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The Scripture Project

Browse the Bible, Qur’an or Book of Mormon for scriptural criticism, insights and careful annotation.

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Faith Impact

Lisa Miller
Posted: October 1, 2009.

Print: Newsweek

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Oct 1, 2009

When a committed Christian says he believes in the Second Coming of Christ, he believes it the way he believes that Michael Jordan was a basketball player. When an avowed atheist says there is no such thing as God, she knows it the way that she knows that Elvis was a rock star. According to new research—published yesterday in the online science journal PLoS One—by Sam Harris (the neuroscientist and atheist author of The End of Faith) and colleagues, “belief is belief is belief,” as Harris puts it. “We seem to be doing the same thing when we accept a proposition about God or the virgin birth as we do about astronomy.”

What Harris, his fellow researcher Jonas Kaplan, and the other authors of the study want to address is the idea, which has been floating around in both scientific and religious circles, that our brains are doing something special when we believe in God—that religious belief is, neurologically speaking, an entirely different process from believing in things that are empirically and verifiably true (things that Harris endearingly refers to as “tables and chairs”). He says his results “cut against the quite prevalent notion that there’s something else entirely going on in the case of religious belief.” Our believing brains make no qualitative distinctions between the kinds of things you learn in a math textbook and the kinds of things you learn in Sunday school. Though the existence of God will never be proved—or disproved—by an fMRI scan, science can study a thing or two about the neurological mechanisms of belief. What Harris’s study shows is that when a conservative Christian says he believes in the Second Coming as an undeniable fact, he isn’t lying or exaggerating or employing any other rhetorical maneuver. If a believer’s brain regards the Second Coming the way it does every other fact, then debates about the veracity of faith would seem—to the committed believer, at least—to be rather pointless.

Harris, Kaplan, et al. put 30 people in fMRI machines. Half of them were committed Christian believers, the kind of Christians who would immediately agree with the statement “Jesus ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.” Half were committed atheists, the kind who would agree with the statement “The belief that Jesus ascended to heaven is clearly false.” Up on a screen before them, participants would read declarative statements. Some were statements of religious belief, some of religious disbelief. Some were statements about more ordinary facts. Participants had to push buttons—indicating true or false—as the researchers watched their brains light up. Belief in God, disbelief in God, and belief in simple empirically verifiable facts all lit up the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that governs your sense of self. We are, in some sense, what we believe….

 

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Comments (15)

1. Thomas Drescher

Nonsense.  Fake science.  MRI’s simply do not give sufficiently precise information to make these sorts of conclusions.  For instance, we do not use an fMRI as a lie detector, because truth-telling, like belief is a far more complicated a proposition than something we can just “read off” an MRI scan.  Speaking as an atheist, I say “if only!”  To say the results of these “tests” are suggestive is fine, but suggestive is by no means conclusive.

posted on October 1, 2009
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Brother Mario… I wont say if it is the most accurate study.  It probably is not.  The good thing about science is that you can try and prove it wrong in order to test it.  Faith is take it or leave it.  Either you believe, or you dont. 

What this study says is simply that what some people believe is a fact to them, whether it is right or wrong.  I bet if you run this on a couple of children who believe in Santa Claus you might get the same results.

Now… Im an atheist.  Not because of any hate toward religion, but because I do not buy it.  Man created god, and he created god in order to explain what they did not understand.  People do good things because they want too… not because some invisible being wants them too.

There is an extremely miniscule chance I’m wrong.  If I am… I do not think it will bother him that much.  I mean, it creates a universe billions and billions of years old and it worries about praying to him or worshiping him?  C’mon. 

People can believe what they want.  But with so many religions, and people in the world, it should remain private and out of public issues. Period.  This is the major concern of a lot of people.

posted on October 1, 2009
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“There is an extremely miniscule chance I’m wrong.  If I am… I do not think it will bother him that much.”

This is a revealing statement. First how can anyone know that there is an extremely minuscule chance they are wrong. This is a statement based in belief not fact. We see about 4 per cent of reality and we are talking about a miniscule chance that we are wrong. We know so little about the universe or consciousness or awareness to make such a statement.

Now the statement “I do not think it will brother “him” that much. Who says it is a him? Mark twain said it best: god made man in his image and then man returned the favor.

Tonight a friend asked me to attend a bible study and it was revealing in several ways. One for the most part they continued throughout the night to make God in their image and give to God their human traits. A God that can curse people, have wrath, have chosen people, and punish others and this God can even ask a guy to kill his son with a knife as a test. I am not sure most humans would even go that far.

But yet they believed in a God of infinite love. But also they made several statements such as to how they believed that suffering could lead one to greater compassion. Of course suffering can also cause great grief and bitterness.

When I stated that Einstein said that the universe may have many hidden worlds we cannot see they bought into that and agreed. Einstein is an interesting guy both the atheists and the religious quote him.

I found the evening very revealing and these people were very sincere in their beliefs. It did amaze me that the entire evening none of them even questioned the idea that they were making their God in their image rather than realize their bible states that God made them in his image.

