Essay / Culture

Atheism and the Empty Glass

Recently I engaged in a public debate with UCLA neuro-scientist Jeffrey Schwartz. The topic was the mind/brain debate and the evening turned out to be a more of a love fest than an antagonistic battle because Schwartz—one of the world’s very top brain scientists—and I were in almost complete agreement. We both argued that the mind or soul is real, immaterial, and different from the brain. Moreover, we both claimed that consciousness is in the mind not in the brain, and that the mind can cause things to happen to the brain and vice versa. We also agreed that free will is not only real, but obviously so. Indeed, those who take the time to tell you that free will isn’t real are assuming that you have the free choice to listen to them and change your views accordingly!

Regarding free will, years ago Schwartz took brain scans of obsessive-compulsive people who engaged in repetitive hand-washing rituals. They all had a very distinctive, abnormal brain configuration. Schwartz then told the patients to do something for a few weeks and come back: Ever time they felt the compulsion to wash their hands, they were to exercise free will, choose to think different thoughts (for example, “I don’t need to wash my hands; a little dirt isn’t going to kill me”), and repeatedly practice this. When new scans were performed, all the patients had different and normal brain configurations. Lesson: By exerting free will, the mind can change the physical structure of the brain.

Subsequently, Schwartz has done experiments in which people’s brains are monitored as they watch videos of carnage at automobile-accident scenes. The anxiety center of the brain goes wild. Then he tells them to pretend they are paramedics who must make snap decisions of whom to treat first and what to do. When showed the same scenes the anxiety center remains calm. One can alter one’s brain and its role in facilitating anxiety, anger, and so forth by changing how one thinks and adjusting one’s perspective. Here was Schwartz’ punch line: People who see the glass half full regarding their lives are healthier, happier and more functional than those that don’t. And, he said, Christian theists who have a background belief that God is real, good, and caring will have a leg up on those without such a belief.

Clearly, what a person believes at a deep and pervasive level has an incredible impact on the sort of person one becomes and how one handles life. And the single most important component of a person’s deep belief-structure is his/her answer to “What comes to you mind when you hear the word `God’?”

This is why, all things being equal, atheists are a dysfunctional lot. Studies have suggested that the more secular one is, the more one has difficulties in health, sleep, sexual satisfaction, mood and disposition. And if Bill O’Reilly is correct that the left is increasingly filled with secular progressives, we have one explanation for why they seem to be such a troubled, angry lot. After all, it’s hard to see a glass half full when there’s No One there and nothing with which to fill it.

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