How God Changes Your Brain

Andrew New­berg; Mark Robert Waldman
  • Review
By – December 22, 2011

These three new books all ini­tial­ly appear to take a util­i­tar­i­an approach to God, embod­ied by the un-Kennedyesque title of the first, What God Can Do for You Now. Robert Levine, rab­bi of Rodeph Shalom, a large Reform syn­a­gogue in New York City, lost his faith as a teenag­er because of the idea that God might be respon­si­ble for injus­tice. He now believes that suf­fer­ing and injus­tice don’t dis­prove God’s exis­tence, because God wants a rela­tion­ship of shared respon­si­bil­i­ty” with us. By giv­ing us free will, writes Rab­bi Levine, God per­ma­nent­ly dimin­ished His omnipo­tence, if He ever had it, about which Levine is uncer­tain. Levine also believes that the Bible some­times mis­rep­re­sents God, and he is uncer­tain whether Abra­ham exist­ed. Argu­ing for the up-until-now polem­i­cal­ly-deprived reli­gious mid­dle-of-the-road, Levine stri­dent­ly attacks both fun­da­men­tal­ists (espe­cial­ly Chris­tians) and athe­ists for pro­mot­ing what he sees as a sim­i­lar­ly false view of God, while writ­ing admir­ing­ly at length about Jesus (as a man) and Mohammed. He also con­demns what many con­sid­er trendy Kabal­is­tic trin­kets such as red rib­bons, and dis­miss­es pop­u­lar new age doc­trines like The Secret.” Levine believes that prayer works and mir­a­cles still hap­pen; mar­vels at the uni­verse and human exis­tence; sees evi­dence for God in the con­tin­ued exis­tence of the Jew­ish peo­ple; believes in evo­lu­tion and that it need not be at odds with reli­gion; and advo­cates find­ing a God-con­cept that one is com­fort­able with (so long as it isn’t a fun­da­men­tal­ist con­cept) because build­ing a rela­tion­ship with God makes a cru­cial dif­fer­ence in our lives. Mid­dle-of-the-road­ers with spir­i­tu­al yearn­ings and doubts who are turned off by appar­ent­ly easy abso­lutist answers will enjoy this book.

In Jew­ish Med­i­ta­tion Prac­tices for Every­day Life, Recon­struc­tion­ist Rab­bi Jeff Roth makes a less com­bat­ive case for med­i­ta­tion as a Jew­ish prac­tice. Roth is the cofounder of Elat Chayy­im, a Jew­ish med­i­ta­tion retreat cen­ter in upstate New York. This book is rich with charm­ing and illu­mi­nat­ing para­bles, both clas­sic and orig­i­nal. Roth has explored var­i­ous New Age ther­a­peu­tic modal­i­ties, and orig­i­nal­ly embraced Judaism via the teach­ings of Rab­bi Zal­man Schachter Shalo­mi in the 1970’s. Jew­ish med­i­ta­tion, accord­ing to Roth, is dis­tin­guished by focus­ing on becom­ing God-con­scious and real­iz­ing that every­thing is God and noth­ing but God.” He explains how to med­i­tate Jew­ish­ly — focus­ing on breath­ing and on the Hebrew let­ters of God’s name, among oth­er tech­niques. Through med­i­ta­tion, he tells us, we can become more aware and mind­ful, devel­op con­cen­tra­tion and focus, and learn to dis­so­ci­ate our­selves from our thoughts, which can help us react to sit­u­a­tions more effec­tive­ly and bring us clos­er to God. This is a well-writ­ten book with a warm tone that will par­tic­u­lar­ly appeal to Jews who have sought their spir­i­tu­al sus­te­nance in the reli­gions of the East and in New Age practices. 

Unlike Rab­bis Roth and Levine, nei­ther author of How God Changes Your Brain is a the­ist. Instead, as sci­en­tists, they study how belief in God, med­i­ta­tion, and prayer affect people’s brains and lives. New­berg is a neu­ro­sci­en­tist and a radi­ol­o­gist, and Wald­man is a ther­a­pist. Both work at the Cen­ter for Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and the Mind at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia. Their var­i­ous stud­ies and those of oth­ers have shown that reli­gious and spir­i­tu­al belief and prac­tice per­ma­nent­ly change the brain’s struc­ture, and enhance cog­ni­tive process­es and psy­cho­log­i­cal, phys­i­o­log­i­cal, and social well-being, val­i­dat­ing the­ists and med­i­ta­tors like Levine and Roth, and con­tra­dict­ing the con­tentions of best-sell­ing athe­ist authors. Accord­ing to New­berg and Wald­man, prayer and med­i­ta­tion, even absent belief in God, are pow­er­ful tools for cul­ti­vat­ing com­pas­sion, which is, in their words, what the book is about. These prac­tices are also help­ful for avoid­ing anger, which they see as humanity’s great ene­my.” They feel that only author­i­tar­i­an” reli­gion pos­es a neu­ro­log­i­cal dan­ger because it pro­motes anger, guilt, fear, and intol­er­ance. Unlike Rab­bi Levine, how­ev­er, they acknowl­edge that fun­da­men­tal­ists” can be good, tol­er­ant peo­ple, and they observe that fre­quen­cy of atten­dance at reli­gious ser­vices strong­ly cor­re­lates with longevi­ty. This fas­ci­nat­ing book includes ben­e­fi­cial med­i­ta­tion exer­cis­es that are not con­tin­gent upon belief in God.

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