The Science of Spirituality
"Nowadays, many people know something about the limbic system. They've heard of the amygdala, a part of the system that's important in making experiences salient and memorable, especially those involving fear. They've heard of dopamine, one of the limbic system's key neurotransmitters, because it's associated with addiction. But what happens if we say, as Thomas Insel, the head of the National Institute of Mental Health, did, Hey, our ancestors didn't shoot dope and still they had this elaborate capacity to be addicted. Maybe it was for some other reason. Maybe that's what attachment is about—the attachment that lets your 5-year-old be a real pain, and yet you still love her to pieces. I would add that this is the kind of attachment that gets projected onto the Virgin Mary and the Buddha.
"Parents smiling with their child, playing games, cuddling, reading together: All of these do the same thing that deep meditation and praying do, which is to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure.
"Until you had religion that said love and compassion were more important than sacrifice, guilt, and fear—it wasn't until you had that, that any city could survive. All of the world's great cities self-destructed until you had this shift in how you used religion—from ritually supporting negative emotion to ritually supporting positive emotion.
"Positive emotions work better than negative emotions in an evolutionary sense. The forgiveness of the Marshall Plan led to a much safer Europe than the retributive justice of the Versailles Treaty. Ideas supported by positive emotions have a survival power that ideas built on negative or greedy emotions don't. And yet you have to be patient to see this. If you look just at the past 2,000 years, it's easy to complain about how awful things are.
"Of course we can blow ourselves up, or global warm ourselves out of existence. But I think without any question the world is evolving toward the good. In Europe the homicide rate in the late 20th century was 2 percent of what it was in the 13th century. Over two centuries, Europe's approach to Africa has been to replace slave traders and empire-building evangelists with nongovernmental organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam. Only in the past century have nations—yes, even the U.S.—spent more of their gross domestic product on healthcare than on defense.
"A friend of mine said that if Buddhism is too good to be true, the Enlightenment was too true to be good. But all joking aside, the realms of science and emotion, or science and religion, aren't incompatible or at war with each other; they're just in different parts of the brain.
"Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris aren't wrong in saying that religion is dangerous. Religion can be dangerous. But the rituals of the world's great religions are the most reliable way to a conscious focus on positive emotion. It's not unlike automobiles, according to Ralph Nader. Yes, cars are terrible, and they do awful things, but they've also been an immense boon to the world. The trick is learning to handle them better."