Images on the altar,
Or imagined within:
We pray to them,
But do they answer?

The wise tell us how important adoration is. So we kneel before altars, give offerings, and make sacrifices. In our meditations, we are taught to see gods within ourselves and to make supplications to receive power and knowledge. This we do with great sincerity, until the masters say that there are no gods. Then we are confused.

The statue on the altar is mere wood and gold leaf, but our need to be reverent is real. The god within may be nothing but visualization, but our need for concentration is real. The attributes of heaven are utopian conjectures, but the essence of these parables is real. The gods, then, represent certain philosophies and extraordinary facets of the human mind. When we devote ourselves to gods, we establish communion with these deeper aspects.

The thought that we are worshiping symbolism may make us uncomfortable. We are educated to accept only the tangible, the scientific, and the material. We doubt the efficacy of adoring the merely symbolic, and we are confused when such reference brings about genuine person transformation. But worship does affect our feelings and thoughts. When the wise say that there are no gods, they mean that the key to understanding all things is within ourselves. External worship is merely a means to point within to the true source of salvation.

Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao

Some scientists have begun exploring the links between the brain and religion. In “The God Gene”, Dean H. Hamer discusses his findings about brain chemistry and religion:

What he found was that the brain chemicals associated with anxiety and other emotions, including joy and sadness, appeared to be in play in the deep meditative states of Zen practitioners and the prayerful repose of Roman Catholic nuns — not to mention the mystical trances brought on by users of peyote and other mind-altering drugs.

At least one gene, which goes by the name VMAT2, controls the flow to the brain of chemicals that play a key role in emotions and consciousness. This is the “God gene” of the book’s title, and Hamer acknowledges that it’s a misnomer. There probably are dozens or hundreds more genes, yet to be identified, involved in the universal propensity for transcendence, he said.

Certainly spirituality and religion has inspired much of the world’s great architecture, art, music, and other areas of creativity. It also has inspired wars, hatred, and destruction. Clearly there is a powerful link between religion and spirituality and the way it affects our thinking.

Perhaps it is the process of worship that provides the chemicals the brain needs in order to function, or perhaps the brain inspires the feeling of the religious trance that is attributed to god. For me, it was always the music that led me to feel most spiritual in church. Singing choral music or listening to it is very pleasurable for me, and can lead me to a rapturous state of mind.

But I also had a very rapturous experience when I went crazy, and I’ve had them when I’ve had sex, so perhaps the areas of the brain that control all these things are related. Maybe religious people get so hung up on sex because they experience those rapturous feelings during sex – or maybe because they don’t and become jealous that others do?

Religion has to be seen as more than a mythology, but as a pathway to something else that is deeply spiritual and so transformative. Those who have no interest in transformation, only in the security of their own belief system, miss the point of connecting yourself with a higher power and a deeper way of life — the need to learn to be more aware of yourself and the world around you, and more compassionate to other beings.