I recently read a report of a study which found more hippocampal atrophy over time in Pentecostal Protestants, Catholics, and those “unaffiliated with a religion” than in plain old Protestants. The speculation was that the atrophy is caused by stress. Of course that’s always the conclusion when no direct cause is apparent, and there is no mention of how they accounted for other kinds of stress, and I gather they used only Christians vs. no affiliation, without including other religions. But let’s assume that’s right — more stress causes the hippocampus to atrophy, and we are, for the purposes of this study, assuming the stress, or lack thereof, is attributable to religious differences.
Apparently being a white bread Protestant is the least stressful category. That actually makes a lot of sense to me. Being a Pentecostal or Catholic does seem to me to be way more stressful — so much pressure, so many expectations, so many rules. So little room for doubt or other ideas or individuality of thought. But being a regular old Presbyterian or Methodist or some of the less restrictive forms (there are so many) of Lutheran, etc., makes it easy. You believe there’s a deity in charge who knows what’s going on all the time with everybody, and if enough of you get together and pray for the same thing, the deity may conclude, “OK. If that many of you want it, I guess I’ll give it to you”– sort of a majority rule kind of God. And if your prayers aren’t answered, it’s because God knows better than you what’s good for you, and he moves in mysterious ways. That way you never get to blame him for anything. What could be less stressful?
Those of us who are atheists have a lot harder time with life, so it’s no surprise that our hippocampuses (hippocampi?) atrophy. It takes a lot of courage and strength to be an atheist. And, to my way of thinking, that is what the basic difference is between believers and non-believers. Believing is so much easier. Wouldn’t I like to think there’s a big magic person who always knows what going on and what’s about to happen? That there’s somebody in charge? Of course I would. But the fact is, life is a crap shoot. Nobody’s in charge. And for most people, that fact is too overwhelmingly scarey to believe. They aren’t brave enough to accept the reality of chance. So much more comforting to believe it’s all some plan, it all happens the way it’s supposed to, and if you don’t understand it, it’s because you’re just not as smart as God.
Life is hard when you realize a throw of the cosmic dice is what determines what happens to you; when you know there is no justice, just chance, determining your future and the futures of those you love. It’s very depressing. It’s very disheartening to see the injustice of pure chance. It’s very daunting to keep going when you know that next week or next year the tenuous caprice of luck may fail. And there’s no “well, it must have happened for a reason” delusion to soften the blows.
Atheism is not for the weak or cowardly. One must proceed against fear, and prevail, every day. There are no sissy atheists.