I did notice there was some fear that they would be left behind on earth from a book of that name. A best seller I think.

We humans are an interesting species almost every one thinks their beliefs and theories are facts and there is only a minuscule chance that they could be wrong. This is why I continually state that the materialist and the religious are two sides of the same coin.

posted on October 1, 2009
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I agree with Tilberian.  The value of this work is to re-frame the discussion of faith as a set of beliefs in phenomena and hypotheses about the origins of phenomena. 

By showing that faith is a belief like any other, we can move the discussion along to talk about the specifics of what those beliefs are.  We can examine each of the claims of a particular doctrine in the same way we examine claims of the sun rotating around the earth and so on.

posted on October 2, 2009
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All this interesting, reflective discussion… pity we can’t take it with us, or maybe we can. All those “billions talking to Jesus every day”. How often does he answer I wonder. If ‘only’ we saw 4% of reality; if the physicists (and everyone else for that matter) are getting this right, can we actually divide the universe into finite definitions?

I personally see through specific experience, which I suppose every one’s going to have when they finally ‘kick the bucket’, how faith can seem to be seen as truth, the ultimate ‘experience’, but how does one know whether one isn’t just a ‘rat in the maze’, god or no god.

And for all those who have done so up to now, as long as they’re not existing in the eternal nothingness, wouldn’t it be understandable that intelligence exists beyond what we currently perceive to be reality. We obviously don’t have a refined grip on certain ‘abilities’ (and I don’t like that term, want of a better one), though a certain overlapping would be understandable given the ‘amount’ (finite debate again) of possible interrelated existences. This can easily explain a lot of ‘weird’ phenomena that ‘seems’ so prevalent in our society. Saying “they all belong in a psycho ward” is arrogant and very unscientific.

Some appear to have have made some progress in our history, unfortunately though, the person seems to have been revered and their intrinsic value, rather than ‘the message’. Those two sides of a coin come to mind.

What really gets me though, is the unwillingness of the scientific mind to experiment with belief. A three month trial perhaps. Important to note however that the depth of one’s experience would be subjective to the amount one allows oneself to believe. A commitment to return to the starting grid after three months, and your all set. I don’t see many scientist doing this., and I can’t understand why.

posted on October 2, 2009
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My prayer group liked it better when we didn’t have to use our brains.

posted on October 2, 2009
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Brother Mario:

You say: “And to quote Mark Twain as some sort of expert in truth while dismissing arguably the greatest manuscript ever written, a manuscript filled with wisdom and quips that make Mark Twain look like a pinhead, well, is simply stupid.”

I and many people find Mark Twain’s commentary about religion entertaining and enlightening. You should read as much of him as you can on the subject.

And who said Mark Twain is an expert of truth? What does that even mean? Did you mean that Mark Twain was an expert at deciphering what is true and what is false?

I think most of us on here laughed when you said Mark Twain dismissed “arguably the greatest manuscript ever written, a manuscript filled with wisdom and quips.”

That’s one of the most ridiculous summaries of the bible I’ve heard.

Here’s a quip for you: “Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you.” Judges 19:22-30

Is that wisdom? Is that a quip you can be proud of? There are hundreds more in the bible that are just like it. It’s silly to say a heavily-edited, cobbled-together book that advocates slavery, genocide and rape is “arguably the greatest manuscript ever written.”

And “arguably?” Really? The creator of the universe probably doesn’t appreciate you not having the conviction to say the bible IS the greatest manuscript ever written. That sort of waffling won’t go unnoticed. Time to repent, my friend.

posted on October 2, 2009
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The rape of the concubine dramatizes the depravity into which the people sank during a particular historical period when “there was no king in Israel” and “everyone did as he pleased.”  Judges 21:25.  The story is a polemic in favor of Davidic monarchy, not a moral fable.  At least, that’s what they say in my prayer group.  When they’re not off volunteering for scientific studies.

posted on October 2, 2009
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This study confirms a statement made by C.J. Ducasse in 1953 when he wrote in his book, “A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion” where he wrote: “The general principle holds, that as man acts again and again, so does he tend to come to feel and to believe.”  Only now you can add, “and the areas of the brain involved in making ‘belief’ conclusions can be seen in fMRI brain scans.”
I enjoy following your work Sam, and I think that if you write a paper or article about this study you could title it, “The Costanza Confirmation” based on an episode of Seinfeld where Jason Alexander as George Costanza tells Jerry: “Now remember Jerry, if you believe it’s true; it’s not a lie.”

posted on October 2, 2009
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Apologies for butchering my first sentence above… there should simply be a colon after the title of the book.
(when will I learn to utilize the preview…)

posted on October 2, 2009
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Dear Researcher and Brother Mario…
Maybe “minuscule chance” was not the best choice of words. Fine.  I dont believe in god.  I simply do not think he exists. 

Many people do and that is fine.  If you need a belief in order for you to “feel” something, or to seek explanations to that which you do not know… fine.  But faith, belief, religions and such are varied and very personal depending on the individual.  This is one of the reasons religion should be kept out of PUBLIC places.  Even PUBLIC schools.  You want to educate children in your parents, or your religion, fine… Take them to private school or sunday school. 

