So you don't believe in God, but you want the benefits that come with being religious: feeling special, not being afraid of dying, embraced by a loving divine power, and such.
You can keep your atheism or agnosticism and have your Godly presence also. This is the message that I draw from a fascinating study about placebos, which found they can be medically effective even when people know they're getting a fake drug.
Patients can benefit from being treated with sham drugs even if they are told they contain no active ingredient, scientists have found. The finding suggests that the placebo effect could work without the need for any deception on the part of the doctor, as had been previously thought.
...To investigate the limits of placebo, Prof Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School's Osher Research Center divided 80 patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) into two groups: one received no treatment and the other was given dummy pills to take twice a day. The second group was told by the doctors that they would be taking "placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS-symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes".
"Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had 'placebo' printed on the bottle," said Kaptchuk. "We told the patients that they didn't have to even believe in the placebo effect. Just take the pills."
The results, published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, showed that the placebo pills were more effective at relieving symptoms compared with doing nothing at all.
The mind is marvelously mysterious. Expectations can become reality, even when what we hope to have happen is relief from a physical problem which seemingly wouldn't be affected by faith in a sugar pill.
It makes sense that relief from a spiritual or meaning-of-life malaise would be even more easily produced by a placebo.
Since there's no demonstrable evidence that God exists, or that religious dogma is founded in some sort of objectively real divinity, I've assumed that the benefits of faith only accrue to those who genuinely believe in the truth of their chosen religion. But this study implies that even a belief in a fake God can make someone feel better.
Anyone who gets deeply immersed in a well-written novel knows how easy it is to feel the truth of a false narrative. That is, we can simultaneously (1) realize that we're engaged in an act of fiction, while (2) enjoying the story being played out in our mind.
(Whenever I order coffee, am smiled at by the charming youthful female barista, and think "Some women are attracted to gray-haired older guys," I'm doing exactly that: fooling myself with a fantasy which makes me feel good even though I know what I'm doing.)
After reading about this placebo study in a science magazine, I've been experimenting with bringing back some religious rituals into my morning meditation. It's been kind of fun, this play-acting.
I'll repeat the familiar mantra that I spoke silently in my mind for many years when I followed the teachings of an Indian guru. Or I'll pretend that I'm a mystic Christian and use "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me" as a meditation focus, even though I don't believe in the saving-power of Jesus.
Saying "Namu amida butsu" also feels good, regardless of the fact that Pure Land Buddhism and me don't have much in common.
Sugar pills can work, whether of the physical or mental variety, even when we know that they contain no active ingredients other than what we imagine them to have.