Book Review: Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth
by Rich Deem

Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and TruthAndrew Newberg, professor of Radiology and Psychiatry, has written (along with Mark Robert Waldman) a sequel to his book, Why God Won't Go Away. The new book has strengths and weaknesses, but, should be of some interest to those who have an interest in spiritual matters and human behavior. The book is primarily written to address the question of how the brain works so that we arrive at what we believe to be true. Neither author is a Christian, as can be evidenced from the many jabs directed at Christians and Christianity scattered throughout the book.1 However, the book cannot be said to be non-spiritual, since New Age and Far Eastern religions seem to receive little or no criticism (co-author, Mr. Waldman seems to be into New Age type spirituality), and are actually endorsed.2 Likewise, atheists may not be entirely comfortable with the content, since it clearly challenges their cherished belief that that have no beliefs.

Even with this viewpoint bias, the first two parts of the book ("How the brain makes our reality" and "Childhood development and morality") are nothing less than fascinating. The topics are broad, so a lot of details are not included (especially supporting studies), although doing so would have increased the length considerably. Even so, I would have preferred more details and citations and a little of the controversy, which must be present in such a complex field. One gets the distinct impression that the results are not quite as neat and tidy as presented, and one wonders if studies that do not support the premises are omitted as a form of viewpoint bias or just to save space.

A particularly interesting chapter entitle, "Ordinary Criminals Like You and Me," strongly supports the Christian doctrine that we are all sinners - something that non-Christians tend to reject out-of-hand. However, Newberg presents numerous experiments (many of which would be considered unethical today) that demonstrate that the vast majority of individuals will do extremely immoral acts, given the right conditions. For example, if enough people (planted experimental confederates) go along with a lie, test subjects will do likewise. In another study, participants "electrocuted" a "student" who was a "poor learner." Studies simulating prison conditions showed that the "officers" (experimental subjects) routinely mistreated the "prisoners" (also experimental subjects). In other experiments, subjects would usually act in selfish ways, rather than take the moral high ground. Newberg suggests that barring interception by our frontal lobes of our brain, all our actions would be immoral and selfish.

The book's third section, spiritual beliefs and the brain, presents Newberg's latest (and earlier) functional brain scan results on religious people. Previously, Newberg had studied the brain activity of Buddhists practicing meditation and Franciscan nuns practicing "centering prayer," a Roman Catholic method of meditating deeply on a specific biblical passage or concept. These results had shown similar patterns of brain activity for those meditating on "becoming one with the universe" or "inner peace" (Buddhists) and those meditating on God or the Bible. Both groups showed increased activity in the frontal lobes (primarily the prefrontal cortex), which represents the "attention area" and decreased activity in the parietal lobes (the "orientation area"). Each group interpreted their experience on the basis of their beliefs (e.g., inner peace for the Buddhists or God's presence for the nuns). In this book, Newberg added a third group - Pentecostal Christians who "speak in tongues." When analyzed, the brain scans showed increased activity in the thalamus (as in Buddhists and nuns). Speaking in tongues also resulted in high activity in the temporal lobes (involved in making emotions) and in the midbrain (probably resulting from the activities of speech and dance). Like Buddhists and nuns, Pentecostals represent a small percentage of the American population (probably only about 1% of Americans claim to speak in tongues). Newberg presented one case (not exactly a scientific sampling) of a spiritual atheist. Like the Buddhists, he practiced meditation, and presented with a brain scan similar to the Buddhists and nuns (though the actual scans were not shown in the book).

Also noteworthy was the finding of asymmetric thalamic activity in the Buddhists, nuns, Pentecostals, and even the one "spiritual" atheist, which is not found in the vast majority of people. The question arises whether these people are born with this asymmetry, resulting in the ability to play these mind games or whether the continual practice of the games themselves lead to the asymmetry. None of Newberg's studies were able to address these questions. An even more fundamental question concerns the rest of us, who lack the asymmetry, but still believe. Maybe none of these studies really tell us anything about the kind of religious belief that most of us exhibit, since all the groups chosen for study represent extremely small minorities.

In conclusion, the book is well-written and compelling, although the obvious biases of the writers will probably annoy most Christian readers. The topic is complex and experimental design is difficult at best. Future studies will likely shed more light on this subject.

References Top of page

  1. Page 88: "In the Beginning, God Created Opposites"
    Page 172: "...the nuns who participated in our study believed that God would be quite pleased that we were taking an interest in prayer. They emphasized that no matter what the finding were, these findings would no shake their faith in God. The Tibetan perspective is different; when the Dalai Lama was asked what he would do if scientific studies invalidated his beliefs, he smiled wryly, saying, 'I'd simply change my beliefs!'" [although to my knowledge, he has not disavowed reincarnation of the universe, despite science's evidence to the contrary]
    Page 202: "in the practice of fundamentalism, the worshipper, by mediating exclusively on a single religious text makes the text seem absolutely true. And this reality becomes embedded in the fundamentalist's brain." [no citation given to support this assertion]
  2. Page 14: "However, a few respected theoreticians and physicists believe that it is impossible to separate consciousness from the physical world, and that a profound interconnectedness exists between all aspects of the organic and inorganic world. For example, the Gaia hypothesis..."
    Page 42: "intuition allows us to comprehend what the senses cannot perceive...These processes can enhance our lives by allowing us to circumvent the conceptual errors embedded in logic, reason, or personal opinion. Intuition, creativity, and spiritual practice may all provide better means for apprehending reality and truth more accurately."
    Page 240: "...religious people tended to trust others more, including the government, and were less willing to break the law, However, they also tended to be more racist, showed less concern for the rights of working women, and expressed greater tolerance of other religious groups. Buddhists, by the way, showed the greatest tolerance toward others."
    Page 93: Buddhist meditation attempts to teach practitioners how to accentuate holistic awareness by temporarily suspending the processes of logic. In comparison, western religious practices tend to be more reductionist, often applying causal reasoning and logic to build theology... Does holistic thinking offer a more accurate or integrated view of the world? [goes on to describe a "proof" consisting of doctors analyzing brain scans better than a computer, not questioning whether it could have been due to a deficit in the programming of the computer - a more likely explanation]
Last Modified September 20, 2006


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