Archive for June 15th, 2009
The April 10, 2009 edition of Science (available online only to subscribers) reports that Naltrexone (a drug used for treating addictions) has been dramatically successful in treating compulsive shoplifting. The relevant study was published in the April 2009 edition of Biological Psychiatry.
Sounds like yet more evidence that doing what’s “right” is not simply a matter of morality? God, meet Naltrexone . . . This is not to excuse all shop-lifters, but it should make the law-and-order crowd stop to think more seriously about their simplistic views of how to deal with “criminals.” Makes me wonder how many other sorts of “criminals” are normal folks struggling with low-level biological issues . . .
Here are more examples of low-level processes that drive behavior. At TED, cognitive researcher Nancy Etcoff spells out (starting about 14:00 mark) three lower level systems that underlie reproduction: Lust (sex hormone driven), romantic attraction (dopamine driven) and attachment (oxytocin driven). Etcoff also cites psychologist John Gottman for a good strategy for a happy marriage: make sure that the spouses say at least five positive things for each negative thing. That’s how powerful and socially dysfunctional it is to utter negative things.
I don’t deny that there is an upside to being “religious.” USA Today recently published “This is Your Brain on Religion,” by Andrew Newberg, a professor of radiology and psychiatry. Here are some of the benefits to religion, in a nutshell:
The research that I have come across, if not definitive, seems clear: Religion and spiritual practices generally have a positive effect on one’s physical, emotional and neurological health. People who engage in religious activities tend to cope better with emotional problems, have fewer addictions and better overall health. They might even live longer than those who lead more secular lives. Indeed, many studies document that religious and spiritual individuals find more meaning in life.
Here’s one of Newberg’s sources for the increased longevity of religious folks. Lots to consider here.
Every time I read such studies noting the benefits of religion, I suspect that it is the greater committed social interconnectedness of believers that accounts for most of the benefits. I don’t have statistics to back me up here, but consider this. We have a very fine blogging community here at DI. Now, imagine one of our authors falling terribly ill for a long period. What is the likelihood that another co-author or a visitor would commit to providing long-term care for that ill author? My hypothetical is not meant as an insult, but I would find it surprising if us skeptical/philosophical types would do that.
Now consider what often happens when a member of a congregation falls ill: other members of the congregation often jumpt to the rescue, providing food and other care, even to people they don’t know well. I suspect that this occurs because congregations are flesh and blood gatherings of people who put in the time, week after week, to make displays of their willingness to commit to each other and to their “God.” I don’t think it’s religion per se that lubricates this willingness to help each other, but that this willingness results from physically rubbing elbows with a specific group of others on a regular basis. I’ve seen enough studies to be convinced that there are benefits to being religous, but I doubt that it has to do with anything supernatural. In fact, it relates largely to in-group dynamics, I suspect, and that members of Religion A are far more likely to help each other than to help members of Religion B or to help people who are not religious at all.
On the whole, though, be religious, right? Not so fast! Newberg warns that the net effect of religion depends on the type of god in which one believes.
[W]hen people view God as loving, forgiving, compassionate and supportive, this more likely results in a very positive view of themselves, and of the world around them. But when God is viewed as dispassionate, vengeful and unforgiving, this can have deleterious effects on one’s physical and mental health.
The cynical me thinks that people create their own version of God, aqnd that even the people who worship together have dramatically different conceptions of God (just ask people who all worship at the same church and you’ll be amazed. Since people wield this power to create the version of God that they worship, they ought to each create a benevolent, empathetic God for the sake of all of the rest of us.