What motivates your belief in God

This is what happens to your brain when you stop believing in God

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When I was 16, I lost my virginity. I stopped going to church. I stayed outside longer than allowed. As a punishment for this, my mother made me memorize verses from the Bible, which I then simply prayed down. My belief in God didn't suddenly go away. No, it has slowly moved more and more into the background.

More and more young people no longer feel they belong to any religion. This loss of faith is a gradual process. Only one percent of Americans who were raised religiously and no longer believe in God attribute this to a one-off "crisis of faith". On the other hand, 36 percent became increasingly disaffected and a further seven percent said that their views had evolved.

It is like believing in Santa Claus. The psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Jaqueline Woolley have found that children no longer believe in the man with the white beard from one day to the next, but rather gradually. At first they think the man in disguise is real in the mall. Then they assume that he is at least in contact with the real Santa Claus. And so it goes on until at some point they realize that the costumes are only made up of paid actors. "Children don't just turn their beliefs off," says Goldstein.

I used to love the illustrated children's Bible my mother gave me. Jonah felt right in the belly of a whale. My brain was responsible for this feeling. When we enjoy religious or related experiences - such as reading the Bible with mom - then the reward system in the brain is activated. Over time, the religious beliefs themselves develop into rewards. And that subconsciously motivates us to keep believing.

"Religion works just like a drug - cocaine or meth, for example - like music or love," says Jeffrey Anderson, a radiology professor at the University of Utah who studies the effects of religion on the brain. "All of these things use the reward system. The process is the same."

When my colorful Bible became boring and childish for me, this reward system was no longer as active. Religious experiences produced less joy. This happens automatically in people with Parkinson's. In the disease, the dopamine-producing nerve cells die. Anderson also says that people with Parkinson's are more likely to turn away from faith.

Then at school I learned that humanity evolved over six million years - and not on the sixth day of creation. Ironically, it is the evolution of our brain that enables us to believe in religions in the first place. Most of the components of religious belief are stored in the most developed region of the brain - the frontal lobe. Perhaps that also explains why there are only religions among us humans.

For years I believed in both the creation doctrine with real God and the cold, scientific theory of evolution, in which I am insignificant. When we lose our faith, the previous attitudes in the brain don't just go away. No, they get an update - like a wardrobe: "Even if you turn your back on your religion or convert, you don't throw all your clothes in the trash and buy new ones," explains Jordan Grafman, a brain researcher at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and professor at Northwestern University. "You decide consciously what you want to keep and what has to go."

New beliefs end up in the same neurological framework as the old ones. It is even possible that an existing belief paves the way for additional views. Woolley found that children who already believe in fantasy creatures are more likely to believe in other creatures invented by the researchers. "I think that's because these children already have a foundation on which to build their new views," she explains. Sometimes these new views are similar to the old ones, sometimes not.

As I tried to balance my belief in God with my growing knowledge of the real world, I drew arbitrary boundaries. God couldn't watch me go to the toilet, but he always heard my prayers. Finally, I couldn't figure out how he was going to be able to do either.

This scientific departure is common. A 2016 study investigated why Americans no longer believe in God. "There is no place for religion in rational thinking", "There is no evidence of a creator" and "I now believe in science and not in miracles" were among the most common reasons.

But it's not just science that shakes our faith, but also the "packaging": The statements of other people influence what we believe and what not. And that is also true in a religious context. The psychologist Rebekah Richert has found that children who grew up in a religious household are more likely to believe a story if it is sold as a religious story. If that component is missing, however, then they see through the bluff.

This cultural framework changes during your studies. Suddenly you are relying on an analytical and scientific approach. There is hardly any room left for God. At parties, students discuss the negative and evil sides of Western religions. Friendships develop through mutual objections. "In the course of studies, you doubt your own more conservative ways of thinking and views in your brain," says Grafman. Our childhood beliefs fall by the wayside.

When we finally break away from religions completely, things continue differently. "The feelings that belief used to trigger in us now come from nature or through profound, scientific approaches," says Anderson. "The context is different, the experience is not." Most non-religious people are "very passionate about any worldview," said Patrick McNamara, a neurology professor at Boston University School of Medicine. From a neurological point of view, this passion functions as a substitute for religion.

My religious roots are overgrown, but not completely overgrown. And I hope that the higher being they stand for will watch me learn something new over and over again.

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