My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Monday, 8 October 2012

Where Science and Religion Meet?

'That’s a question for a neurotheologian.'
'Meaning what?' he asked.
'Meaning precisely what it says. Somebody who thinks about people in terms, simultaneously, of the Clear Light of the Void and the Vegetative Nervous System.'

Aldous Huxley, Island, 1962

I have been exploring the interface between science and religion in the last couple of posts here. Let's continue with this theme: Aldous Huxley was credited with first envisaging neurotheology as a philosophical construct, in his novel Island.
This exciting new discipline, sometimes called spiritual neuroscience, is the scientific attempt to correlate neural phenomena in the brain with subjective spiritual experiences. Is there a neurological and evolutionary basis for the spiritual and the religious?
Dr. Andrew Newberg is a pioneer in this research. In his work, which has included brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and various trance states, he has shown that spiritual experiences do indeed involve a neurological process, which can be traced through brain activity. This of course could lead to a conclusion that God is 'all in the mind.' But Newberg is quite clear from his own rigorously conducted scientific experiments that spiritual experiences are not 'in any way less real to the brain than any other information it receives and processes, including perceptions of the material world and everyday life.' (1) We cannot, he rightly claims, trust one without trusting the other.
But what is all this to do with religious tolerance, you may ask.
Work of doctors such as Dossey and Koenig who are recognizing a further healing dimension in medicine beyond the body and brain, and the ideas of scientists such as Radin and Newberg are, I believe, incredibly important in helping us gain an understanding of a further dimension in religion beyond the dogma and doctrine. There is a massive overlap between the phenomena described by the scientists and the power of prayer, meditation and healing for example in a religious or spiritual setting. But there is still a great deal of prejudice against these views, particularly those where the focus is specifically on religion, rather than on a more generalized concept of spirituality. I believe we need to get over these prejudices, and fast! Ideas such as those I have described in this series of posts have a deeper significance, for building religious tolerance. Why? Because there seems to be the potential for finding so much common ground between the findings of scientists and doctors such as Newberg, Byrd, Dossey and Koenig on the one hand and the spirit and power of prayer, meditation and spirituality in any religious setting, on the other, whatever our faith or religion or creed. Eternal life, the power of prayer and meditation, distance healing; latest science is surely lending support to such beliefs, not destroying them?
It would be extreme to say that religions need reinvention, but they certainly need to change, to adapt to a changing world. They need to return to their spiritual roots, to learn again how to cater for our spiritual needs. But perhaps they also need to bridge the gap with science, be receptive to what latest science is showing us. Perhaps we can begin to understand religions better through the latest consciousness studies; religions should possibly no longer ignore the evidence for many supernatural phenomena, such as out of body experiences, non-local healing, and so on. Maybe they need to tap into what many who call themselves spiritual but non-religious intuitively know already; we are all interconnected at some level of consciousness or spirit or energy level.

Are we on the cusp of recognizing with new eyes the link that has always been there but has been lost in the digital noise of the last few decades? Perhaps it will be such a link that in the end will help to bind all religions, faiths and spiritual philosophies together, help us all understand and respect each other, feel a deep mutual empathy, without in any way destroying the basic tenets of each faith? Newberg is attracted very much to this possibility. So am I.

As Proust observed, 'The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.'

(1) Newberg's research is discussed in some detail in John Drane's (2005) book, Do Christians Know How to be Spiritual? The Rise of New Spirituality and the Mission of the Church, Darton, Longman & Todd, London and Norwich

Adapted from Why Religions Work: God's Place in the World Today © Eleanor Stoneham 2012

Monday, 1 October 2012

Prayer and the Paranormal

In my last article I wrote of the science of the paranormal, with a promise to link this with prayer.
For this I need to go 'outside the box' and to 'stick my neck out', in an outrageous mixing of metaphors!
I think it quite plausible that scientific studies on consciousness, near death experiences, out of body experiences etc. are getting very close to discovering what the religious call the soul. Such studies also have obvious similarities with the religious idea of there being life after death. Not only that, I also find them broadly compatible with the thoughts of the great mystics, and with many of my own beliefs within the Christian faith.
So let's take this subject of prayer. The new atheists love to mock anything that they see as pseudo science and a favorite target is intercessory prayer, or praying for other people. Dawkins in his The God Delusion specifically sneers at what he calls The Great Prayer Experiment. This took place in 2005/2006 in various American hospitals, amongst 1802 heart patients, who were either prayed or not prayed for, who knew or didn't know about the experiment, and where the usual blind/double blind controls were set up. Dawkins gloats that this didn't give, as he says, the result the Christians wanted! This he takes as yet more proof that there is no God. Some critics would say that it is hard to see that prayer produced for such an experiment could be genuine, and God is hardly likely to view with favor his people testing His ability to answer prayer. Of course Dawkins would say that we would say that!

