Up Wisdom

When we hope
it is with limited expectation of success.
When we believe
it is with high expectations of success. 
When we know
it is with a certainty that transcends expectation
- even though nothing is truly certain. 
is the hand maiden of all three.


A long time good friend of mine fell suddenly and gravely ill. I worried that he might not make it; that he would die in the hospital. His condition first worsened, got briefly better, then again worse. He did eventually recover, but not before I let him know I prayed for him. Controversial as it is, my reading of the scientific evidence compels me to believe there is a small possibility that Intercessory Prayer can have a measurable effect on another person's ability to fight an illness. Under ordinary circumstances the story would naturally end there. But, I am an atheist... and do not believe in gods. Still, I "prayed" (In my case that amounted to meditating on the desirability of a favorable outcome).  Serious medical discussions about the relationship between prayer and health continue to be reported in the literature.

Evidence for the personal health benefits of faith (religious or nonreligious) are more compelling. Finally, careful multivariate regression analyses of the relationships among "religious" certainty,  church attendance, and various measures of health or well-being have begun to appear in the professional literature. Earlier studies focused on the positive correlation between church attendance and health/longevity. The consistent results made it clear that very religious people tended to be healthier and live longer. Everyone admitted the independent variable religiosity might itself be the consequence of something more fundamental in human behavior. That something seems to be unshakable faith, blind faith, absolute certainty! ... absolute faith in ANYTHING! One of the best discussions of these ideas occurred at the 1999 conference entitled "Reclaiming Spirituality from Religion."

Believe anything you want, but do believe something! What do the scientific studies into the value of praying for others prove? At this point the data are inconclusive, but the positive correlation between data showing a relationship between what one person is thinking and the well being of another is provocative, to say the least. Of course, the placebo effect may be involved in some subtle way. Many studies (1 2 3 4) demonstrate the role of expectation in the outcome of illnesses and anything which has the effect of heightening the expectation of recovery, is likely to have a positive effect on the body's own healing processes as discussed in the preceding paragraph.
That makes common sense It is easy to ignore the fact that the realities we perceive are illusions. We conduct our lives "as if" we know what is real. We have faith. That makes common sense, of course. I walk on concrete as if it is solid, though I know it is mostly empty space. I unconsciously breath air containing deadly pathogens, feel financially secure despite the possibility of a stock market collapse tomorrow, walk streets which others have proven to be dangerous, all without being preoccupied by the uncertainties. I have faith it will be business as usual. Perhaps you are like that too, but not everyone handles uncertainty the same way. 
people crave certainty In some significant portion of humanity uncertainty breeds anxiety, and in a few percent of us, debilitating anxiety. It is not surprising that such people crave certainty. Research has established a genetic linkage for anxiety-related traits. At the other end of the spectrum are those of us who have inherited a genetic predisposition for being pleasantly aroused by the mysteries of the unknown, perhaps as much as twenty percent of us.  Interestingly, we characterize the condition experienced by the first group as a disorder, while that of the second group merely an idiosyncrasy! Like iron filings, large numbers of us are drawn to either of the two opposing poles. The rest of us are less predictable, sometimes anxious, sometimes excited by the same circumstances, probably constituting the "swing vote" in political elections.
the herd instinct is alive and well Though I have yet to see a truly definitive study on the subject, I suspect a disproportionate number of people from the first group would find comfort in religious beliefs, so much so that they would find it natural to ignore questions of evidence in support of cherished beliefs. The act of believing imbues the believer with benefits which far outweigh questions of cognitive dissonance.  On the other hand, the twenty percent at the other polarity probably tend to be disproportionately represented among that group which is skeptical of any assertion not supported by  clear scientific evidence. Where some "holy" person cites divine revelation as their evidence for some particular statement of fact, a majority of the skeptical group would have no difficulty rejecting the evidence and the statement of "fact" as well. To carry my hypothesis to its logical conclusion, the rest of humanity would be expected to follow whichever viewpoint was considered to be promoted by the more persuasive, charismatic proponents and which had previously gathered the largest and most vociferous followings. In other words, the herd instinct would be postulated to be alive and well among Homo Sapiens as well as other species of animals.
"The stupid are
cocksure, and the intelligent are full of doubt."
 Bertrand Russell
The variety of religious beliefs spans a spectrum from ridiculous to sensible. All of our beliefs, religious or otherwise sit somewhere on that spectrum, including those we choose to think of as scientific facts. Anyone can spot a problematic belief held by someone else, but might very well have trouble characterizing any of their own beliefs as unsupported by available evidence. I'm beginning to believe there are good evolutionary reasons for this peculiar human trait. It appears to me that the quality of our lives, perhaps our very survival, depends on the quality of our collective faith. Furthermore, the "quality" of our faith appears to me to be inversely proportional to the rationality of the object of our faith! Most religions encourage their adherents to believe ideas for which there is no scientifically verifiable evidence. For example, the Mormon religion is based on some widely refuted historical records, but even in modern times inspires unshakable faith and devotion in its followers. 

