4 out of 4 stars
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"Do ghosts really exist; is there an afterlife; can prayer cure disease; can we communicate with the dead; will we reunite with dead family members after we die; is there a God who knows we are here and cares about us, and are there other, similarly intelligent creatures in the universe?" Herman Kagan, Ph.D., explores answers to these questions and more in his book, Faith, Supernatural Beliefs and Our Symbolic Brain. Kagan provides a comprehensive look at the supernatural from evolutionary and historical perspectives addressing "why supernatural beliefs continue to exist in the twenty-first century." Throughout the book, he cites references from science and medical journals as well as various experiments and research. Before arriving at his conclusion, Kagan explains how the symbolic brain functions and examines innate nature, myths, and past beliefs.
Kagan packs a lot of research into his 137-page study. The book is organized, well-documented, and professionally edited; it also includes an extensive list of references. Kagan explains innate instincts in nature, animals, and humans. A few of the examples he shares include the female loggerhead turtles' remarkable six-thousand-mile journey from Mexico to Japan and the migration of monarch butterflies traveling three thousand miles from Canada to Mexico. Kagan refers to both migrations as "supernatural-seeming feats." He also addresses how beliefs and faith affect psychological and physical well-being and the correlation between supernatural beliefs, natural selection, and human survival. Kagan balances a clinical writing style with the inclusion of interesting experiments, studies, and stories ranging from Helen Keller's observations to Jane Goodall's research of chimpanzees.
In fact, the studies that Kagan cited were my favorite portions of the book. One of the most fascinating experiments he shared involved a prison experiment documented by Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Dr. Bernard Lown. In his book, The Lost Art of Healing, Lown recounted the story of a criminal in an Indian prison condemned to death. With the prisoner's consent, a Hindu physician conducted an experiment. After the doctor convinced the convict to allow himself to be painlessly exsanguinated, the prisoner was blindfolded, strapped to the bed, and his skin was scratched. Simultaneously, water-filled vessels were hung at each bedpost, dripping into basins on the floor. As the water drips progressed from fast to gradually slower, the prisoner continued to grow weaker until he died. The prisoner died as a healthy young man despite not losing even a drop of blood. While I agreed with Kagan's statement, "What you believe affects your physical and psychological health," I was stunned by this illuminating illustration.
For the most part, Kagan objectively presents scientific research. However, I dislike that his conclusions seem less objective when it comes to matters of faith. More than once, Kagan refers to his childhood belief that "...if you swore on the Bible and told a lie, God would kill you during the night." Perhaps this influenced his objectivity; a few of his comments seem biased and may have a polarizing effect on some readers. In one statement, he groups those who believe in Armageddon with those who believe the world is still flat, referring to both as "so-called normal people." Other times, he includes "higher power" and "spirituality" in quotation marks, which comes across as mocking the terms. However, Kagan also acknowledges that "69 percent of Americans believe in angels, 87 percent believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, and 96 percent believe in God" and that "While many nonbelievers exist, they seem to be greatly outnumbered by believers."
Overall, the book deserves 4 out of 4 stars. One doesn't need to agree with all of Kagan's conclusions to take away something from this thoroughly researched study. I recommend it to those who enjoy reading about faith, science, medicine, beliefs, and how the brain functions. The book contains no profanity.
Faith, Supernatural Beliefs and Our Symbolic Brain
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