It should probably come as no surprise that my belief in a God resides somewhere between Father Christmas and England’s chances of ever winning another World Cup. Oh I’ve tried. As a wide eyed and impressionable pre-teen I was given a copy of the bible during an early Religious Studies class. Ok, I left it to rot at the bottom of my school bag, but I did eventually fish it out to see what the fuss was about.
I didn’t get very far. The only belief I gained was that fiction was supposed to entertain. Something I was forced to revisit 20 years later when I gave up watching The Wire for the very same reasons.
My apologies; I have to be careful not to show ignorance to those who believe in a God or a higher power, because, quite frankly, who knows? I am sure your faith comes from a place of absolute sincerity, so it’s not for me to tell you otherwise. Also, this isn’t the place to explain why I don’t believe in God. That’s for another time.
There are believers and non-believers the world over and there is little chance to convince either their stance is wrong. My only goal here is to present the information I have collected for your own curiosity and judgement.
Of course, there is a greater point to this article, but you’ll have to read to the end to see it.
1. Religion induced stress creates atrophy in the hippocampus
A study published in March, 2011 lead by Dr Amy Owen at Duke University offered a unique insight into how the hippocampus differs between believers, non-believers and those who had a unique religious experience. 268 men and women over the age of 58 had their MRI’s evaluated as part of another study titled ‘NeuroCognitive Outcomes of Depression in the Elderly’, but were also asked further questions about their religious beliefs.
They discovered significantly greater atrophy in the hippocampus area of the brain for born-again Protestants, Catholics and the non-religious, compared to Protestants not identifying themselves as born-again.
So what does this mean?
A theory is put forward that people who experience persecution or belong to a minority religious group suffer greater stress than others. Also, a spiritual experience, even if this was positive, creates a feeling of stress as it challenges existing belief systems. Interestingly, this ‘spiritual’ pain – perhaps through previous transgressions or lifestyle, is often interpreted by the brain the same way as physical pain.
The results indicate that while faith has been shown in some circumstances to reduce stress – being part of a minority group or experiencing a spiritual event can negate this benefit altogether.
Which leads us to…
2. The stronger your beliefs, the higher the risk of depression (in the UK)
The idea that religion acts as a buffer between life’s misfortunes and your mental wellbeing is being challenged by researchers led by Professor Michael King from University College London. In total, 8318 religious and non-religious people were monitored at 6 and 12 month intervals as they visited general practices in their respective countries.
In the year following the initial study; 10.5% of those with a spiritual background and 10.3% with a religious background reported experiencing depression, compared to just 7% of the secular group.
Although this study spanned 7 countries, including Spain, Slovenia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Portugal and Chile, the findings were only significant in the UK. Here, spiritual participants were three times more likely to experience depression than the secular group. Among participants who were spiritual or religious, those who described their belief as being strong were twice as likely to experience depression as participants who held a weaker belief.
3. People with religious beliefs are more vulnerable to compulsive behaviour
Muslim and ultra-orthodox sects of Judaism both demonstrate symptoms of obsessive compulsive behaviour. If a mistake is made by a Muslim during the Wudu act of washing their body before prayer, the whole process must be restarted. Likewise with Judaism – followers must live by certain strict rules and if these are not adhered to, obligations must be repeated until the law is fulfilled.
Similar traits are also observed in other religions. For instance; some Christians may believe that their own private thoughts are equivalent to physical actions, which is a concept known as moral thought-action fusion (moral TAF). All three behaviours are symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and it’s this link between religiosity and OCD that intrigued researchers from the University of Parma in Italy.
Devout Catholics (highly religious) were studied alongside nuns, priests (moderately religious) and those without any religious involvement (low religious) to determine, via a series of questionnaires, which group scored higher on key features of moral TAF. As expected, the HR group displayed higher levels of obsessionaility and OCD-like behaviour compared to the other groups.
Ian Hancock, an expert in OCD from Dumfries and Galloway Primary Care NHS Trust, believes that people with OCD tend to exaggerate their own sense of responsibility for events, often when no blame could possibly be attached to them, which in turn, could increase the likelihood of seeking a religious lifestyle.
4. Visual processing is influenced by existing belief systems
Scientists have already discovered that westerners look at photographs differently than Asians – by fixing their gaze onto a person or a fixed object rather than taking in the entire image to identify the context. However, studies are now suggesting that perception also differs wildly between religious and non-religious people within the same culture.
A study in the Netherlands set out to determine whether religious belief gave any bias to how someone may process visual stimulation in everyday life. A Group of 50 Dutch Calvinists and atheists were 100% matched on race, gender, IQ, age and even the type of education they received before being set a series of computer based visual challenges. They each had to indicate as quickly as possible whether they had seen a large or a small shape by pressing a particular key.
Researchers were keen to discover whether religion had any effect on global and local processing of imagery. In a nutshell, this refers to the tendency to either focus on larger or smaller features within an image.
The results showed that Calvinists were more likely to favour a local observational bias while the atheists were shown to have a higher global precedence. This indicates that a religious upbringing or an existing belief system can alter perception and could lead to a different interpretation of the same incident.