So, why do we believe that for which there is no good evidence? Some writers point to pragmatic benefits, while others like Bertrand Russell maintain religion and the irrational beliefs they promote have been a serious hindrance to a more rapid advancement of civilization. I am leaning to ward the pragmatic.

I find myself asking: is skepticism the enemy of faith? How do we reap the benefits of healthy faith while retaining a respectable degree of doubt in most things unproven? Nurturing a bicameral mind is not the answer! Suppression of cognitive dissonance while entertaining an absolute certainty in unsubstantiated objects of personal belief may be part of the answer. But how can such an enterprise ever be considered intellectually justified? How can any respectable educated person accept anything on blind faith? 

My answer is that we do it all the time when we knowingly pass on our culture's "harmless" myths to the innocent children in our care. What damage can be caused by setting out a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for Santa Clause on Christmas eve? The magic, the excitement in the eyes of our children, the heightened expectation of wonders to come all justify such "harmless" deceptions. There will be plenty of time later for the hard realities of life to take their dominant place in our children's lives. For now we have every reason for reinforcing their fanciful beliefs: it makes their lives more enjoyable! 

So too, some similarly unsubstantiated objects of adult blind faith have the power to make our lives more enjoyable. My advice to agnostics-atheists is to invent a personal "god" which will watch over them and answer questions about difficult life passages, and be an ever present personal friend full of unconditional love and encouragement. Harbor no thoughts of ever trying to justify the decision to adopt such a bazaar mind set to others. That such an enterprise makes their lives more enjoyable is justification enough! In his provocative book: The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief author Francis S. Collins offers another perspective. Why not attribute the magic and wonder beyond the understanding of science to gods? In his case he has chosen the predominant religious orientation of his Christian background, but the logic could apply to any cultural orientation.

My advice to the majority who have unquestioningly adopted the God of their fathers, is to avoid discussions of this decision with all but those already known to have made the same decision... or those rare few on the outside who ASK for advice in matters spiritual... usually the questioning young or psychologically disoriented.

I am saddened by the realization that the human mind has not yet evolved to the point where rational thoughts can reside in the same mind space as comforting emotionally powerful beliefs which appear to conflict with objective reality. Each realm makes enormous contributions to the well being of people, though we cannot ignore the surprising correlation between a nation's religiosity and measures of social dysfunction!   The values of absolute faith are so overwhelmingly obvious to any rational person I am at a loss to explain why beliefs in preposterous ideas cause so much cognitive dissonance among those of us who worship evidence. Similarly, the throngs who base their lives on "revealed truths" joyfully embrace most of the fruits of science and the technology. It is only in the specific particulars which contradict one another that our minds rebel against the non-dominant realm. How sad. How short sighted.

Physicists know that Einstein's Theories of Relativity are in harmony with cosmic observations, but lead to wrong conclusions at the subatomic scale. The theory of Quantum Mechanics describes our observations at that level, but is worthless on the galactic scale. So, we hold both theories (and others) in our minds ready for use when appropriate. Why not the same approach with faith and reason? My knowledge that Ultimate Reality is forever unknowable does not prevent me from enjoying a performance of the Salt Lake City Mormon Tabernacle Choir or delighting in the glee with which small children approach a Macy's Santa Claus. Fully understanding the art and technology behind a contrived video production does not prevent me from suspending judgment for a while and enjoying the performance... as if it were real! Nor, am I distressed when I learn my temporary beliefs were in fact mere illusions. 

