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Are We Predisposed to Believe?

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

It’s the holidays. Hanukkah has started and Christmas is nearing. With them come shopping, gift giving, greeting cards, celebration, music, games, decorations and the mythical figure of Santa Clause. Christmas trees, menorah’s, lights, and garlands line streets and decorate stores.

But are the holidays about all the celebrations and customs of our culture, or are they about religion, spiritual belief and prayer. Does God make miracles for those who stand up for truth and justice? Was a baby born in a manger and visited by angels and wise men?

According to an article in the December 2010 issue of the Monitor on Psychology, religion has survived and thrived for more than 100,000 years. Psychologists have tried to understand the underpinnings of religious belief and why religious beliefs are so enduring.

The article summarizes research in neuroscience and psychology that is finding that religion has endured by helping us form increasingly larger social groups. These groups are held together by common beliefs~ religious beliefs.

Although scientists have not found any one thought process that underlies religious belief, they have found that even young children tend to believe that aspects of our world were created with purpose. Adults also tend to search for meaning and may be primed to see patterns in the world around them.

Researchers believe that this predisposition to believe may have been adaptive, an “unavoidable byproduct of the way our minds work.” So are we predisposed to believe? The answer seems to be yes. Is religion, then, simply an adaptive tool? The field of psychology doesn’t have an answer to that question.

Most religious thought is no different, neurologically, than everyday thinking. Contemplative prayer and meditation are the exceptions. Richard Davidson, Ph.D. has measured brain activity of Buddhist monks using both fMRI and EEG. His findings show that meditation- and possibly contemplative prayer- can change the circuits in the brain.

Many psychological treatments ignore the role of religion and spiritual belief, some, like DBT, incorporate mental exercises designed to improve the regulation of emotion and attention, which are similar to contemplative prayer and meditation found in most religions. Although psychology is not going to provide answers about the baby in the manger or miracles, we might choose to take the view of Thomas Plante, PhD, who sees our increasing understanding of religious thought as a way to see ourselves as “more whole.” Rather than viewing opposing camps of science or religion, according to Plante, we can see ourselves as “whole people; the biological, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual are all connected.”

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