5. People with a lower IQ are more likely to turn to religion
A review of 63 separate scientific studies stretching back to 1921 by Professor Miron Zuckerman found ‘reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity’ among 53 of the studies – 35 of which were significant compared to just 2 significant positive correlations.
Controversially, it is claimed a child will be less likely to seek a religious lifestyle if they display an above average intelligence during their early years.
Factors such as gender and education were shown to have no effect on the findings; and for the purposes of this study, intelligence was defined as the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience”.
The researchers also note that higher intelligence lends itself to self-regulation and perceived control over life events which often negate the need to seek some of the benefits that religion is said to provide.
6. A belief in God reduces the analytical mind and promotes intuitive thinking
A Havard study set out to discover whether there was a link between intuition and a belief in God. The three part study included a series of maths questions with deliberate intuitive yet incorrect answers such as;
“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The response $0.10 springs immediately to mind, but the correct answer is $0.05.” (Seriously, really think about it).
Participants who gave an intuitive answer, regardless of whether they were correct, were shown to be 1.5 times more likely to have reported having an experience that convinced them of the existence of God.
The participants were also asked to write about a situation in which they either used an intuitive or reflective approach that led to either a good or bad outcome. As was predicted, a mindset favouring intuition significantly increased self-reported belief in God.
What you can take from this article
I apologise for the scientific jargon and heavy reading. Thank you for making it this far without falling asleep and face planting the keyboard (or whatever is front of you).
So what was the point of all that?
The point, my dear friends (and handsome strangers), is to hopefully demonstrate the thinking traps and bad habits we’re all guilty of when trying to navigate our crazy lives.
Perhaps I’m being unfair on you religious peeps by singling you out as an example of bad logic, but like I said earlier; it’s not for me to argue against your beliefs. To be honest, it doesn’t make any difference what is out there, beyond the scope of human consciousness.
What I’m about to say is relevant to everyone.
You know; advice like…
Don’t live your life through the values of others.
Life is full of arbitrary rules and regulations we must follow to prevent the bad shit from reigning down and burning all our souls. Sorry, I’m being overly dramatic, but I wrote about several of them here.
We must do this, we must do that, we must do what we are told, when we are told and there’s nothing we can do about it.
It’s all a lie.
Your friends and family have the best intentions for you, they truly do. Every piece of advice you are given is handed to you with the utmost sincerity, but it is human nature to offer what we want for ourselves.
What is right for someone else may not be the best option for you. Sure, take advice when it is offered, and ask for advice when you feel confused, but ultimately, any decision must be yours and yours alone.
If something doesn’t feel right – do something else.
Take responsibility for your life choices – live in the present moment
Very few of us are living in the now.
Our body may exist in the present moment, but our minds are usually worrying about something stupid from our past or stressing out about something equally idiotic in the future.
Either way; we’re not doing the right thing, right now.
I’ve said this many times. Everything you will ever do happens in the present moment, so it stands to reason that this point in time is where all the good shit happens.
If your thoughts are in a different place to your physical body; they don’t deserve to be together. It’s a double act that relies on both members for a truly unique performance.
Think about it…
Bert would be nothing without Ernie.
Luis Suarez would be nothing without his teeth.
And Siegfried would be nothing without that tiger (sorry Roy, Mantecore owned your ass)
Right here, right now. If you’re anywhere else, you’re not truly living.
Accept that you don’t know all the answers
Did you know…?
The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. Of course, with certain individuals; the less you know, the less proof you need to know, and no one can tell you otherwise… but enough of that.
Know what I mean?
I love it when a student of mine points out something obvious that I’ve somehow missed. I don’t feel embarrassed or threatened because I will always be a work in progress. I may have played guitar for 16 years, but that doesn’t mean I know my shit inside out.
I know it upside down, but anyone can do that…
So I’m open to correction. If I have a gap in my knowledge, then I’m eager to fill it, regardless of the source.
This is how I strengthen my craft. I attack it from all angles and I question things I already believe to be true, even if it leads to the possibility that I may have looked at something the wrong way all along.
On the flipside – I may have strengthened my knowledge by running this ‘error check’, and if so, fantastic. Either way, I win. I’m in a stronger place than I was before.
Are you able to do this?
Are you open to trying out new foods in the hope you will find something new and exciting to taste or are you stuck in your ways, nibbling on the blandness that has filled your plate since you were knee high to a midget?
Is there anything you can add to your workout routine to improve your physique or are you content to keep shoving as much weight on to the bar as possible to fuel your rapidly expanding ego?
Do you question your religion as a means to test how strong your faith really is or do you refuse to even contemplate the possibility that another belief system may have the answers you so desperately seek?
You do not have all the answers.
The knowledge inside your head is just information you’ve picked up along the way. Some of it is true.. some of it will be false.
Which is which?
You have no idea. You think you know. But you can only guess.
What you knew yesterday isn’t the same as what you know today.
What you know today will be different from what you will discover tomorrow.
Let go of your ego. It’s stupider than you think.
Believe in yourself. Trust yourself to make the right decisions. Allow yourself to make the wrong decisions. This is growth.
And above all, whatever path you take in life, whatever you decide to do…
You will always be you.
What do you think about the content in this article? Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.
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