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Finding comfort, in religion and rationality

columns Updated: Jun 08, 2013 23:11 IST
Sanchita Sharma

British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, who predicted the existence of a subatomic particle that gives mass to matter 40 years ago and had the Higgs boson named after him, wants people to stop calling it the “God particle” because he doesn’t believe God created the particle holding the physical fabric of the universe together.

The phrase, popularised by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman’s bestselling The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? was meant as a joke, but Higgs does not find it funny. For Higgs, like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, is an atheist.

Atheism is often referred to as the world’s fastest growing religion, largely because an increasing number of people in developed countries are describing themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Since the concept and definitions of atheism vary, it’s difficult to put a number on atheists worldwide, but the trend is clear: faith and belief in God declines wherever the quality of life improves.

Atheism, argues Nigel Barber in Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky, is a security blanket that gives hope to the deprived. If you give them money instead, people forget religion and get their fix from drugs, alcohol and entertainment.

Studies have consistently supported Karl Marx’s political idea of religion being an opiate of the masses, helping believers to cope with stressful events which, over time, cause a host of health problems, from heart disease and clinical depression and sleeplessness.

Last year, the University of Toronto proved faith was an effective stress-buster by hooking up electrodes to measure activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain involved in emotion control, while a group of believers and non-believers underwent a test. Results showed the religious experienced less anxiety during the test and when they made mistakes. The stronger their religious zeal, the lower their stress in response to errors, reported the journal Psychological Science.

Belief in science and rationality offers the same calming benefits to an atheist under stress, report psychologists from the University of Oxford this week in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This adds to growing evidence that under stress and/or with advancing age, people fall back to the comfort of their worldview and become more rigid– conservatives become super-conservative, believers more devout, etc.

So, working at identifying our own worldview/eccentricity today can perhaps help us predict what we may turn into in a few decades.