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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Science Speaks to Holy Week

Some 100,000 years ago, according to archaeological excavations, the Neanderthal people buried their dead, apparently with some ceremony. Graves have been found containing tools and weapons, thus equipping the departed for whatever journey lay ahead for them. Some 60,000 years ago, in a different part of the world – Iraq, actually – a specific young man was laid to rest on a bed of flowers; a modern-day scientist discerned this by analyzing quantities of pollen dust found among the debris surrounding the grave.

So what we in the Church do this Week in commemorating the death and resurrection of our Savior is a version of a practice that goes back to the earliest days of humanity. One writer says, as soon as groups of hominids began to behave in a human-like way, with social structures and pottery and tools, they began to have ritual. They understood something about death and, moreover, they had conjured ways to cope with it. This was not just in one small village in Africa, but across the expanse of Asian plain and throughout Europe.

Religion has remained part of every society; it is universal. It is part of being human, a topic I found myself exploring in recent months as part of learning about evolution and the gifts of Charles Darwin. Evolution, as a field of study, asks what characteristics of people’s lives (or the lives of any animal or plant or institution) have helped them survive and helped them reproduce. For humans, religion is one; among its benefits, recent studies show for example that people today who follow religious practices are in fact measurably healthier than those who don’t.

Further, a person’s experience of God can now be “seen” in “pictures”; we can see that religion is literally part of being human. Here is one such picture.

It is a pair of SPECT images of the brain; the red areas indicate electrical neural activity. These “before” and “during” images show that some neural activity is diminished during meditation. The reduction occurs in the specific part of the brain that facilitates someone’s ability to sense where they are and where the boundary is between themselves and whatever is around them. Thus, we actually lose ourselves during the most intense moments of our meditation. It can be said that we merge into the presence of God.

The scan here is a Tibetan monk. The scientists conducting this work found similar patterns in Franciscan nuns who allowed their prayer to be studied.

We worried here a couple of months ago as we contemplated Darwin about whether the progress of science had harmed religion. Some argue that it has. But science can also be a tool that helps us understand and visualize the mysterious. Some argue in return that such pictures detract from the meaningfulness of our prayer or contemplation. On the contrary, I think, seeing these things and having the means to see them gives us greater light into the wonders of our being and our God.

May this wonder stay with you over these holiest of days.

Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion and Conflict”, Chapter 8 of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters. New York: A Perigee Book by the Penguin Group, 2007. The whole book is an introduction to evolutionary psychology, the companion field to evolutionary biology which elaborates on social connections through the ages.

Andrew Newberg, MD, Eugene D’Aquili, MD, PhD, and Vincent Rause. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. See the brain diagrams on pages 4 & 19, and also Newberg’s website,, where the color picture above is found. This eminently readable book – and manageable, at 234 pages – shows how brain processes contribute to the development of religion out of myth-making and ritual.

Michael Shermer. How We Believe: The Search for God in the Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2000. We’ll see Mr. Shermer again in his recent The Mind of the Market, a similar brain science discussion of financial market behavior.

James Shreeve. The Neandertal Enigma: Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1995. Pp 52-54.

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