Reading Time: 4 minutes

Sofia Carozza seems like a very nice, very smart, very genuine young woman, reaffirming for me once again that religious true believers are usually, if not always, exceedingly good people — as is generally true for all human beings, in my experience.

Ms. Carozza, a senior at estimable Notre Dame University, is currently double-majoring in theology, along with neuroscience and behavior. She also writes a blog — nerdily but charmingly named Synapses of the Soul — for the Patheos Catholic hub.

The title of her blog kind of tells you where she’s coming from, that she believes there’s some type of material connection between the synapses of the mind and the unlocatable and ethereal netherworld of a person’s purported “soul.” The permanent problem is there is no material evidence that the “soul” in Catholic doctrine exists or that it can connect with a body.

A logical disconnect

It’s a kind of logical disconnect that religious-but-also-scientific-minded people have wrestled with for eons, although today very few actual scientists believe that a soul actually exists. But, back in the day many did, such as French philosopher and proto-scientist Rene Descartes, who spent an inordinate amount of his prodigious brain power trying to explain how the real and apparently nonexistent can exist simultaneously.

What he came up with was the inventive if completely unsubstantiated concept of dualism, whereby human bodies are animally animated by their biology and spiritually animated by their assigned souls. Each is separate, with souls wafting about in the ether communicating wirelessly, as it were, with their more down-to-earth charges.

Making religion ‘rational’

Many centuries after the then-novel practice of science began to emerge primarily with astronomers in the Middle Ages after ancient Greek secular philosophies were rediscovered, the history of philosophy was deeply distracted for ages by people trying mightily to make religious ideas seem rational.

You could hardly blame them because then, as now, if religion were to be convincingly deemed unreal and irrational and, well, imaginary, the whole spiritual enterprise might come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho. Imagine if all the things that religious people adore and worship were suddenly proven to be completely made up.

Medieval Christian leaders faced that dilemma when the God-doubting heresies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle began to bubble up again in European societies after being lost in scattered monasteries and rich men’s libraries for a thousand years after the collapse of Rome.

The rise of Scholasticism

A whole subgenre of Christianity then emerged called Scholasticism, which was basically apologetics, or very complex but specious arguments, explaining how Christianity and ancient but lionized secular philosophy were completely consistent with each other.

As if.

Unfortunately, by that time, Christianity had already saturated much of Europe and its ideas were deeply interwoven, so to speak, in the DNA of the populace. Also, the monolithic institution of the Catholic Church controlled every aspect of day-to-day life and death, perpetuating faith by coercion and tradition. So a little extra proselytizing and explaining by the clergy was all it took to keep the illiterate masses from questioning anything too deeply. You could be pious and scientific at the same time, the faithful were told.

Except you couldn’t.

Yet, we’re still at it, as is Ms. Corozza as she tries to put a shiny scientific patina on the whys and wherefores of Christian faith.

‘Your Brain on Prayer’

In her post this week titled, “Your Brain on Prayer,” she explains with a reasonable tone and nice prose style that there seems to be compelling scientific corroboration that prayer and divinity are not mutually exclusive, that both may just maximize the other’s actuality.

Most of Corozza’s post is spent itemizing the many ways that prayer benefits people: it activates the same brain regions as talking to a loved one, provides comforting psychological and biological changes (lower blood pressure and heart rate, improved moods, increased hormone production, etc.), and reduces pain. And she says studies show that religious prayer outperforms secular meditation in these areas (which makes sense, considering in meditation you try to empty your mind, not fill it with God).

I don’t argue with any of that. I suspect anyone who believes their fervent wishing may very likely bring results will probably feel pretty good while they’re doing it. Just as guys often feel pretty good when an attractive woman they meet at a bar seems to be “making eyes” at them. It may not be true, of course (and rarely is), but hope springs eternal if you’re a true believer. And any young woman whose met a guy on the make three drinks gone at a bar knows exactly what I’m talking about.

The prayer effect

Carozza tries to explain how prayer’s wonderous effects work:

“Regular prayer boosts the activity of the anterior cingulate cortex. This is a part of the brain implicated in affection, compassion and empathy. It also decreases activity in the parietal cortex. Ordinarily, this cortex is activated when you’re thinking about yourself, suggesting that prayer helps you feel ‘at one’ with the Lord. Finally, striving to be united to God’s love increases the activity of the frontal lobe, the rational area of your brain responsible for higher-level thought. This shifts activity away from your lower-brain, responsible for emotions and more basic instincts.”

Thus you theoretically can find yourself in a sublime state.

I don’t argue that we humans cannot self-alter our brain chemistry through conscious thought, meditation, prayer, deep longing, or even a five-mile run. Plus, psycho-active drugs and a few beers can achieve virtually the same effects, which begs the question of what’s actually going on here biologically. For instance, I never did LSD in college, but nearly every one of my friends who did reported feeling “one with the universe” during their trips.

So, rationally speaking, it seems more likely that the effects of prayer occur (how they subjectively feel, not what they objectively achieve) as a byproduct of natural human capacities, not the result of any link with supernatural beings and realms.

As always, there’s simply no evidence for phantoms. But the faithful seem bound and determined to find some, with what appears to be virtually zero probability that they ever will.


Please sign up for my new post notifications (top right). Shares, likes, comments appreciated!
saudi arabia memoir
Cover image of “3,001 Arabian Days.”

Now on Amazon!

FYI, my newly published memoir — 3,001 Arabian Days — is now available in paperback and digital formats on Amazon, here. It’s the story of growing up in an American oil camp in the Saudi Arabian desert from 1953-1962. Hope you enjoy my memories of a fascinating and foundational experience.

Avatar photo

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...