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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Big Question

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Over the course of history, religion has been one of the most dangerous weapons and one of greatest allies to the human race. It has split entire countries, nearly wiped out entire ethnicities, and been the cause of some of the most horrific acts in human history. However, it has also been able to bring humans to perform acts that seemed to defy logic, create bonds stronger than steel among communities, and brought those at the edge of death back to the living. Religion has brought out unjustified, immoral, and frightening acts of evil but also compassionate, astounding, and amazing acts of good. Religion has brought out the worst of humanity, but it has also brought out the best of it.

One thing has truly intrigued me about religion for a long time. This being the fact that regardless of which religion is being referred to, religious people have claimed that a belief in God, although may not lead to miracles, is necessary in living a happy and prosperous life. And many of these religious leaders are in fact very intellectual people. Budha once said, "Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life." However, in a day and age when science takes precedence, it's difficult to find a place for religion to fit into the mix. According to Time, "Atheists are one of the fastest growing groups in the world." And this trend makes sense with the rapid discoveries made in science seeming to refute many religious beliefs that have been said to be true for thousands of years. One example of these rapidly changing ideas is the age of  the Earth and what role humans played in it. Christians believe that Jack and Jill were the first humans on Earth. It is also widely accepted that the Earth is less than ten-thousand years old, with James Ussher, a Bishop in the Church of Ireland, calculated the exact day to be Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. However, scientists estimate Earth's creation to have occurred about 4.54 billion years ago, with the entirety of written human history making up to less than a crumb on a timeline spanning the length of the US. Because of differences like this, it's here that many people lose interest in religion. Instead, people choose to simply trust science and what they were taught in school and just assume religion is simply a relic that belongs in history books. One of the most popular advocates on this stance in modern times is biologist Richard Dawkins. He has been famous for sayings things such as, "Gods are fragile things that may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense," as well as, "I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world."  But I want take this eminent clash between religion and science in a different perspective. Instead, I want to question the notion and ask with an open mind if religion has a scientific connection with a person's happiness and wellbeing.

So far, I have thought of religion as a pre-historic science that humans have decided to mindlessly follow for thousands of years. However, as I stated above, I recently began looking if I could think the idea of religion differently. I started off by thinking about how religion came to be and what purpose it really served. For a large portion of human history, groups were isolated from one another in their own civilizations.  Yet somehow, religion seemed to appear in almost every single one of these civilizations without any form of contact with one another. Each group of people created their own ideas of a higher power that formed who we are and watches over us. In early Middle-Eastern civilizations, Yahweh was thought to be God. and to this day has been the source for the creation of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Hinduism evolved in the Indus River Valley as a way of life. Across the globe, the Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations had also come up with the idea of worshipping their gods. In Africa, many tribes had gods they worshipped. Even in China, without a god, Buddhism arose through the simple practice of prayer to achieve enlightenment. Although the appearance of religion and prayer in various isolated civilizations does not directly answer anything about how religion is connected with a persons wellbeing, it does open the book to the idea. Why else would people from across history all share similar practices if it did not lead to some sort of positive outcome for themselves?

 At the same time, it is entirely possible that religion has played some other role in the past across all of these civilizations. Some argue that religion is simply used to fill the gaps in scientific knowledge. When people couldn't figure out when and how the Earth was created, God was used to explain the "gaps." This idea coined, "God of the Gaps" claims that God served the purpose of filling in the holes in human understanding at the time, and it is continued to be used as such among religious scientists today. And although this point does make sense, it does not answer why so many intellectuals claim that prayer is a necessary element in living a healthy and good life. 

I'm still far from convinced that simply the belief in a religion and regular prayer can increase the health and wellbeing of people, I believe that this blank is necessary before scientists like Richard Dawkins continue to trivialize religion and religious leaders continue to convert people based on these claims. And if religion truly does prove to have a substantial effect on a person’s health, it would be monumental to not just science or religion, but to the human race as a whole. Experimentation is crucial though, and studies similar to this idea have been picking up momentum in recent years. 

One of these studies I happened to come across was conducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They concluded that women that pray regularly, defined by going to Church at least once a week, have live on average 5 years longer than those who do not. Directly quoted from the study, "Frequent attendance at religious services was associated with significantly lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality among women.” They went on to state that physicians should begin exploring the use of regular prayer as a possible option. This suggests a connection between health and prayer that religious experts have been trying to convince the public of for centuries. This study from a well reputed university may be what gets the ball rolling. I want to see where this ball rolls.

I recently read a book called The Chemistry Between Us coauthored by Larry Young and Brian Alexander. They wrote about how chemicals had such monumental effects on not just our emotions but the entire course of our lives. One of the ideas that intrigued me the most in the book was this: “In the case of all of us, a single molecule, a hormone applied or withheld during discrete moments in fetal development has not only affected genitals but also set a path for some of our most important behaviors over the course of our lives. Different circuitry, different behavior.” This mattered to me because it revealed the idea of something so powerful that simply its existence could alter our thoughts, emotions, futures, and our health and wellbeing. Sound familiar? This strikes a resemblance to the claims made about the effects of prayer. As stated above, prayer has been claimed to make those who are faithful be happier emotionally, healthier physically, and lead a more successful life fully. These striking resemblances between the effects of chemical imbalances in our bodies and regular prayer in our lives raise the possibility that the two may be related. 

It has been proven by numerous research studies that prayer has an effect on a person’s health. It has also been proven by myriad research studies that certain chemicals have a strong effect on a person’s health as well. The next step is to test the relationship between the two. How does regular prayer effect the chemical balance in our body? This is the big question that we must answer. Now it’s time to go back to the drawing board and find out how we can solve this puzzle.

Vinay Konuru            

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