it's a little late then, isn't it?

Both Unitarianism and Universalism are traditional Christian   heresies, Unitarianism denying the doctrine of the Trinity  which   claims that Jesus is both 100% divine and 100% human and is part of   the triune God, and Universalism a denial of original sin, and a   belief instead in Universal Salvation, that eventually we will all be   saved. At the merger of these two denominations in 1961, most of us   described ourselves as humanists who no longer believed in the   traditional concept of the Judeo-Chrisitna-Islamic God. We say that   the number one reason we come to church is for intellectual   stimulation, but recently the next closest reason which is rising fast   is for a sense of community. Actually most of us come for a wide   variety of reasons many of which we might not even be aware of. And   often we're not really sure what we believe; we're only sure of what   we don't believe!

We come for religion, brothers and sisters, however we want to define that, We come for God, brothers and sisters, however we want to define that. And if we don’t find it, we eventually leave. We come for what I want to call a religious dimension, a spiritual community or feeling or search or pilgrimage. Is it just in our head? Is it a crutch? A placebo? A weakness? Or the strength we need to become more fully human? God? Or is it all in our head?

There is a new term called ‘neurotheology,’ the study of the neurobiology of religion and spirituality. Some time ago Newsweek had an article on neurologist, Dr. James Austin, who was spending a sabbatical year in England, who on a trip to a Zen Buddhist retreat had ‘A MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE, a spiritual moment, even a religious epiphany, if you like…. Rather than interpret his instant of grace as proof of a reality beyond the comprehension of our senses, much less as proof of a deity, Austin took it as ‘proof of the existence of the brain.’ …. As a neurologist, he accepts that all we see, hear, feel and think is mediated or created by the brain. Austin’s moment … therefore inspired him to explore the neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experience. .. When he spun out his theories in 1998, in the 844-page ‘Zen and the Brain,’ it was published not by some flaky New Age outfit but by MIT Press.

And in ‘Why God Won’t Go Away,’ published in April, Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania and his late collaborator, Eugene d’Aquili, use brain-imaging data they collected from Tibetan Buddhists lost in meditation and from Franciscan nuns deep in prayer to … well, what they do involves a lot of neuro-jargon about lobes and fissures. In a nutshell, though, they use the data to identify what seems to be the brain’s spirituality circuit, and to explain how it is that religious rituals have the power to move believers and nonbelievers alike.

What all the new research shares is a passion for uncovering the neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experiences for discovering, in short, what happens in our brains when we sense that we ?have encountered a reality different from’ and, in some crucial sense, higher than the ‘reality of everyday experience,’ as psychologist David Wulff of Wheaton College in Massachusetts puts it.

I felt communion, peace, openness to experience … [There was] an awareness and responsiveness to God’s presence around me, and a feeling of centering, quieting, nothingness, [as well as] moments of fullness of the presence of God. [God was] permeating my being. This is how her 45-minute prayer made Sister Celeste, a Franciscan nun, feel, just before Newberg SPECT-scanned her. During her most intensely religious moments, when she felt a palpable sense of God’s presence and an absorption of her self into his being, her

brain displayed changes like those in the Tibetan Buddhist mediators: her orientation area went dark. What Sister Celeste and the other nuns in the study felt, and what the mediators experienced, Newberg emphasizes, ‘were neither mistakes nor wishful thinking. They reflect real, biologically based events in the brain.’ The fact that spiritual contemplation affects brain activity gives the experience a reality that psychologists and neuroscientists had long denied it, and explains why people experience ineffable, transcendent events as equally real as seeing a wondrous sunset or stubbing their toes. ?

The other part of this mysterious brain religious equation let’s say is that our brain also helps in our healing process in ways we are still discovering, but that the ancients seemed to know or intuit. Our country at a time when we are the most well educated we have ever been is spending millions of dollars on ‘natural’ remedies, some of which Doctors caution may actually do us more harm than good .

