Spirituality is so good for you

Spirituality and the “Faith Factor”

(C) Copyright by Timothy Conway, Ph.D. 1998, 2006

A major trend of recent years is the deepening spirituality and adherence to religious faith found among large sectors of the populace here in the U.S. and in several countries abroad. This trend is likely not just to continue but to grow much stronger—a rather amazing phenomenon, considering that, as sociologist Rodney Stark tells it: “At least since the Enlightenment, most Western intellectuals have anticipated the death of religion as eagerly as ancient Israel awaited the Messiah.… The most illustrious figures in sociology, anthropology and psychology have unanimously expressed confidence that their children, or surely their grandchildren, would live to see the dawn of a new era in which, to paraphrase Freud, the infantile illusions of religion would be outgrown.” [1]

However, contrary to the views of these anti-religious intellectuals—Antoine de Condorcet (1743-94), Auguste Comte (1798-1857), Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), Karl Marx (1818-83), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Sigmund Freud (1856-1938), B.F. Skinner (1904-90), Albert Ellis (1913- ) et al.—in the 1980s and 1990s numerous experts from the fields of sociology, anthropology, and psychology went on record to express surprise over the durability of religion in a supposed “post-faith” era. Not only that, as Professors Huston Smith, Ninian Smart, Father Andrew Greeley, John Hick, Wade Clark Roof, Harvey Cox, Rodney Stark and others observe, religion has triumphantly survived oppression by the different forms of anti-religious modernity: secularization, scientism and atheistic communism.

Clearly, homo sapiens tends to be homo religiosus.

Spirituality and religious faith have survived because they are valuable, enriching and salvational—not just for the soul, but also body, mind and society as well.

Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of Harvard University’s Mind/Body Institute and a longtime advocate of holistic healing via the meditative “relaxation response,” in recent years, on the basis of the research evidence, advocates an explicit faith in God or transcendent spiritual reality to enhance the effects of meditative relaxation.

Dr. David Larson, a psychiatrist formerly with the prestigious National Institutes of Health, established his own National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR) to collect, analyze, summarize and report the scientific studies accumulating by the hundreds, showing that spirituality and religion are good for our physical, mental and social health. The positive effects are especially true of an authentic or “intrinsic” spirituality, a deep “connection with God or Higher Power that gives life meaning and guides life choices”—in contrast to “extrinsic” religiosity—like simply believing in God, having superficial membership in a church or synagogue, or watching evangelists on TV.[2]

Larson, his colleagues, and his predecessors have found that, after controlling for possible interfering variables, authentic spirituality or meditative prayerfulness or deeply religious faith positively correlate with greater longevity; greater life satisfaction; better overall health, happiness and psychological well-being; stronger immune systems; greater marital and sexual satisfaction; less stress (psychological and physiological); less fear of death; less hospitalization and shorter hospital stays; lower blood-pressure; and lower rates of the following: coronary-artery disease, mental disorder, suicide, depression, smoking, drug abuse (including alcoholism), divorce, premarital sex, and a wide range of crimes.[3]

This “faith factor,” as it has come to be called, seems good evidence that we are somehow programmed or structured for spirituality, “wired for God,” in Benson’s terms. In other words, whereas much religious motivation and expression is certainly human projection (Feuerbach) or an “illusion” based on collective, neurotic expression of as-if escapist make-believe (Freud), a core element of healthy spirituality seems to be part of our very nature.

Patrick Glynn, a former atheist turned Christian, notes the delicious irony:

The notion that belief in God [or Higher Power] arose as the mind’s defense mechanism in the face of primitive humanity’s early struggle against nature was, in a sense, the modern scientific and atheistic explanation for religious belief. It was precisely this notion that Freud invoked in dismissing religion as an “infantile” illusion. But … if this is an illusion, it is, first of all, not a harmful one, as Freud and the moderns taught. On the contrary, it is mentally beneficial. It is also, more puzzlingly, physically beneficial. And strangest of all, by deliberately interacting with this Illusion in a sincere spirit, through meditative prayer, one can create improvements in symptoms of disease that otherwise cannot be medically explained…. Are we really supposed to believe that this is some sort of massive coincidence, the accidental by-product of processes that were dictated by purely materialistic, mechanistic forces churning blindly over time—which human beings in their benighted primitivism have foolishly mistaken across the centuries for God? And why, then, should failure to believe this particular illusion have physiological and psychological penalties—in the form, for example, of a greater risk for high blood pressure and death from heart attack or a greater susceptibility to such behaviors as drug abuse and suicide? If this were an illusion, it would be natural to think, as Freud did, that it is a problem and that it should be curable. But the opposite is the case: “Curing” the mind of this illusion places the body and mind at increased risk of disease, for which the Illusion itself can be a cure! [4]

More recently, neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman at the University of Pennsylvania have reported on the detectable, measurable effects on the brain brought about by spiritual practices (meditation, etc) and religious rituals.

