The Religion, the Science, and the Atheism: Fasting

The Religion:

The Bible presents fasting as something that is good, profitable, and beneficial. The book of Acts records believers fasting before they made important decisions (Acts 13:2; 14:23). Fasting and prayer are often linked together (Luke 2:37; 5:33).

Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.  St Augustine

Easter (

O you who believe fasting is decreed for you, as it was decreed for those before you, that you may attain salvation. Specific days (are designated for fasting); if one is ill or traveling, an equal number of other days may be substituted. Those who can fast, but with great difficulty, may substitute feeding one poor person for each day of breaking the fast. If one volunteers (more righteous works), it is better. But fasting is the best for you, if you only knew. Quran 2:183-185

In Buddhism, fasting is recognized as one of the methods for practising self-control. The Buddha advised monks not to take solid food after noon. Lay people who observe the eight Precepts on full moon days also abstain from taking any solid food after noon.  Critics sometimes regard these practices as religious fads.

For one who is fasting, the sense-objects disappear, Leaving the yearning behind. Bhagavad Gita 2:59

The Science:

Fasting for regular periods could help protect the brain against degenerative illnesses, according to US scientists.

Researchers at the National Institute on Ageing in Baltimore said they had found evidence which shows that periods of stopping virtually all food intake for one or two days a week could protect the brain against some of the worst effects of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other ailments.

A vertical slice through the brain of a patient with Alzheimer’s, left, compared with a normal brain, right. Photograph: Alfred Pasieka/Science Photo Library

“It is likely to be better to go on intermittent bouts of fasting, in which you eat hardly anything at all, and then have periods when you eat as much as you want,” said Professor Mark Mattson, head of the institute’s laboratory of neurosciences, and professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver.

He and his colleagues have also worked out a specific mechanism by which the growth of neurones in the brain could be affected by reduced energy intakes. Amounts of two cellular messaging chemicals are boosted when calorie intake is sharply reduced, said Mattson. These chemical messengers play an important role in boosting the growth of neurones in the brain, a process that would counteract the impact of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“The cells of the brain are put under mild stress that is analogous to the effects of exercise on muscle cells,” said Mattson. “The overall effect is beneficial.”

This model has been worked out using studies of fasting on humans and the resulting impact on their general health – even sufferers from asthma have shown benefits, said Mattson – and from experiments on the impact on the brains of animals affected by the rodent equivalent of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Mattson said that a person could optimise his or her brain function by subjecting themselves to bouts of “intermittent energy restriction”. In other words, they could cut their food intake to a bare minimum for two days a week, while indulging for the other five.  Robin McKie, Science Editor:

And here’s something else: fasting for 3 days regenerates the entire immune system.

Fasting for as little as three days can regenerate the entire immune system, even in the elderly, scientists have found in a breakthrough described as “remarkable”.

Although fasting diets have been criticised by nutritionists for being unhealthy, new research suggests starving the body kick-starts stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which fight off infection.

Scientists at the University of Southern California say the discovery could be particularly beneficial for people suffering from damaged immune systems, such as cancer patients on chemotherapy.

The researchers say fasting “flips a regenerative switch” which prompts stem cells to create brand new white blood cells, essentially regenerating the entire immune system.

“It gives the ‘OK’ for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system,” said Prof Valter Longo, Professor of Gerontology and the Biological Sciences at the University of California.

“And the good news is that the body got rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during the fasting.

“Now, if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemotherapy or ageing, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system.”

(Sarah Knapton, 11 June 2014)

 ..and the Atheism:

Richard Dawkins: “It is clear that faith is a spent force in the UK, and it is time our policymakers woke up to that reality and stopped trying to impose beliefs that society itself has largely rejected.”

..oh boy, has it ever!

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
This entry was posted in Biology, Buddhism, Christianity, Evolution, Fasting, Hinduism, Intelligence, Intuition, Islam, Natural Intelligence, Obesity, Religious disciplines, Science and Religion, Spiritual Genius, The Brain, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The Religion, the Science, and the Atheism: Fasting

  1. Jorgen says:

    I presume the obese ‘behinf’ was from a photo taken in the US Bible-belt, as it is a fact that American’s belong to the world’s most obese people?
    Yes – Dawkins is wrong on this one. Islam is taking over at breakneck speed and that could become a huge problem, as it means wholesale acceptance of a totally different law-complex: Sharia.

  2. Jorgen says:

    Sorry – too fast 😉 – – – I meant ‘behind’, of course – – and also wanted to intimate an example of the relationship between fundamentalist religion and obesity could be as valid as a suggested atheism-obesity relationship. It seems to me that you use preconceived opinions in your arguments?

  3. I think any argument must be preconceived, or else at least 50% of them would not last very long. Your notion that I am promoting one kind of person over another may be just such an argument! But in any case, the five words I have written myself surely can’t generate much controversy – everything else can be looked up and, if need be, you can contradict the source and let me know.

