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Hope, Trust, and Religious Faith

In the 1990s, religious Americans embraced science’s re-definition of spirituality. They would be unwise to repeat this mistake.

· 10 min read
Hope, Trust, and Religious Faith
A Catholic nun visits patient in a ward packed with tsunami victims at the Vavaniya General hospital January 5, 2005 in Vavaniya, Sri Lanka. Photo by Paula Bronstein via Getty Images.

What is religious faith? The question never mattered to secular people, and even the religious people I’ve met never seemed to care all that much. Some of them tell me faith is all about hoping for a reward in the next life, or trusting in forces one cannot see. Others describe faith as a philosophy and a way of life. Both seem happy to put the question on the back burner.

But today the question matters. A big chunk of modern life is spent in activities that provide us with vivid sensations during our empty hours. Modern life has increased the number of these empty hours with its inventions and machines; at the same time, it has increased the number of inventions and machines to help us experience vivid sensations during our empty hours—video games, virtual reality (VR), and artificially intelligent (AI) apps. For these technologies to work they must inspire hope and trust in their customers.

A new science of hope and trust has emerged in their train. To the degree that faith is all about hope and trust, the new science gives religion and entertainment technology a common basis. This gives science a chance to control religion by presuming to explain its most fundamental principle.

The new science of hope

In 2001, Dr. John Hopson, a video-game expert who trained as a psychologist, employed behavioral psychology to explain the formula that video games use to please customers. To enjoy play, customers must hope for a reward.

Every video game, according to Hopson, has contingencies, or a set of rules, for when the reward is given, including “ratios” and “intervals.” A ratio schedule offers a reward upon completion of a certain number of actions. For a rat in a cage, that might mean getting food after pulling a lever five times. For a video-game player, it might mean earning an extra game after killing five monsters. In an interval schedule, the reward comes after a certain amount of time has passed. A rat might get food automatically every 30 minutes, while a video-game player might get an automatic power-up every 30 minutes. Whatever the setup, it is always the same formula: some hoped-for reward follows from some action or time interval and cements the desired behavior. For the video-game maker, that desired behavior is a customer playing hard and playing forever.

Hopson’s model can be applied to antidepressant therapy, as 80 percent of such therapy works through the placebo effect—in other words, through people’s hope and belief in their therapy. Video gaming promotes a reward system called an “avoidance schedule,” where video-game players spend their time trying to prevent bad things from happening, so that even during the game’s quiet moments they can achieve something positive by postponing any negative consequences. This keeps them engaged. Similarly, patients on antidepressants wait for the moment when they can take their pill. In the meantime they perform certain housekeeping functions advised by their doctor, such as going to bed on time, or taking regular breaks from their computer, thereby preventing bad habits from worsening their depression. This makes patients feel actively engaged in their therapy during the downtime. It keeps them on the therapeutic track. It keeps them “playing the game.”

Neuroscience has tightened the link between video-game play and antidepressants. Brain dopamine levels reportedly rise during video gaming, mimicking the action of certain antidepressants. This dopamine rise is informally referred to as the “dopamine loop.” In 2014, Stanford scientist Robert Sapolsky refined that loop. He observed that when monkeys hear the signal to perform an action to get food, their synaptic dopamine levels increase—not when getting the food, but when hearing the signal. “Dopamine isn’t about pleasure. It is about the anticipation of pleasure,” he said.

In other words, dopamine is about hope. Dr. Sapolsky observed that if a monkey gets a signal to perform an activity, but knows the food reward will only come half the time, the monkey’s dopamine levels increase even more dramatically than when the food reward is guaranteed. Going from certainty to mere probability excites the monkey. The monkey’s commitment to whatever activity is needed to get the reward goes up a gear.

Hope is pleasurable, whether in video gaming or antidepressant therapy. In video gaming, a player slays a monster, which raises dopamine levels, but dopamine levels rise even more when the monster is around only half the time and slaying it becomes uncertain. In antidepressant therapy, a patient who knows that antidepressants work in only 30 percent of patients might grow excited by the possibility that he or she could be one of the lucky ones, causing an even greater dopamine surge when taking the pill. As the new science of hope gives antidepressants and entertainment technology a common basis, video-game play has even been cited as a possible treatment for depression because of its neurotransmitter effects. Playing a game for 30 minutes a day for 30 days has been found to be effective therapy.

