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Richard Schiffman

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How the Placebo Effect Proves That God Exists

Posted: 01/31/2012 1:18 pm

Recently I published a post on the physiological and psychological effects of prayer and meditation. The piece summarized some of the latest scientific research on how spiritual practices help to lessen stress levels and improve our health. So I was surprised when many of the comments on the article focused less on the substance of these findings than on the reputed sins of religion.

Some mocked the act of prayer as "childish behavior," "a primitive superstition" and "sending telepathic thought messages to an invisible being in the sky." Several people suggested that the effects of prayer were imaginary, or the results of what they called "the placebo effect." Others pointed out that any relaxation technique where one sits quietly and lets go of the stress of the day can lead to the improvements cited in the studies.

I don't disagree. The research which correlates spiritual practices with health benefits does not ascribe these benefits to the intervention of a supernatural being. It does not prove that the God who people are praying to actually exists. It merely establishes that those who pray and meditate tend to be statistically healthier than those who don't-- end of story. And as for the placebo effect, you will get no argument from me there either. It is when people say "just a placebo effect" that my hackles rise.

The placebo effect is arguably the most underrated discovery of modern medicine. Replace "just the placebo effect" with "the amazing placebo effect," "the mind boggling placebo effect." To my way of thinking, the very existence of this mysterious effect proves that God exists. That's right, you can find evidence for the foundational truths taught by religion in virtually every double blind medical research study!

OK, I know that some of you are scratching your heads thinking that I have perhaps been smoking some illegal substances lately. But hold your horses-- I admit that the God I am talking about might not be the one that many religious folks ascribe to. Alright, it might not be the God that you believe in either-- or disbelieve in. But I think that I can make a credible case for the existence of this God.

So here's my argument. But before I get into the question of who or what God is, let's begin with a few words about what-- in my view-- God is not. This is the easy part. God is not some grey bearded white guy sitting on a throne in the sky. God is not the reclusive author of just one immemorial bestseller, the Hebrew Bible, now retired from writing. He is not the ghostly father of just one son, Jesus. He is neither a male nor a female, a person nor a nonperson, physical nor nonphysical, old nor young... the list goes on.

I can hear some of you thinking-- wait a second, now it sounds like you are saying that God does not exist. Well no, my point is just the opposite, that the reality pointed to by the word "God" is so vast and all encompassing that we cannot limit it in the usual ways. We can't point to one thing and say "this is God," and to another and say "this is not God."

Remember the part of the Ten Commandments where the Lord commands the Israelites to "make no images"? That is precisely the place where most people -- including religious believers -- go wrong. We make an image in our minds of what God is, and then we proceed to either argue for it or against it.

But this is idolatry. Anyone who clings to a fixed position on the nature of the sacred is an idolator, because Spirit, according to mystics in all traditions, has no form. Or to put it more precisely, spirit is the ground of all forms, it is the source and foundation for all that exists.

This may sound hopelessly abstract and philosophical. But it is actually very concrete. We are talking about the most immediate and intimate reality of all. Allah in the Holy Koran proclaims, "I am closer to you than your own jugular vein."

What a strange thing for God to say! When we try to imagine Divinity, we generally picture an aloof and distant, somewhat tyrannical power external to ourselves which is dictating our fate. But here one of the world's foundational scriptures is suggesting that the truth is the reverse. If God is hard to find, it is not because the Divine is too far away, too lofty, too remote from our "fallen" human nature, it is because it is too close, too intimate, the very ground of our own essential selves.

It is like the eye attempting to see itself. However hard it tries, it cannot do this. We can't find God, because, paradoxically, we are already the God that we are seeking.

I know this sounds odd, even blasphemous. But I am not saying that you and I in our egocentric and separate selves are God. It is rather the other way around -- when we drop the elaborate pretense and disguise of being these limited and conditioned entities, we discover that we are not separate or apart from anything. We are part and parcel of all that exists.

Granted, this is hard to grasp until we actually experience it. Yet all of us get glimpses at moments of the existence of a higher, more loving and expansive potential within ourselves. When mystics speak about being "one with God," they are not making an egotistical statement. It flows from their experience that the ego is but a thin veneer painted over their real selves. And the real self cannot be defined in any way. What we are (to quote Winston Churchill out of context) is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."

Which brings us back to the placebo effect. It is mysterious, right? We don't know how it happens. A person was sick and they take a sugar pill and next thing you know -- voila -- they are healthy. To call this "the placebo effect" is to dress up our ignorance in words. What has actually happened is nothing short of a miracle. Science has got no explanation for it-- something immaterial (a thought?) has impacted something material (our body) in a way which utterly defies logic.

And that is what prayer is all about. Prayer is based upon the conviction that the immaterial is more powerful than matter itself. Whether we call this immaterial force "God," "the ground of our being," "Spirit," or "higher consciousness" doesn't matter. The point is-- there is an uncanny power (which all of us without exception have got access to) which performs miracles. The sick can be cured, the broken can feel whole again.

And the greatest miracle of all is that this power can connect us to a place within ourselves of boundless love, peace and well being. Do we need any other proof for the existence of God?