In fact prayer experiments go back quite a way. In his book Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing, Larry Dossey relates the story of Byrd, a devout Christian and a cardiologist at the San Francisco General Hospital, who in 1988 was struck by a conversation with a colleague about a terminally ill cancer patient. All medical avenues had been exhausted and the physicians really did not know what else they could do for the patient. We could try prayer, said Byrd. Thus began the prayer study that has inspired so many subsequent experiments into non-local healing phenomena. The scientifically designed and double blind trials produced more positive responses in those groups of patients who were prayed for, when compared with the control groups. Yes the sample was small and the statistical interpretation of the results controversial, but Byrd’s work was a catalyst for physicians such as Larry Dossey who was interested in exploring the spiritual questions of medicine within wider parameters beyond the known interaction of mind and body. And this set a whole train of experiments in motion. So much so that there is now a very considerable body of research that when it is all brought together into what we as scientists call a meta analysis of the data shows overall the considerable positive contribution that Christianity and other religion makes to a positive well being amongst its followers: higher self esteem, happiness, life satisfaction, less anxiety, less substance abuse, more children, and so on. But Dawkins and the new atheists generally would rather not know about that!

As I've said before, the initial knee-jerk reaction of many to advances in scientific knowledge was to abandon religion as being irrelevant to humanity that now thought it knew better. But there is increasing support for the belief that science and religion can no longer be regarded as totally incompatible and these consciousness studies sit somewhere on the interface between the two. There have also been exciting developments in research into the connections between mind and brain and religious or spiritual experiences. Not surprisingly much of the current research in such areas comes from the medical world as here there is easier access to the laboratory facilities, especially the brain scanning technology that is so often a part of the work, and a ready supply of patients to volunteer for the experiments! Empirical and scientifically measurable studies on spiritual tools such as intuition, dreams and stories of coincidence, alongside prayer studies, provide a sound foundation for those who believe that medicine can be imbued in some way with spirit. Of course it is understandable that many may be skeptical about prayer experiments on human beings. Quite apart from objections already raised above, they may point out, quite justifiably, that the results can be affected by the subjects’ own positive thinking, or by them praying for themselves, for example.

So in response to the critics Dossey used mice, yeast cells, barley seeds and human tissue cultures in his experiments, to eliminate such bias. In his book Reinventing Medicine (2000) he relates stories of such experiments, devised to see if prayer or other healing intention had any effect on the subjects chosen. As far as possible he used conditions and analyses as stringent as any employed in traditional drug trials. In one such experiment, for example, mice were measured for their ability to heal from a deliberate wound made on their backs. The subjects were divided into three groups. The group that was exposed to the attentions of a healer showed a statistically significant healing rate above that of the group looked after by inexperienced medical students with no interest in healing, or by the control group. Similarly, it has been shown that yeast cells respond with an increased growth rate to the attentions of spiritual healers when compared with the attention of those disinterested students. It has to be assumed that mice and yeast cells are incapable of imposing their own bias to the experiments! Inspired by his belief in faith's healing power, and by personal experience Harold G. Koenig has spent many years studying the impact of people's religious life on their physical and emotional health. He shows how prayer can very definitely help people come through serious afflictions and improve the outcome of many illnesses. He relates many such stories of hope and inspiration in The Healing Power of Faith, which he later followed up with The Healing Connection: The Story of a Physician's Search for the Link Between Faith and Health. Are all these studies bringing explanations to what humankind has known intuitively throughout his time on earth? That we are spiritual beings first and foremost, with empathic and spiritual interconnectivity at the level of consciousness? But we are allowing these wonderful possibilities to be crowded out by the superficial, the inane and the trivial in our lives. Facebook may be a valuable tool for human connectivity at an exoteric level, but it cannot surely provide any meaningful substitute for the esoteric spiritual experiences, within our 'deeper level of consciousness,' perhaps at the level of the Holy Spirit?

Adapted from Why Religions Work: God's Place in the World Today © Eleanor Stoneham 2012