The Neuroscience of Falsehood / Unbelief
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
While much could be said about different types of belief or nonbelief, I would like to focus on one point. That one point is about how our faith either draws us into believing into and for the purpose of God or not. Paul wrote that “the wages of sin is death”. As we have seen with the neuroscience is that the wages of sin are in fact death. The truth becomes internalized in us and through us. If we live in sin then sin lives in us. If we bring sin into the world then we invite others to live in sin. We invite them to believe into and for the purpose of sin and falsehood. In their book How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman detail how the “thalamus makes no distinction between inner and outer realities, and thus any idea, if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality”.[i] Our personal and societal myths of falsehood become more true to us than reality because our brains become conditioned to see unreality and then try to convince the world that it is true. Just two examples of myths not based in reality that people try to impose on others are sexism and racism.
On a further point regarding falsehood, research at Harvard on fMRI imaging also found that those who act dishonestly show greater activation in the nucleus accumbens. This is a part of the basal forebrain that plays a part in our reward system. Prolonged focus on reward versus honesty can cause these circuits to promote higher levels of greed and lying. Continued lying, when someone is not caught, will decrease the emotional threat that the amygdala will register. As the discomfort of lying diminishes, the internal mechanisms to put on the breaks will disintegrate.[ii]
Another important point about falsehood is how Jesus was very upfront about the sin of keeping children from knowing the love of God. He said to let the little children come to him. As discussed earlier, the love or lack of love and secure attachment with parents to children can produce false projections of how God relates to us. Without love and healthy connection, children often grow to be adults projecting the same disconnect onto God that their parents shared with them. An angry or abusive parent will often draw a child to believe in an angry and abusive God. An anxious or avoidant attachment might also draw an anxious or avoidant relationship with God. We are to love one another and to love God. We owe it to our children to teach them healthy and secure attachment so that they do not project a false reality about God onto their future. We can believe into and for the purpose of God by submitting our will to the will of God. For God is love.
A final point about falsehood and unbelief that we can invite both atheists and ourselves to consider is this: Our world is a very broken place. There is much suffering. With our knowledge of the immensity of space, both believers and atheists can agree that the very fact that we exist and have consciousness is something exquisitely extraordinary. We can agree and believe together in the awe and wonder of our existence. It is an enormous falsehood not to work together with people who are different from us. With this extraordinary truth in mind, how will we work together to bring love, joy, and kindness to the world and overcome trauma and suffering?
[i] Newberg and Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. 55.
[ii] Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Complicated Relationship with the Truth,” National Geographic (June 2017): 47.