“All religions are the same: Religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.”
“Prayer is like a rocking chair: It’ll give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.”
--Gypsy Rose Lee
“When you go to war over religion, you’re basically killing each other to see who has the better imaginary friend.”
I have kept quiet about this for long enough: after reading, for perhaps the 500th time, about how spirituality (= religiosity) contributes to healthy aging, I have to speak up, because no one else appears to have done so (at least, that I’ve noticed).
Owen Houghton, a Keene Sentinel columnist, offers many not-so-new tips about healthful aging (eat chocolate!) but warns us, in his title, “Don’t forget spirituality in healthful living.”
Houghton reveals his bias quite succinctly: “I believe that there is a powerful link between faith and health,” and of course he cites a book on the subject, “Faith and Health: Psychological Perspectives,” ed. Plante and Sherman.
What a crock!
Religious believers are not noted for their intellectual subtlety and adeptness, and this connection demonstrates their weak-mindedness: the supposed connection between spirituality and health is bass-ackwards, circular, just-so reasoning. It is a steaming crock of shit, and I am getting really tired of it, just as I am fed up with all of the special privileges accorded religion. Clearly, freedom from rigorous thinking is one of them.
The current sophistry about religiosity and health is a blatant example of confusing correlation with causation, of post-hoc explanation, and of confirmation bias.
Advocates of the religiosity/health connection invariably cite three phenomena: the support-group effect; the intrinsic benefits of prayer (Houghton goes so far as to suggest that our poor national health is due to “the high percentage of Americans who are unchurched”); and hope in the face of death.
ROFGAL (rolling on floor gagging and laughing).
C’mon, Owen. Religion is not alone or unique in providing support. There’s a whole world full of secular support groups, organized and not so organized. The Internet enables atheists to connect as never before and to get together offline via interest-group portals like www.meetup.com .
My Mom, living in the same town for 70 years, has many friends, relatives, and bridge partners. People are always checking in on her. Certainly this contributes to her longevity (also genes: her immigrant father lived to 82 on a diet rich in chicken fat).
So the “support group” argument for religion is vacuous. What about the the supposed benefits of prayer?
Here’s where the religious believers go completely overboard. We note that certain things happen in the brain when people pray, we can tell where they happen in the brain, so, the believers conclude, there’s a God center, or people are hard-wired for spirituality.
As Houghton says, “The discovery of a part of the brain that responds to spirituality may help us understand why some folks are more spiritual than others.”
Spirituality is GOOD!
Get it? Spirituality (= going to special religious place, talking to and about fantasy figures) is GOOD. Those without it are DEFICIENT.
The bullshit, as Penn & Teller would say (actually, only Penn), just keeps coming.
First of all, and in general, although the term “hard-wired” is now a long-established metaphor, no one has explained exactly what it means physiologically; no one has demonstrated that it corresponds to actual neural webs or pathways or some describable brain state. The brain-computer metaphor is appallingly overused and taken for granted, and this is another example.
Anyway. Prayer, as Houghton notes, “triggers a relaxation response.” But so do a lot of other things that share with prayer certain hypnotic qualities (in prayer: chanting in foreign language, rocking back and forth, kneeling, mindlessly singing hymns – great music, though) and detachment of the mind from everyday cares and worries about the future. Meditation does this too, no gods needed.
For many years, I’ve used Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing exercise to put myself into a weird but very pleasant meditative state where I’m awake and aware, but otherwise relaxed and semi-conscious.
The exercise slows my breathing down to two cycles per minute, and part of my brain seems to go to sleep. How little we know about that mass in our skulls!
An hour of that is like a night’s sleep. I recommend it highly. It’s another technique for coping with the mind, which Zen compares to a treeful of monkeys.
So prayer is not unique. Anything that disconnects the “monkey mind” is good – and that includes all forms of art and performance. As a longtime jazz musician, I can tell you that you must lose yourself completely in the music, or it won’t happen.
Prayer is not the best way to achieve detachment, because you just replace it with attachment to fantasy figures.
As for the spirituality part of the brain…that’s the IMAGINATIVE part that separates story from reality. Maybe this is the part of the brain that lights up with prayer, because one is, after all, exercising the imagination.
Finally, we have to deal with religion’s apparent help with “depression, fear, and despair.” When you peel it all away, this is what religion is about: you don’t have to die, you can keep living, somewhere else, and we – the church – will tell you how to guarantee your destination.
I don’t have “the” existential answer, because there isn’t just one. I do believe it’s better to spend this life enjoying all its riches, making sure you’re healthy enough to do that, and also ensuring that you’re living your life as opposed to some else’s version of it.
Above all, don’t invest precious hours asking an imaginary friend to do something about the existential problem; he can’t, because he’s not there.
Do all of the above, and don’t worry about death. As someone else once said, they bring it to you.