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Sam Harris, Santa Claus know if you don’t believe

by Brad A. Greenberg

March 31, 2008 | 10:52 am

Was the earth created in six days? Do two and two make four? Is capital punishment wrong? New research by atheist spokesman Sam Harris can’t answer these questions. But it can determine whether subjects believe them to be true, untrue or ambiguous. After blogging about Harris’ research in December, I wrote this piece for UCLA Magazine.

Shortly before Sam Harris became a New York Times best-selling author, he was a UCLA doctoral student in neuroscience, a mere dissertation away from his Ph.D.

But in 2004, Harris took some time off to write The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. The book sold wildly and Harris was anointed a leader of America’s atheist awakening.

After writing another bestseller, Letter to a Christian Nation, and traveling the speaker circuit, Harris returned last fall to his doctoral research. His latest writings were published this January, not in a book but in the scholarly Annals of Neurology, and the subject wasn’t faith but research into the physiological distinctions between belief and disbelief.

The study tested the hypothesis that belief “might have a functional localization in the brain and the design of the study was to isolate such regions,” explains Mark S. Cohen, Harris’ thesis adviser and professor of psychiatry at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, who co-authored the study with Harris and Sameer Sheth Ph.D. ‘03, M.D. ‘05 of Massachusetts General Hospital. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists found that a region of the brain involved in belief, disbelief and uncertainty acted differently depending on subjects’ acceptance of statements they were given while inside the machine. A portion of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex appeared to be at least partly responsible for discerning belief of all kinds, whether it’s “a personal God exists as described in the Bible” or “George Bush is president of the United States.”

“It has no relevance to the question of whether or not there is a God,” Harris says of the findings. “Even if we had a perfect belief detector, we still can’t tell you what is true in the world. You put somebody in the scanner who believes Elvis is still alive, and all we will be able to tell you is, ‘Yes, he does believe Elvis is still alive.’ “

Don’t confuse Harris’ quest with that of the search for the “God particle,” which would explain how massless particles create matter, or the “God gene,” a controversial scientific field looking for God’s latent imprint within humans, the immutable reason religious belief is manifest in the forms of spiritual devotion and ecstasy and servitude and fervency.

“All of that has a basis in the brain, as does smell and vision,” Harris told me. “But I don’t think there is a God spot in the brain in the same way there is not a love-your-mother spot.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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