Science and reason differ from religion in that they can be questioned, proved and if you happen to prove me wrong, Ill stand corrected.  You can’t question faith.  You accept it or you dont.

And you know what?  Frankly, for those who need a god or belief in order to find meaning in their lives… It does not matter if god is a he, she, it, monkey, dog, spaghetti monster, octopus or even a pink-elephant-unicorn with duck legs - if it makes you a better person great.  But you cant go into public schools, museums and such preaching about it and trying to educate people on it when there is no evidence or fact to support it. 

And before you bring out the bible… that book was written by “uneducated men” a long time ago.

posted on October 2, 2009
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The real problem with most people’s modern understanding of the bible revolves around the fact that it is a translation of a translation of a translation etc. etc. etc.. I also think that many ‘lessons’ etc. are mainly advice not law or instructions. There are other parts which are historical recounts or even neutral universal ‘truth’, such as an eye for an eye etc..

In the end the bible is just a bunch of words, just like here and though I personally have no familiarity with Twain, only smatters here and there, I’m sure his arguments are sound enough, but as I said, I don’t know for sure, though he probably ‘did okay’. I bet he knew how to laugh, which makes me wonder… did Jesus ever laugh? I can’t recall any passage saying so, and yet I find it hard to believe he didn’t. Oh, but that’s right, he never actually wrote anything, did he? I also find that hard to believe.

‘Experience’ is always subjective (isn’t it?) and unless I can walk on water or heal cancer all I’ve got left are my mind and heart (not the pumping one) to put forth my arguments. These concepts are not necessarily a part of religion as so many scientific minds assume. I’ve heard people say they wouldn’t even believe ‘it’ even if they did see ‘something’.

For those who can’t ‘prove’ the existence of ‘anything else’, I reiterate my earlier statement of experimenting with belief. A rational mind should be able to come back to normal reality… does everyone truly fear going completely insane and never being able to come back to ‘reality’. One can ask why they should try this, well all I can say is, why not?

When Buddha was traveling the countryside, his followers brought him to a master beside a river. His followers explained to him that this master had been meditating beside the river for forty years and had now perfected the art of walking across the river (walking on water).

Buddha approached the man and said to him “why do you waste your time doing this shit, when you can easily pay the ferryman 5 cents to take you across!”

Can’t remember the source but a real text all the same, except for the embellishment.

At least we know for sure Buddha knew how to laugh.

p.s. Jimmy tells us that his that his prayer group ‘now’ has to use their brains. Says a lot about past historical experience.

posted on October 2, 2009
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13. Joey Frantz

I find it obscure that Miller says that belief is belief is belief when the study performed by Harris shows otherwise.  Indeed, this is stated in his abstract - religious thinking is more related to certain parts of the brain than other forms of thought are.

Yet it seems that Harris himself sent Miller emails vouching for this very position.  Has Harris paid attention to his own research?  The paper he presented most strongly supports the proposition that there are neural differences between religious beliefs and ordinary beliefs.

posted on October 3, 2009
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Brother Mario,
You said, “You quote the Bible for some personal motive by finding one passage that you think negates the 10,000 others. (Whew, that’s not obviously moronic.)”

You may not realize this, but you have not only your logic backwards, but the ratio as well. 

About the ratio, look up The Scripture Project in here (or please, research it yourself independently if you don’t trust stuff on this site) and check all that’s been tagged under ‘Good’.  It doesn’t even remotely match up to everything that’s has a negative tag on it.

About your logic, you can’t use 10,000 good passages to negate even a single egregiously bad passage that’s in the Bible (unfortunately for Christians, there’s whole lot more than one).  You see, that’s not how logic works.  That’s not how sensibility works.  That’s not how morality works.

Christians are in a bind.  They can’t rewrite the Bible for obvious reasons and they can’t hide away the atrocities in it.  Quote as many good things you want from the Bible.  You can’t make the bad stuff disappear.

posted on October 4, 2009
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You really need to get out more, Brudda Mario. “Go away”, “what nonsense”, great reasoning there. “Gosh, darn” that’s the best you’ve got. Anger does not breed wisdom, but laughter helps. Important to take life seriously, and to not take it seriously.

You know, I can’t understand how if Christianity is getting it so right the world is in such a mess. Was this the envisioned divine plan? Brilliant minds, what’s that got to do with anything? People are stating their opinion and the best Mario can come with, is to imply we’re all a bunch of loons who have no idea what we’re talking about. Is it any wonder discussion with bible bashers get a little frustrating.

Ciao Mario, amico mio. If you want to use an Italian derivative, maybe you should see what’s actually going on in Italy. I preti italiani ci anno un po’ piu buon senso.

p.s. Catholic priests have a degree in Theology, quite a difficult degree I might add. Maybe you should consider getting one, Mario, if you want to shoot your mouth off that is.
p.p.s. Some of the best profanity I’ve learnt is from priests in Italy, who were and are considered to be some of the ‘top minds’ in the Catholic Church. Get real dude.

posted on October 4, 2009
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