    The sources confirm that scriptures contain information science now verifies as beneficial to the brain. In all likelihood, therefore, they had a beneficial effect on mental health long before science could explain why. Of course, take whichever authority you prefer.

    What has been overlaid later by greed or dogmatic fundamentalism, or by those who choose to ignore the spirit of the scriptures, can hardly be relevant. One may as well protest that in every neighborhood, truancy is strongly linked to the existence of schools or that missile attacks are all the fault of the Wright brothers..

    • What? Why is everyone getting so worked up? This fasting thing is good news. I always wondered why I feel mentally active after not eating much in a day and now I know. I didn’t build this site so I could pretend everything is rosy in the world

  4. No, no, that’s not what I meant at all – Dawkins has presented himself as leader of the atheists. Whether he is their leader or not, it hardly matters, as he’s pushing their agenda constantly and orchestrating media stunts, like last week where he tried to say hardly anybody in Britain was Christian after a survey he organised. His position is therefore associated with the atheist agenda, even though I am sure there are many who disagree.

    He always claims he will go where the evidence leads him because he is fanatical about truth, but he encourages people to completely abandon scriptural ideas as nonsense. This is his constant theme.

    The evidence is exactly as I have shown it, and the result of complete abandonment of any kind of self control – as exercised by fasting or by the concept of sacrifice – has resulted in practically a whole generation of people at serious risk of diabetes and early death from obesity. This abandonment of time-honoured wisdom is wrecking people’s lives. It’s absolutely criminal for any intellectual to encourage it. He is using his global voice to bless a lifestyle which completely departs from Nature.

    I don’t blame him for obesity, or autism, or nuclear war. All these things are Nature’s award to a LIFESTYLE which departs from the evolutionary path. It is a matter of laws, laws of the mind, and he should be as interested in evolutionary law as anyone on the planet. Instead he treats it a nonsense. He won’t listen to reason, and the result will be that all his ideas will be a laughing stock in 15 or 20 years, perhaps even sooner. His reputation will be like that of The Marlborough Man!

    But I will say this: if he had a cockney accent and tried to get away with the things he says, probably nobody would pay any attention. He plays the “well-educated professor” card. Things are serious now and science is actually on the side of the scriptures! Anybody can see this! But does Dawkins take any notice? No. No. No.

    • I agree with you that our major health concerns in industrialized countries like diabetes and obesity mostly result from lifestyle choices. These are major realities here in the USA at least. These lifestyle choices directly stem from living in a social reality where the struggle to survive has been largely removed, so that we can afford to be lazy. And these are in religious and non-religious demographics alike.

      Both scientific explorations and many religious traditions bring us to the benefits of fasting, meditation, charitable giving, and so on – as your work here examines. Even the yoga traditions of asanas and breathing which are related to a spirituality (though not entirely dependent on it) bring us to the benefits of exercise. And some of your columns which focus on ‘natural intelligence’ lead us to the same point of Jungian psychology: that mythology may be factual nonsense, but it it plays a very strong role in understanding the subjective human experience of reality on a non-rational level we all share.

      What’s interesting is that many of these religious texts from around the world come from a time when human knowledge was less divided into these multiple areas. Medicine, nutrition, mythology, history, sociology, and so on were all lumped together. That’s how you end up with a book like the Bible, which has some useful ideas but is largely an utter waste of time. The nonsense is all tied up with the good bits because human knowledge hadn’t been parceled out into different disciplines.

      But I doubt the solution to obesity is a return to the ancient texts. One need only take a road trip through the Bible Belt of the USA to verify that conclusion. Nor do I believe atheism is incompatible with the spiritual disciplines. I found yoga to be of great benefit without converting to Hinduism. What you and I most strongly agree on is that many of these practices from spiritual traditions have mental and physical benefits that can be verified scientifically and experientially.

      You focus on Dawkins a lot, but consider another famous proponent of atheism, Sam Harris. He studied transcendental meditation extensively and has a PhD in neuroscience. His thing was using MRI to study the effects of meditation on the brain. So here is a rather outspoken atheist who would certainly agree with you that many ancient spiritual practices have scientifically verifiable benefits, regardless of specific religious dogma. If we set aside your antipathy for Dawkins, we’d probably find a lot of people who identify as atheists or agnostics who are really on the same page as you with a lot of this stuff.

      • Yes, quite possibly so, and there seems to be no point measuring the benefits of religion by the excesses of the bible belt. What I am trying to show is that the scriptures, emerging independently in different parts of the world and in different ages, all focused on evolutionary benefits to the brain.

        Science is proving this, bit by bit. I focus on Dawkins because a good many militant atheists simply parrot his sayings. He is the source of so much ignorance, especially about spiritual ideas, that I wonder why atheism as a movement hasn’t abandoned him altogether. Instead, the more aggressive flock to him and together they ridicule religion, patting each other on the back and recycling sarcastic comments like: “it was the most [insert insult here: “evil saying in the bible”, “absurd habit”, “ludicrous assertion”] – amidst very strong competition”, lending it an air of lofty wisdom. It’s tedious to hear this again and again from different mouths. The Dawkins phrases like “pathetic nonsense” and “load of rubbish” and “invisible sky papa” are spat daily from the false-name mockers [like “ayatollah buggeri”] among the online commenters. I’m thinking of banning those phrases on the spam filter, which will put paid to a lot of comments, I must tell you..