I was watching my dog, Oreo, the other day, when evidently she had   eaten something that disagreed with her, perhaps those little snacks   from the kitty litter she likes so much. We can tell that she's not   feeling good, because she starts to eat grass until it reacts with her   stomach juices and she vomits, then seems to feel fine. No whining or   crying, no trip to the vet, just finding the right grass to take as a   purgative. How does she know to do that, I wondered?  I felt like I   had a small epiphany. We are so used to pharmaceutical Frankenstein   mixtures, that we forget, that the native Americans knew which plants   helped which medical problem, as did the shamans and even the witches   all over the world, as do many of the old wives tales, if you will.

Indeed, I know from experience first as a child, then as a parent that a mother’s or kiss can cure much of what ails us; it can magically take away the pain. I also realized that reading certain books could evidently stimulate some of that ‘hard wired toward religious experience.’ As far back as the 80’s Psychiatrist Scott Peck’s wonderful book, The Road Less Travelled, suggested that therapists and physicians should take a patient’s spiritual history as well as medical and family history, because the spiritual history often was w way that people learned how to cope. In Mary Baker Eddy’s :Christian Science, one of the first religions to be created in America, the relation between health and spirituality was close to the point, perhaps of excess, that we don’t need doctors and hospitals and modern medicine; we can do it all ourselves with the help of God, and sometimes it was successful, perhaps because we believed it would be, an we now know that our beliefs can actually make it so; indeed I will argue that God exists when we believe He/ she/it does, when we experience what WE THINK, maybe even Feel, often say even that WE KNOW God exists, though we may not be able to prove it to the unbeliever. But that we also know that it doesn’t always work, and I say Thank God for modern medicine and doctors and hospitals!

So called ‘positive’ or ‘negative thinking affects the body’s functions and mysteriously produces certain chemicals in our brains, even the healing system. We also know now about ‘placebo’s: fake medicine that can still work as effectively, evidently as so called ‘real’ medicine.

It has been shown, for instance that when a patient believes that he is getting morphine, his brain produces its own opiates. I want to argue that we literally ‘make up God in our minds, and He, She It then becomes real for us as if we are making our own religious opiates!

In an article, ‘Miracle Cures: Tapping the Power of Make-believe Medicine_… by Harvard professor Anne Harrington, in in August 2004 Spirituality and health: whether one is a physician working with the latest drugs or a parent kissing a cut knee, the quality of the healer-patient relationship can affect the chances for a good result.’

‘…dosage Research has shown that placebos are moderately effective when given as little white tablets, but much more effective as big red capsules-and still more effective when the patient has to roll up his sleeve and get an injection!

“Placebos are ‘lies that heal,’A placebo is a sham treatment that a doctor gives out merely to please or placate a patient. It is a make-believe drug that has no real medical properties.

The placebo effect is the measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health not attributable to treatment. This effect is believed by many people to be due to the placebo itself in some mysterious way. A placebo (Latin for ‘I shall please’) is a medication or treatment believed by the administrator of the treatment to be inert or innocuous. . Even ‘fake’ surgery and ‘fake’ psychotherapy are considered placebos.

Maybe God or religion is a placebo that heals our spirit as well as our body, realizing that it is one and the same, though we describe it differently. In other words we begin to speak metaphorically as soon as we try to describe our religious relationships. Both Jews and Moslems believe that trying to picture God is idolatry, and Jews are forbidden even to speak God’s holy name.

In Spiritual Literacy, the daughter of Dr. Lewis Thomas, best selling science writer like Lives of a Cell said ‘Growing up a doctor’s daughter, I learned early in life from my father not to panic at the first sign of illness. and quotes her father; ‘The great secret, known to internists and learned early in marriage by internist’s wives, but still hidden from the general public, is that most things get better by themselves. Most things, in fact, are better by morning. ?

Do you want proof that prayer to God cures? It really all depends on what we want to believe. If we believe God will heal us then we actually may be cocreating our own brain’s release of chemical healing, we may just get better despite medicine and/ or placebos. God could be a healing placebo belief, and please don’t misunderstand me. People throughout history have believed in a incredible and if you’ll pardon the pun, Unbelievable variety of Gods, Goddesses, and perhaps we should add shamans, whether they be today’s physician discovering that no one knows why some of us heal or are cured.

