Believers go on rack to prove God relieves painBy Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent
January 12, 2005
The Times - Britain
Top neurologists, pharmacologists, anatomists, ethicists and theologians are to examine the scientific basis of religious belief and whether it is anything more than a placebo.
Headed by Baroness Greenfield, the leading neurologist, the new Centre for the Science of the Mind is to use imaging systems to find out how religious, spiritual and other belief systems, such as an illogical belief in the innate superiority of men, influence consciousness.
A central aspect of the two-year study, which has $2 million (£1.06 million) funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the US philanthropic body, will involve dozens of people being subjected to painful experiments in laboratory conditions.
While enduring the agony, they will be exposed to religious symbols such as images of the Virgin Mary or a crucifix. Their neurological responses will be measured to determine the efficacy of their faith in helping them to cope.
The aim is to develop new and practical approaches “for promoting wellbeing and ultimately maximising individual human potential”.
The pain experiments will be conducted under the direction of Toby Collins, who has a background in marine biology and the nerve systems of invertebrates. He said that many people in pain turned to faith for relief. Some looked to religious or secular healing systems.
He said that the experiments would involve non-invasive simulation of burns and will be conducted according to strict ethical rules. As they suffer, the human guinea pigs will be asked to access a belief system, whether religious or otherwise.
Dr Collins said: “We will simulate a burn sensation to see how people, through distraction or by accessing different strategies, can modulate and reduce the levels of pain.”
John Stein, a neuroscientist from Oxford’s physiology department, said: “Pain has been central to a lot of problems that religious and other thinkers have concentrated on.”
Professor Stein said that people differed widely in the extent to which they felt pain. “What we want to do is correlate that with their underlying beliefs.”
The study is considered of vital importance in the present world climate, given the role of religious fundamentalism in international terrorism. A better understanding of the physiology of belief, the conditions that entrench it in the mind and its usefulness in mitigating pain could be crucial to developing counter-terrorist strategies for the future.
Scientists have long been baffled at the persistence of these beliefs in the face of seemingly irrefutable logic. Professor Lewis Wolpert, the biologist, has speculated in the past that a belief in how the world was created and what happens after death may have conferred an evolutionary advantage.
The new centre will investigate how people form belief and how the mind works in relations to belief. Scientists will examine what causes people to change their beliefs, and how this affects the mind. Lady Greenfield, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Oxford and director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain in Mayfair, Central London, said: “To the best of my knowledge, this centre will be the first of its kind in the UK, if not in Europe. It brings together equal numbers of academics from the humanities and the sciences, approaching the same problem.”