        If scriptural ideas have an evolutionary benefit to the brain, then they must have emerged from racial genius, as they were only justified by science 5,000+ years later. Up until then, they were believed in by instinctive faith! It means religion has been part of the evolutionary urge. So to hear Dawkins say “Faith is worn out” and “I despise faith” makes me angry. It has had a genuine role in evolution. He isn’t following the evidence, but can’t bring himself to just say, “I don’t like it, so I’m going to ignore it.”

  5. Yes, there certainly are a lot of parrots on this planet. “Two legs good, four legs bad” shout the masses. Christian parrots, Atheist parrots, Jewish parrots, Behavioralist parrots, and so on. Recent comments on this site show the vitriol spews from all sides. It’s a circle of anger and using the internet to vent that anger. I hope to find more sites that encourage building bridges instead of walls as far as understanding the human condition is concerned.

    • Indeed, I started by wanting to build bridges! I came to realise you also need walls to make progress. You can’t get anything done with a committee. In fact a recent study shows that attending meetings actually disables the decision making wiring, because you’re divesting authority to someone else. You just fritter away your time. The problem is that a hard core of intellectuals don’t want change – they enjoy an endless, tasty, circular debate. They’re like highly demanding food critics, with badges from every restaurant from which they’ve ever skimmed free food, pinned to their blazer, and every argument has to be suited to their exacting, experienced palate. These are the people savouring endless wordy meetings while nothing actually gets done. You rush in with a plan and it’s tied up in meetings forever after. They won’t even talk to you unless you too wear one of their badges. “No use debating religion..” “Debating with you would be like a submarine debating a jellyfish..”

      They’re the ones who arrive at your site telling you all your faults, demanding “intelligent debate” but when nobody wants to argue with them, they flounce out in their cape and scarf, and ivory-head walking stick. They’re the reason why nothing gets done in your street, because they’re in the local council. They’re the ones debating whether to take a child into care, while the parents are hammering it to death. They’re the ones at the UN debating whether 1,000,000 dying is a famine, or 1,100,000. “Has everyone got water? Now, let’s call this meeting to order.” They’re the reason even Richard Dawkins gets fed up with some of the readers on his own site and bans them: one of his ex-writers has taken to the online papers to complain, saying “what about free speech?” What about starting your own blog then, mr knowitall? Democracy has a big weakness – the lowest common denominator can’t qualify for leadership.

      They’re the ones in the free seats at the theatre, later telling everyone a musical is rubbish when a hundred people have put their hearts into it for a year trying to make it better. Or worse, they’re the ones who didn’t bother turning up to the show at all, because the tickets were free! You could part the Red Sea for them and they’d sniff and say, “it’s a bit muddy.” They’re writing an essay on slavery on their iPad, debating the pros and cons. Pros? Cons? Hmm, let’s make a list. Tappety tap. Meantime the slaves build more iPads. If you put these highbrows on the street to survive on their wits, they wouldn’t last a day. It’s why they love to surround themselves in lovely toasty-warm wordy pasttimes.

      But while they’re sipping and tasting, slurping and supping, poking and sniffing, rinsing and spitting the endless range of free nosh someone else spent time preparing, and suggesting many improvements to better suit their exquisite taste, the world continues its decline. They treat the intellect like a funfair – “let’s try an hour on the Sam Harris wheel! Wheeee! I’m bored now. Ooh, Creationist vs Scientologist, I love that one. Hmm, what a queue though.. What about the Dawkins vs Disouza ride? Oh, for the love of – it’s closed – damn, these people owe us entertainment!” You can’t get anything else done, for keeping them guzzled and well fed.

      In fact it’s draining coming down to your living room in the morning to find someone has sprayed “you’re rubbish!” across the wall, and when you start to wipe it off you’re a dictator trampling on their free speech. These people need to get their hands dirty ploughing their own field, and they’ll find nothing comes free in the real world. So I no longer think we need to spend our days building all these fancy bridges and keeping them polished; our job is to build something we love, and later find out who is willing to get their feet wet.

  6. Build what you love and the critics be damned. Someone said critics are the people who sit on a high hill top and watch the battle. Then when the battle is over they come down and shoot all the survivors.

  7. I shall do just that! We’re constucting a database of mystical experience. We could call it the MCD. But will it stand for Mystical Creative Data, or Matthew Camp Data? Only you will know!

  8. Pingback: Buddhism fasting | Sickfightgear

  9. Sinclair says:

    Very interesting..
    I fast to detoxify, but I’ve always felt that
    Something spiritual was happening..
    Almost like I’m on a personal journey..

  10. Pingback: The Story So Far |

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