Category Archives: Psychology

The good things in life aren’t from God

I have often heard Christians describe certain things in this world that are pleasing to humans as “gifts from God.” Some examples include music, the beauty of nature, and the comfort and companionship of animals. These things, they say, are good for us and make us happy, and therefore we should be grateful to God for them. In fact, the existence of these things is evidence for God, for what are pets and flowers and symphonies if not indicators that God loves us and wants us to be happy?

Well, to answer that question, let’s take at look at exactly how these phenomena are beneficial to humans.

Modern research has shown that (pleasant) music is intrinsically rewarding –  like food or sex, it stimulates dopamine release in reward centers of the brain. Pets, as you’ve probably heard, are good for our psychological wellbeing and cardiovascular health. One study followed adults who had been victims of heart attacks, and found that after one year the adults who owned dogs had significantly lower mortality rates than those who didn’t. And nature, research has shown, has a positive effect on our ability to concentrate and deal with stress. One study even found that having a view of nature helped hospital patients recover more quickly after surgery!


Scenery that has a positive effect on wellbeing.


Scenery that doesn't.

So all of these things do indeed increase wellbeing. But the other side of the coin is that without them we are less healthy and less happy. Consider the hospital patients who didn’t have exposure to nature after their operations – those patients had longer recovery times and required stronger pain medication. Consider the adults who didn’t own dogs in the heart attack study – after one year these people were more likely to be dead than their dog-owning cohorts. None of these are favorable outcomes. Clearly, the factors that contribute to human wellbeing aren’t “optional extras” in our lives – they’re absolute necessities if we want to remain as happy and healthy as possible.

And here’s the thing- God made us this way. God made us so that we couldn’t be calm and focused and healthful while surrounded by concrete walls and desolate landscapes. He made us so that we would be at a greater risk of death simply for not having a dog in our lives. He made us so that certain patterns of sound are pleasant, whereas others make us miserable or set our nerves on edge. To call these things a gift is to imply that God gave them to us with the message, “Here, I want you to be happy.” But at the same time God made us dependent on these things for our happiness. Why should my wellbeing be dependent on something as changeable as the particular patterns of light that fall on my retina?

Just think of what life could have been! God had the ultimate say in how he created the universe. He could have made every flash of light a sunset, every sound an Ode to Joy, every touch a caress… How wonderful that would have been! Imagine if the monotonous, dreary walls of an office were as pleasant and invigorating to us as our favorite natural setting. That would have been a gift!

Yet this gift is something humans were decidedly not given.

I imagine at this point some theists will rebut that life cannot be one long uninterrupted joy. That we need both joy and sadness in order for either to have any meaning. If that’s the case, I hope these people do not also believe in heaven – because they’ve just refuted it.

Ultimately, the explanation for why we have innate preferences and aversions is because evolution made us this way. Preferences are a way of motivating us to seek out things that are beneficial to our survival (such as a savannah-like natural environment). Life isn’t one long stream of uninterrupted joy, because evolution had no need to make us that way. And God, if you think he exists, saw no need to give us anything better. That’s not to say that we must be despondent about our lot in life – on the contrary, there’s plenty to be happy about. But if our lives are wonderful it’s because we work hard to make them so. God doesn’t get the credit for that.

First image credit: ahp_ibanez
Second image credit: Michael Lokner


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Filed under Atheism, Evolution, Psychology, Religion, Science

The science of guilt and pain

I recently came across a scientific paper, published back in January, demonstrating a psychological connection between guilt and pain. Many organized religions seem to draw on just such a connection, and this fact is what led researchers to test the phenomenon scientifically.

The original paper, called Cleansing the soul by hurting the flesh, is only two pages if you want to read it (though it is behind a paywall). For those who don’t have access, an article at The Economist does a very good job of summarizing the experiment and the results. Basically, the experiment found that participants who were primed to feel guilty by writing about a time when they behaved unethically were more likely to seek out pain than the control group, and report their guilt as having lessened because of it.

So it does seem that pain can assuage guilt. The authors of the study discuss their findings:

Pain has traditionally been understood as purely physical in nature, but it is more accurate to describe it as the intersection of body, mind, and culture. People give meaning to pain, and we argue that people interpret pain within a judicial model of pain as punishment. Our results suggest that the experience of pain has psychological currency in rebalancing the scales of justice—an interpretation of pain that is analogous to notions of retributive justice. Interpreted in this way, pain has the capacity to resolve guilt.

Indeed, humans not only seem to seek pain out when they feel guilty, but also feel the need to punish others with pain when they have transgressed.

People are socialized to understand pain within this judicial framework. Physical pain is employed as a penalty (e.g., spanking children for misbehavior), and unexplained pain is often understood as punishment from God. The judicial model is explicit in the Latin word for pain, poena, which means “to pay the penalty.” Understood this way, pain may be perceived as repayment for sin in three ways. First, pain is the embodiment of atonement. Just as physical cleansing washes away sin, physical pain is experienced as a penalty, and paying that penalty reestablishes moral purity. Second, subjecting oneself to pain communicates remorse to others (including God) and signals that one has paid for one’s sins, and this removes the threat of external punishment. Third, tolerating the punishment of pain is a test of one’s virtue, reaffirming one’s positive identity to oneself and others.

Religion takes advantage of all three of these – pain as a show of remorse, pain as an absolution, and pain as a demonstration of virtue.

While the connection between pain and guilt seems to be a real one, the question I would ask is, does focusing on it bring any benefit for humans or human societies? After all, guilt can also be assuaged by seeking forgiveness, attempting to right wrongs of the past, and accepting that one has made a mistake and trying harder the next time to do the right thing. These are all good things, and actually serve as a redress of harm – contrary to the infliction of pain, which serves mainly as a way of taking revenge on those who have wronged us.

When seen in this light, pain seems to be the least helpful or ethical way of dealing with unethical behavior. In focusing on pain, religion seems to be more concerned with fulfillment of our baser human desires for retribution and revenge than in making human societies any happier, healthier, or freer.

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Filed under Crime and Punishment, Morality, Psychology, Religion, Science

Altered Consciousness

I just read Sam Harris’ post from a few weeks ago entitled Drugs and the Meaning of Life. Harris makes several good points regarding drugs and altered consciousness – it’s a good read. I’d just like to highlight how this topic ties in with scientific understanding of “religious experiences.”

Religious people will often claim to have subjective experience that corroborates their metaphysical claims. “I can feel God in my heart”, and all that. We know that altering the chemistry of the brain can cause people to have mystical or numinous experiences, feelings of having transcended normal consciousness or reality, and so on. Brain surgery can cause this, as well. Therefore, one cannot use these religious experiences as evidence that their religion actually is true, when they very well could be illusions caused by certain states of the brain.

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Filed under Psychology, Religion, Science