In the January/February 2004 issue of Spirituality & Health, is another great article, ‘This is Your Brain Praying’ by Louise Danielle Palmer, about DR. Andrew Newberg’s book on the brain science provide evidence that humans are hard-wired toward spirituality in the book Why God Won’t Go Away , that was behind religious and mystical experience turned up on the cover of Newsweek. It started many discussions about the issues of God, evolution, and the meaning of life. Interestingly enough for our topic, she says that: ‘neurotheologist’s’ work is moving fast, so we caught up on his personal quest to understand the mysterious workings of mind and spirit, his latest research, and its profound implications for our daily lives.

By building a bridge between science and spirituality, Newberg believes we can achieve what many doctors, physicists, and theologians consider impossible: to pinpoint the origin of consciousness. Newberg insists that if we elevate our understanding of mind, body, and spirit, we will one day penetrate the mystery of the source of life itself. When that happens, he says, we will discover the true nature of reality, rather than our subjective experience of it, which we cannot verify.

‘Something happens in your brain when you forgive someone, or express love and gratitude,’ says Newberg. ‘Humility and altruism all have a philosophical basis, an emotional basis, and a neurological basis. .’

‘Forgiveness, for example, requires a sense of self and of the rest of the world, which comes mainly from the brain’s frontal and parietal lobes. We need an emotional memory, which is tied to the hippocampus and the temporal lobes, to recognize when someone has hurt us. Forgiveness also involves a cognitive process of changing our minds, to see a person or problem in a different light. .How you forgive depends on how you access ‘the system’ to reestablish a sense of yourself and create a good feeling, which is relayed to the region that controls behavior.

‘This is what psychotherapy is all about; it’s what going to church is all about: how to modify your thoughts and behaviors to feel better and have more success in your relationships. It might help people understand the different ways they are capable of forgiving. It’s not a magic bullet, but a way for people to identify how their minds work. If we can figure out what’s going on when people stop forgiving or stop loving, maybe we can help them.’

So here’s the thing. We probably won’t ever find a pure religion pill. Sorry. At least, not one that is right for everyone! Prozac was not it for everyone. Ironic isn’t it, that for some people a side effect of those antidepressants, which, after all, might be the closest thing to what we think of as a ‘feel-good_ religion pill is feeling suicidal and often attempting it!

But if ‘Something happens in your brain when you forgive someone, or express love and gratitude,’ that sure sounds like a good thing to concentrate on in religious expression. Notice that no studies seemed to show blind obedience to orthodoxy and holy wars seemed to be the answer!

Religion itself is neither good nor bad, we must judge it by how it shapes the world round it, how it inspires the people to behave, to live justly, to love one another in peace. I think of the profound lyrics of Beatle John Lennon’s song Imagine and how it fits.

there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

May we live our lives and our religion as if we mean it and may we set the stage here for the possibility of religious or spiritual experience, whether it comes from our brain, from the cosmos or from that religious dimension which some call God. May we be open to the religious possibility and live love in all things. As we discuss the business, budget, and the busyness of the church, let us remember what we are really here for. Let us always hold up the beloved community that gives us meaning and strength and love. Religion is not just in our head, but must also be in our hearts.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ?Vaya con Dios? is SPanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ SO I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios, ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’

Peace,Love, Shalom,Salaam, Blessed Be,Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios,


Water is round in a round receptacle and square in a square one, but water itself has no particular shape. Teachings of the Buddha

Kabir 42

Have you heard the music that no fingers enter into?
Far inside the house
entangled music —
What is the sense of leaving your house?

Suppose you scrub your ethical skin until it shines, but inside there is no music, then what?

Mohammed’s son pores over words, and points out this and that, but if his chest is not soaked dark with love, then what?

The Yogi comes along in his famous orange.
But if inside he is colorless, then what?

The German poet, Rilke, wrote: ‘Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live everything. Live the questions.’

Alice Walker writes in her book, Anything We Love Can Be Saved:

I must love the questions themselves/as Rilke said/ like locked rooms/full of treasure  to which my blind/ and groping key/does not yet fit.

And await the answers/as unsealed/ letters/ mailed with dubious intent and written in a very foreign/ tongue.

And in my hourly making/ of myself

            no thought of Time/ to force, to squeeze
            the space/  I grow into.