I'll close this short essay with an extended quote from Chapter 1 of Newberg and Waldman's 2009 book, How God Changes Your Brain:

Prelude to a Neurological and Spiritual Revolution

... The more a person thinks about God, the more complex and imaginative the concept becomes, taking on unique nuances of meaning that differ from one individual to the next. If you contemplate God long enough, something surprising happens in the brain. Neural functioning begins to change. Different circuits become activated, while others become deactivated. New dendrites are formed, new synaptic connections are made, and the brain becomes more sensitive to subtle realms of experience. Perceptions alter, beliefs begin to change, and if God has meaning for you, then God becomes neurologically real. (p. 3) [...]

For the past fifteen years I have investigated the neural mechanisms of spirituality with the same fervor that a minister contemplates God. Some religious rituals do nothing more than relax you, others help to keep you focused and alert, but a few appear to take practitioners into transcendent realms of mystical experience where their entire lives are changed. Our research team at the University of Pennsylvania has consistently demonstrated that God is part of our consciousness and that the more you think about God, the more you will alter the neural circuitry in specific parts of your brain. That is why I say, with the utmost confidence, that God can change your brain. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu, or an agnostic or an atheist. (p. 4) [...]

The more one contemplates God, the more mysterious God becomes. Some embrace this emergent ambiguity, some are frightened by it, some ignore it, and others reject it in its entirety. But the fact remains that every human brain, from early childhood on, contemplates the possibility that spiritual realms exist. Believers like Isaac Newton, agnostics like Charles Darwin, and atheists like Richard Dawkins have all given serious consideration to humanity’s fascination with God, because the moment God is introduced to the human brain, the neurological concept will not go away.

Recently there has been a spate of antireligious books—among them, The God Delusion, [by] Richard Dawkins; The End of Faith, Sam Harris; and God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens—that argue that religious beliefs are personally and societally dangerous. But the research, as we will outline throughout this book, strongly suggests otherwise. Nor do we believe that these authors represent the views of the vast majority of scientists or atheists. For example, though I am not specifically religious, I’m open to the possibility that God may exist, whereas Mark, my colleague and co-researcher, prefers to look at the universe through a purely naturalistic and evidence-based perspective. Yet we both appreciate and encourage religious and spiritual development—as long as it does not denigrate the lives or religious beliefs of others.

For the past four years, Mark and I have been studying how different concepts of God affect the human mind. I have brain-scanned Franciscan nuns as they immersed themselves in the presence of God, and charted the neurological changes as Buddhist practitioners contemplated the universe. I have watched what happens in the brains of Pentecostal practitioners who invited the Holy Spirit to speak to them in tongues, and have seen how the brains of atheists react—and don’t react—when they meditate on a concrete image of God. Along with my research staff at the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, we are currently studying Sikhs, Sufis, yoga practitioners, and advanced meditators to map the neurochemical changes caused by spiritual and religious practices.

Our research has led us to the following conclusions:

1. Each part of the brain constructs a different perception of God.
2. Every human brain assembles its perceptions of God in uniquely different ways, thus giving God different qualities of meaning and value.
3. Spiritual practices, even when stripped of religious beliefs, enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health.
4. Intense, long-term contemplation of God and other spiritual values appears to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods, give rise to our conscious notions of self, and shape our sensory perceptions of the world.
5. Contemplative practices strengthen a specific neurological circuit that generates peacefulness, social awareness, and compassion for others.

Spiritual practices also can be used to enhance cognition, communication, and creativity, and over time can even change our neurological perception of reality itself. [...]

Overall, our consciousness represents a reality that is the farthest removed from the world that actually exists outside of the brain. Thus, if God does exist, there would be three separate [or distinguishable] realities to consider: the God that exists in the world, our subconscious perception of that God, and the conscious images and concepts that we construct in a very small part of our frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. It has been my goal to show that spiritual practices may help us to bridge the chasm between these inner and outer realities, which would then bring us closer to what actually exists in the world. I still don’t know if it’s possible, but the health benefits associated with meditation and religious ritual cannot be denied. (pp. 5-7) [5]

[End of excerpt from Newberg and Waldman's 2009 book, How God Changes Your Brain]



1. Rodney Stark & William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation, Berkeley, CA: U. of Calif., 1985; quoted in Julie Bach & Thomas Modl (Eds.), Religion in America: Opposing Viewpoints, San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 1989, p. 201. The renowned professor of religious studies Ninian Smart liked to tell the story of how, upon expressing his interest in studying religion at Oxford University decades ago, his professors thought he was making a career mistake, since religion would be “dying out.”

2. See Herbert Benson, The Relaxation Response, Anchor Books, 1975, and the last few chapters of a subsequent work, H. Benson & Marg Stark, Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, Scribner’s, 1996.

3. David & Susan Larson, The Forgotten Factor in Physical and Mental Health: What Does the Research Show? Rocklin, MD: National Institute for Healthcare Research, 1994. See summaries of more recent studies at NIHR’s website, www.nihr.org/.

4. Patrick Glynn, God—The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World, Rocklin, CA: Prima, 1997, pp. 88-9.

5. Andrew Newberg, M.D., & Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain, N.Y.: Ballantine Books, 2009.