Although I’m not advocating a particular religious doctrine, I do believe that our connection to something bigger than ourselves is what is missing from the secular communities. Granted, there are many secular communities that are rooted in spiritual values of integrity, compassion, and generosity. However, if the communities aren’t led by spiritual principles, they can easily become corrupt. This can be the case for religious, spiritual, and secular communities.
Our desire for community and our ability to embrace being alone rests in the center of our being. Where is its true north? Is it pointing to a superficial need such as wealth, sex, or power, or is it pointing to an all-embracing force that binds us all together?
I think Mahatma Gandhi puts it perfectly in his book, All Men are Brothers:
I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever-changing, ever-dying, there is underlying all that change a Living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates.
Whether it is God, Allah, Brahma, or The Force, a mere belief in a divine existence doesn’t automatically equate with well-being. God might be something you think about only on Sundays or during Christmas and Easter. If your relationship with God is relatively nonexistent, your well-being isn’t likely to be influenced one way or another.
Perhaps your belief that God is a punishing tyrant might have you running away from a spiritual life. This is often the case when people will choose spirituality over religion. They fear the God they learned in Sunday School, or they eschew people who judge them for not believing in what they do. In this case, your spiritual relationship can influence your well-being, depending upon the nature of the relationship itself.
If you have a healthy relationship with a divine presence, or you are open to it, it can contribute to your overall wellbeing. Studies have found that how meaningful this relationship with God is in your life can positively affect quality of life(1), reduce negative psychological outcomes(2), and alleviate depression(3).
The neuroscience research supports this. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman found that our concept of God activates parts of our brains, which can affect our physical and emotional health.
They believe that the “heart of the neurological soul” is the anterior cingulate, which is the part of the brain that balances your thoughts and emotions. When this is active, it suppresses activity in the part of our brain that governs our stress responses. It also makes us more aware and intuitive about our social environment.
If you believe in a punishing or fear-based God, then it can suppress this concern for others and increase anxiety, particularly if the religious community is dismissive of those who do not belong(4).
If your belief in God gives you comfort and intimacy, then it contributes to a healthy brain because it increases activity in the anterior cingulate. This occurs when you contemplate these concepts for an extended period of time, not just during a “quickie” prayer that holds little value for you personally.
In essence, it has more to do with “practicing what you preach” rather than any “evidence” of God. Although their research can’t determine the “evidence” of God, they believe your practice is what ultimately matters.
Intense, long-term contemplation of God and other spiritual values appears to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods, give rise to our conscious notions of self, and shape our sensory perceptions of the world. Contemplative practices strengthen a specific neurological circuit that generates peacefulness, social awareness, and compassion for others(5).
Although a belief in God is not necessary to enjoy solitude or even appease loneliness, it is important to endorse spiritual values such as compassion, peace, gratitude, and humility, just to name a few. Newberg also found increases in the anterior cingulate during meditating Tibetan Buddhists, who typically don’t believe in God but adhere to values such as compassion and generosity(6).
Certain contemplative practices such as meditation also reduce activity that differentiates us from the external world. Therefore, when we meditate, we feel more connected to the object of our contemplation(7).
My apologies for the sloppy reference/citation style. Wix still hasn't figured out a way for us to use superscript in our blogs, which is exceedingly frustrating.
1 Arora, I., & Khare, P. (2015). Spirituality and Quality of Life: A Study Among Members of a Spiritual Organization in Delhi, India. Indian Journal Of Health And Wellbeing, 6(10), 963-967. Retrieved from http://www.i-scholar.in/index.php/ijhw/article/view/147323
2 Gaskin-Wasson, A.L., Walker, K.L., Shin, L.J. et al. Spiritual Well-Being and Psychological Adjustment: Mediated by Interpersonal Needs?. J Relig Health 57, 1376–1391 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-016-0275-y
3 BOKAIE, M., & ENJEZAB, B. (2017). The correlation between Spiritual Health and Loneliness among Students in Shahid Sadoughi University of Medical Sciences, Yazd, Iran. HEALTH, SPIRITUALITY AND MEDICAL ETHICS, 4(4), 6-12. https://www.sid.ir/en/journal/ViewPaper.aspx?id=668576
4 Newberg M.D., Andrew. How God Changes Your Brain (p. 53). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
5 Newberg M.D., Andrew. How God Changes Your Brain (p. 29). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
6 Newberg, A., Alavi, A., Baime, M., Pourdehnad, M., Santanna, J., & d’Aquili, E. (2001). The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during the complex cognitive task of meditation: A preliminary SPECT study. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 106(2), 113–122. https://doi-org.dbproxy.lasalle.edu/10.1016/S0925-4927(01)00074-9
7 Newberg M.D., Andrew. How God Changes Your Brain (p. 7-8). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.