  The current Chinese government has followed a pragmatic approach that deserves study by Western societies. Public promotion of religious dogma as fact is prohibited and prosecuted vigorously. Earlier attempts by the Communist government to stamp out superstitious religious beliefs failed. Taking a longer view, the central policy has shifted to better education for the licensed religious leaders to prevent open promotion of religious ideas contrary to the general public good. Believe anything you want, but keep it to your self. Of course, China has dramatically greater problems with fanatical religious movements than do we in the West. My recent visits to China provided an opportunity to see first hand what success the government has had with their new policies.
How many distinctly different kinds of faith are there? Religious faith obviously must be on any list. What do we call the zeal with which people uncritically embrace a political philosophy such as Nazism or even Neo-Conservatism/Dominionism in our own time? Wouldn't that be political faith? Shouldn't we define a scientific faith which equates mere high probability with certainty? Perhaps we need to distinguish blind faith from "rational" faith where the consequences transcend personal values.  While the individual is justified in having faith in anything which gives him any sort of perceived benefit he chooses, collective faith promoted for the common good demands a more careful evaluation of its larger social, economic, political, health and general life satisfaction implications. The promotion of any belief system which works to the disadvantage of any other group requires the most stringent costs-benefits analysis from the perspective of the entire world family. (Please note costs and benefits are not limited to the economic aspects.) Every form of belief is likely to have winners and losers from this larger perspective. Limiting the perspective to one religious denomination or one nation or one political party guarantees non-optimum results for humanity as a whole.
Which is better: Believing in guardian angels or believing that you will live longer on a balanced diet? Does believing in Santa Claus do us any harm? Does it do us any good? If evil scientists tomorrow proved once and for all that there is no god, would those who continue to have faith that their God will protect them be better off than those who do not? Is it wrong for a medical doctor to represent a "sugar pill" as a powerful miracle drug with a fantastic success rate? Would believing these kinds of falsehood be evil? Is it wrong to assure the terminally ill cancer patient he is making progress towards recovery? Is it wrong for an atheist to "pray" for the recovery of someone they love? 
Reality is a Figment of your Hallucination. What is the relationship between love and faith? Do our beliefs interfere with our ability to see others as self?
The outrageously outspoken Russell captures the essence of the atheist's view of faith: "To hold it important that people should believe something for which there does not exist good evidence falsifies everyone's thinking. It is a complete moral heresy; this educating people to believe certain things apart from the question of whether they are true or false... Those people who feel that they must have faith or they can't face life at all are showing a kind of cowardice which in any other sphere would be considered contemptible." Bertrand Russell 
Challenge Authority. No Fear.

Evolution has selected for religious faith along with most of the other traits exhibited by human beings. Ken Livingston at Vassar College has spent his life studying the evidence for this assertion.

What does the example of Marjoe (the child evangelist) teach us? What can we learn from the examples of religious fakes? How about faith healing; Christian Science, new thought churches, mind-body medicine, masses of people reporting the same miracle?
Michael Persinger 
"A Neuropsychological Basis for God Beliefs

offers what amounts to a Grand Unified Theory to explain all manner of religious and paranormal belief systems. Unlike other skeptics, who simply attack the beliefs themselves, neuroscientist Persinger cuts to the heart of the matter, showing us how the brain, human evolution and human psychology predispose us to believe in the unbelievable.

Melvin Morse M.D.

Deep right temporal lobe and associated limbic lobe structures are clearly linked to human religious experiences of all types, including conversion experiences and near death experiences. Simply because religious experiences are brain based does not automatically lessen or demean their spiritual significance. Indeed, the findings of neurological substrates to religious experiences can be argued to provide evidence for their objective reality.

I speculate that our right temporal lobe allows humans to interact with a timeless space-less "non-local" reality. The clinical experience of accessing that reality is an important component in religious experiences. The existence of such a reality is predicted by modern quantum theoretical physics.

Such a theory has value in that it provides a theoretical explanation for many well-documented phenomena which currently exist outside our current theoretical scientific model. I will review its implications for a better understanding of two of them, remote viewing and mind-body healing.

Reference photo: author
 August 2002

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