How Science Helps Make Sense of Spirituality
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How Science Helps Make Sense of Spirituality


Thank God I am not a scientist. Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful for them, but when I read things about science, like this article in The Atlantic about spiritual experiences and the mind, it makes my brain feel like it needs a spa day. I am just not mentally wired to study, analyze, theorize and report on things—well, unless those things happen to be the perplexing behavior of the opposite sex (about which I am an expert!). But the level of crazy that can happen to me when I start reading about science makes me shudder to think what might happen if any of those things were crucial to my life. Luckily, I know a lot about my own spirituality that has nothing at all to do with science.

The Spiritual Cortex

According to Dr. Andrew Newberg, author of The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought, it’s essential to examine how people experience spirituality in order to fully understand how their brains work. Having studied the brains of Pentecostal Christians as well as atheists, he’s found that the method that people use to connect with their spirituality affects different parts of the brain. While mantra-based meditation and repetitive prayer activate the frontal lobes—responsible for attention, behavior and language—speaking in tongues or functioning as a medium stimulate the brain’s thalamus. So what does this all mean? Hell if I know, but I am sure to Dr. Newberg, it’s downright fascinating.

Doubting God Isn’t Even a Choice

As someone who’s active in a 12-step program, I am constantly faced with the God concept—or, more accurately, the God-of-my-own-understanding concept. Personally, I’ve never had any problem with God (a term I use synonymously with Higher Power). Even before I got sober, I always believed God existed. As an upper middle class Jewish girl who wanted for nothing (except maybe a sober dad, a sane mom and to have started sleep-away camp three years earlier than I did), I just never found a reason to get to know God. I didn’t need His help; I had designer jeans and attention from boys.

But when the destruction and despair of alcoholism hit—and this is what atheists don’t seem to get about people with faith—the pain can be so overwhelming that you actually involuntarily fall to your knees and audibly call out for help, and God is the only one who takes those calls.

I am not saying everyone should believe in God. Although Dr. Newberg believes everyone can benefit from some type of meditation practice, I have absolutely zero investment in whether other people believe in God—I just know that I do because it helps me live my life. No amount of scientific facts or debate is going to shake my faith in a Higher Power because, to me, spirituality is about personal peace and not about right or wrong.

Science Is Factual but Spiritless

As Dr. Dean Hamer, who penned the book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, notes, “Science will never replace spirituality because a reliance on facts will never have the same emotional appeal.” To which I say: Amen. I am not in business with a Higher Power because I believe that one day there will be a day of reckoning and everyone will see that I was right; it just feels better this way. As an alcoholic, I am an emotionally stunted child who can’t bear the thought of having to be in charge of everything in my life. If I am the one calling all the shots, I am the one drunk in the corner.

But I do sometimes wonder why people believe what they believe. I know for me, when I stop trying to control everything in my life and “give it up to a Higher Power,” I have less stress and anguish and things work out better than they do when I am in charge. This is likely 100% due to me just getting out of my own way and allowing the chips to fall where they may (I’m a poet) but it’s more fun to think about someone or something else taking care of it. Newberg believes that the relief that religious or spiritual groups bring may be due partially to the comfort of a built-in social network. And while that might sound silly, I know for me—someone who felt like an outcast her entire life, which was a fundamental reason behind my drinking—that is entirely accurate. I may not be a scientist but in my unscientific experiment with the one test case I know about for certain, the results are conclusive.

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.