A recently published study in the journal Social Neuroscience demonstrates that religious and spiritual experiences activate the same reward systems of the brain as feelings of love, emotional responses to music, and doing drugs. As CNN’s Jacqueline Howard describes, researchers took MRIs of nineteen devout young adult Mormons while showing them religious videos, reading them Scripture, and asking them to pray. The tests showed that the areas of the brain associated with rewards, moral reasoning, and focused attention all lit up when the participant reported experiencing spiritual feelings. While further tests are needed given the relatively small and homogenous nature of the group, the results are quite interesting.
Perhaps Karl Marx was on to something when he wrote, “Religion is the opium of the people.” Of course, Marx would go on to say, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness,” so he didn’t exactly hold spirituality in high regard. His basic point, however, was that religion serves a comforting purpose for people, even if it wasn’t real.
While any devout believer, regardless of their religion, would likely dispute that last part, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people throughout time and across the globe have sought solace in their faith. God wired us that way for a reason. True faith often requires a great deal from those who claim it. Jesus, for example, was clear that following him means dying daily to ourselves and making his priorities our own (Luke 9:23). That’s not something we, as fallen and finite creatures, are going to do unless we perceive there to be some greater benefit to it. As the one who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs and carefully fashioned every fabric of who we are, God knew that we would need that incentive in order to consistently follow him (Psalm 139:13).
Unfortunately, our faith is not the only thing that can stimulate those rewards. There are often easier, more immediately gratifying ways to get those same feelings than reflecting on God. As the study showed, drugs, good music, and love of others can accomplish a similar, albeit more fleeting, purpose. Those things can get us close enough to the real thing to seem sufficient but will always leave us feeling just unsatisfied enough to yearn for something more.
As Augustine noted, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” If anyone would understand that truth, it would be the man who spent the first thirty-plus years of his life trying desperately to find the fulfillment for which he longed in women, academics, and false faiths.
You see, God created us with both the innate desire for and need of him. We were never meant to do this life apart from a relationship with the Lord, and he crafted us in such a way as to reinforce that fact. We can ignore it and try to meet that need with other things, but nothing will ever compare to the joy and peace that come from knowing and following him. Has your heart found that rest today?