To the degree that religious faith is also about hope—hope for some reward, either in this life or the next—it is but a short step to explaining faith along similar lines. Faith-as-hope relies on dopamine loops and a reward system to make people happy. Anticipation of some miracle or glory to come cements the desired behavior. In religion’s case that desired behavior is people believing hard and believing forever.

The new science of hope has already begun to absorb religion. Several studies tie religious devotion to elevated dopamine levels. More precisely, they tie hope, or the religious “quest for unexpected rewards,” to dopamine surges. Relevant neuronal circuitry reportedly exists in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, where “religion and science actually meet,” according to one neuroscientist.

In the burgeoning field of “neurotheology,” meditating Buddhists and praying Catholic nuns reportedly exhibit increased activity in their frontal lobes. These same areas of the brain are linked to planning and the ability to project into the future—in other words, to hope. In another study, religious devotion has been shown to activate the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities. Video games and VR fall under the same category.

Some religious believers welcome science’s efforts to put religious faith on a more rational basis. But their efforts risk turning religion, entertainment technology, and antidepressants into something all of apiece. If faith is about hope—and dopamine—then video gaming, antidepressant therapy, and religion are all connected. A rat doesn’t hope for much. Depressed people hope for more. Religious people who equate faith with hope, and who seek a reward that lasts an eternity, hope for even more. The new science views all three as basically the same.

The new science of trust

The placebo effect works in antidepressant therapy because patients trust their pill and the doctor who prescribed it independent of whether the pill has any active drug effect.

Virtual Reality (VR) technology uses the placebo effect for its own purposes. In the 1990s, primitive VR animation helped to distract people from their pain during their burn dressing changes. But the thinking behind VR evolved. Instead of VR just distracting people, VR proved more effective if customers truly believed themselves to be in another reality—that is, if they trusted the other reality to be real. In one experiment, a scientist showed that a full 3D immersion in a truly lifelike virtual world blocked people’s pain more effectively than if they were merely distracted by a primitive 2D version. Immersion in a 3D virtual world that a person really wanted to be in brought even more pain relief.

A new science of trust emerged around these observations. In the first stage, as in the science of hope, neuroscience tied technology to antidepressants. Studies showed that immersion in VR increased dopamine levels in the brain’s mesolimbic pathway. It also increased levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the thalamus, where pain signals are modulated, and where anti-anxiety drugs like Valium work. Other studies showed that endorphins, the body’s natural opioids, increased during immersive VR, and mimicked the effect of real opioids. Although VR itself is not pharmacologically active, scientists united it with antidepressants through a common neurotransmitter action.

In the next stage, neuroscience tied the placebo effect to neurotransmitters and brain electrical activity. The placebo effect reportedly led to measurable changes in the brain’s frontal lobe, where belief plays out. The effect was also associated with changes in the autonomic nervous and neuroendocrine systems. Brain scans, MRIs, and EEGs showed predictable changes when people trusted in placebos.

With VR tied to antidepressants through a common neurotransmitter action, and with both VR and antidepressants tied to the placebo effect, which itself was tied to brain activity, a new science of trust emerged. VR, antidepressants, and the placebo effect were explained through the common language of neuroscience, which allowed any of the three areas to be analyzed in terms of mutually understandable components. This language could also be extended to cover new areas—including religion.

And it was. The new science of trust began to incorporate religious faith. For instance, trust in the miracle of Lourdes, where Saint Bernadette had a vision of the Virgin Mary, reportedly correlated with an increase in gray matter volume in the temporoparietal junction, a brain region associated with belief. The miraculous water at Lourdes was tied to neuroscience through the placebo effect. When people were given tap water but told it was “Lourdes water,” their brains on imaging showed increased connectivity between the anterior insula and the posterior cerebellum, a brain region that processes belief. The study’s authors confidently extrapolated their findings to encompass all religions, observing that not just Christianity but also Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism promote the idea of blessed water.

Other studies have tied religious belief to changes in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex. On a biochemical level, both the placebo effect and religious belief are associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Another study has tied both religious belief and the placebo effect to an increase in the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Some religious people welcome these studies as a way of putting religion on a firmer—meaning more scientific—footing. History suggests they are unwise to do so.

A mistake repeated

In the 1990s, religious Americans made a serious mistake when they embraced science’s re-definition of spirituality. Before then, spirituality was very much like faith, in the best sense of that term. It meant having a life philosophy connected to one of the major religions. Spirituality was rational and sensible. It consisted of a general truth so ingrained in people’s minds that it made their behavior almost unthinking and reflexive. Most importantly, spirituality was an idea. For example, it elucidated one’s obligation to others as well as one’s purpose in life. It was neither supernatural nor abnormally intense. It meant knowing something rather than feeling something.

During the 1990s, neuroscientists redefined spirituality as a kind of funny feeling. They saw it as similar to the sensation one has while half-asleep, looking at the world through a dreamy haze, and most susceptible to suggestion. It is why much of their work on spirituality would be performed on those who meditated or performed yoga. As with so many other feelings, including happiness and unhappiness, neuroscientists quickly tied this “feeling” of spirituality to neurotransmitters, demonstrating an increase in dopamine and serotonin during so-called “spiritual moments.” They also used neuroimaging to show increases in blood flow in certain areas of the brain during these moments, especially in the frontal and temporal lobes.

Much of organized religion went along with the change, as science had also shown that being spiritual might confer health benefits. Many religious leaders, barely concealing an inferiority complex, jumped at the chance to work with doctors and scientists, and show how religion could do something productive in the modern era. Yet this redefinition of spirituality cut spirituality off from religion and people began to imagine being “spiritual but not religious.” No longer an idea, spirituality ceased to be connected to any specific system of ideas; instead, it became a sensory experience filled with ecstasy and altered states of consciousness. In the early 2000s, more Americans began to call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” especially in casual conversation and on dating site profiles. Today, more than a quarter of Americans think of themselves this way, an increase of eight percentage points in just five years.

These people go through life with a distorted understanding of spirituality. They believe spirituality is the heady sensation one enjoys while hoping or searching for something, rather than the moment of repose that follows from simply knowing something. They search for awesome experiences, trances, and a feeling of oneness with the universe, ignoring the seemingly humdrum—but more essential—philosophy of life that religion provides.

This same mistake is now being repeated with faith. Faith is not simply hope and trust. Yet this is how science has defined it, at the very least because it makes it easier for science to study it. It is also how some religious people define it, thus sparing science the hard task of having to re-define faith on its own. The repercussions for religion are serious. To the degree that religious faith is about hope and trust, religion will increasingly become an object of study for science. Science will “explain” religious faith, just as it explained spirituality. As a mere research interest within science, religion as a guide to how to live one’s life—the alternative definition of faith—will be dismissed as mere eccentricity.

Years ago, at the Catholic hospital where I worked then, I overhead a student nurse ask an elderly Catholic sister what faith was. The student nurse expected to hear about visions or vivid personal encounters with God, but the sister, who was a nurse herself, said nothing and told the young woman to simply dress the patients’ wounds, give them their medicines, listen to their complaints, and clean their beds. A month later the student nurse asked the same question. This time, the sister told her that faith was nothing more than doing what she had been doing, with love and patience.

For the sister, faith was an idea, a system by which to live, a behavior that flowed naturally from her understanding of her position in the universe and that elucidated certain aspects of life for her, including how to act toward others. As religious faith turns more on hope and trust, some believers will seek an alternative means of demonstrating their faith, including surrendering their reason, and hoping and trusting in invisible things, as this young nurse hungered to do, just as some believers demand hypnosis, states of altered feeling, and out-of-body experiences as evidence of their spirituality.

If science succeeds in separating faith from religion, many Americans will imagine themselves being faithful without being religious, just as they imagine themselves being spiritual without being religious. Already science makes the distinction between “religiosity” and “religion.” Most of science’s measures of religiosity focus on intensity of belief, such as how often a person prays and how hard—in other words, how hard they hope and trust. Such intensity can easily be separated from religion altogether, applied to non-religious phenomena, and form the basis of its own category. In the future, more Americans will say, “I have religiosity but I’m not religious.” They will have faith tied to no particular religion.

When people equate faith with hope and trust, their faith moves between great anticipation, a pledge of loyalty beyond reason, and a desire to feel pleasure while believing that feeling is all. Such dramatic states of mind are grist for scientific study, no different from the excitement felt during video game play or the misery felt during depression. Science has already drawn religion into its fold through its aggressive study of spirituality. Drawing religion in further through science’s aggressive study of faith risks religion’s dignity, ethos, and purpose. Safer for religion—and more rewarding for its believers—if faith is defined not as hope or trust in the unseen, but in terms of banal everydayness, as a particular attitude toward carrying out life’s most humdrum tasks.

Ronald W. Dworkin

Ronald W. Dworkin is an anesthesiologist and political scientist. He has taught in the George Washington University Honors program, and is the author of four books and numerous magazine essays.

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