Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Biology of Belief

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an excellent excerpt of a speech given by Robert Sapolsky (the professor of neurology at Stanford University) on genes, brains, neurological disorders, religion, and how they all tie in together. It is a very entertaining and informative read, so go check it out. Here are a few snips:

Now we have to ask our evolutionary question: "Who are the schizotypals throughout 99% of human history?" And in the 1930s, decades before the word "schizotypal" even existed, anthropologists already had the answer.

It's the shamans. It's the medicine men. It's the medicine women. It's the witch doctors. In the 1930s an anthropologist named Paul Radin first described it as "shamans being half mad," shamans being "healed madmen." This fits exactly. It's the shamans who are moving separate from everyone else, living alone, who talk with the dead, who speak in tongues, who go out with the full moon and turn into a hyena overnight, and that sort of stuff. It's the shamans who have all this metamagical thinking. When you look at traditional human society, they all have shamans.

...

What I've just been considering is the superstructure of religion--the big building blocks: there are multiple deities, there is but one god and he is Allah, "I am who I am," any version of this--is an awful lot like schizotypalism. Who is it that invented the notion that virgins can give birth? Who is it who first came in with the extremely psychiatrically suspect report about hearing a voice in a burning bush? In most of the cases we don't know much about the psychiatric status of these folks. In the more recent historical cases, we certainly do, and schizotypalism is at the heart of non-Western and Westernized large theological systems.

...

In the last 30 years we've seen a whole new psychiatric disorder, of people whose rituals take over and destroy their lives. OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These are people who don't merely find themselves counting when they go up a flight of stairs--these are people whose lives are destroyed by this disorder. They wash their hands eight hours a day. They stop eating most foods because of the conviction of contamination, germs. They get very ritualistic and phobic about entering spaces, leaving spaces. They can't enter a building until they've walked a number of steps that's a prime number. Very mathematical numerology comes through this, and it is an utterly paralyzing disease. This is one of these biological disorders that destroyed people's lives back when, up until 30 or 40 years ago, there wasn't even a word that described this. We can describe it now, and we know a lot about the genetics of this disorder, and the neurochemistry.

Where does this one fit in with religion? There's a remarkable parallelism between religious ritualism and the ritualism of OCD. In OCD, the most common rituals are the rituals of self-cleansing, of food preparation, of entering and leaving holy places of emotional significance, and rituals of numerology. You look in every major religion, and those are the four most common ritual forms that you see.

...

To get a real insight into this, we have to come back to that question, "Why is there this similarity between religious ritualism and OCD rituals?"

You could say, "It's just by chance."

Or you could say, "There's a biological convergence going on there." It's not random that we're most concerned with rituals about keeping our bodies healthy, our food clean, that sort of stuff.

But another answer in there has got to be, "People with OCD invented a lot of these religious rituals."

Let me give you one example of this. A 16th-century Augustinian monk named Luder for some reason left a very detailed diary. This is a man who grew up with an extremely brutal father, had a very anxious relationship with him, was very psychosomatic-illness-oriented. One day he was out walking in the field. There was a thunderstorm, and he got a panic attack, and vowed, "If I'm allowed to survive this, I will become a monk and devote the rest of my life to God." He survives, becomes a monk, and throws himself into this ritualism with a frenzy. This was an order of monks that was silent 20-some hours a day. Nonetheless, he had four hours worth of confessions to make every day: "I didn't say this prayer as devoutly as I should have. My mind wandered when I was doing this, doing that." The first time he ran a mass, he had to do it over and over because he got the details wrong. He would drive his Father Superior crazy with his hours and hours of confession every day: "God is going to be angry at me for doing this, because I said this, and I didn't think this much, and I didn't do this the right way, and I . . ." until the Father Superior got exasperated with him and came up with a statement that is shockingly modern in its insight. He said, "The problem isn't that God is angry with you. The problem is that you're angry with God." The most telling detail about this monk was, he washed and washed and washed. As he put it in his diary: "The more you wash, the dirtier you get." Classic OCD.

The reason why we know about this man Luder is because we know him by the Anglicized version of his name: Martin Luther.

23 comments:

breakerslion said...

In one of B.F. Skinner's many experiments with pidgeons, the bird mistakenly associated hopping on one foot with receiving the reward of a food pellet. The actual action that resulted in the food drop was a bar press that the pidgeon was not aware of. Skinner remarked on the almost incredible number of times the bird hopped up and down to no avail before the behavior was extinguished. I think ritual behavior is like that. Once one gets it into one's head, it's hard to get rid of, and the occasional coincidence doesn't help. Learned behavior: stand, sit, kneel, sing, pray, give. Feel better? Y'all come back next week.

BlackSun said...

Interesting article!

breakerslion said...

"If I'm allowed to survive this, I will become a monk and devote the rest of my life to God."

Forgot to mention the brain-damaged, screwed-up, whackiod, mis-attribution of cause and effect.

"I had an unclean thought, so God broke my garbage disposal."

Paul C. Quillman said...

Breakerslion
Having grown up in an environment where I was essentially taught the common heresy of "live right and God will bless you" I have lived the learned behavior first hand and it is exhausting. Once I figured out that my preformance did not dictate weather God loved me or not, Christianity started making sense.

Aaron,
Robert Sapolsky at least gets Martin Luther half right, but he misses the causes of Luthers excessive washing.

At that time in church history, few were allowed to read Scripture, and fewer actually got to read the New Testament. Luther did struggle with an abusive father, and he could not see how he was worthy to preform his duties as a monk. While it is true that in and of ourselves we are unworthy, this vexed Luther. However, when he finally read Romand and Galations in the New Testament, he was finally freed from his nerotic need to constantly wash. When he read the whole Scripture, he found what his constant washing, and preformanced based acceptability could not give him; he found grace.

Luther realized that God's law is so high, that no one is capable of keeping any of it. No one has the strength of will to please God. That is why faith is not something we gin up, it is granted by God.

Robert Sapolsky misses one other important point in Luther's life. At Worms, a terrified monk is on trial for heresy. One of these accusations was that this monk had the audacity to say that the common man has the right to not only read Scripture, but the responsibility to interpret Scripture for himself.

Having been accused, and being granted a day to consider if he should recant by the court, this little German monk, stood before a corrupt and crumbling church, said the following:

"Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

All of this to say that Luther may have had issues with OCD, however Luther was also brilliant, and brilliant men tend to have some issue or another. Personally, I would be happy to be in Luther's company.

Fade to Black said...

That is your belief, but it is not truth. Truth is found only in God. Everything else is deception masquerading as truth. There is only one way to truth and that is Jesus - the way, the truth, and the life.

Krystalline Apostate said...

...and yet Luther went on to condone the deaths of 100,000 peasants, & wrote some of the most scathingly anti-Semitic literature ever, up until the 20th CE.
Yeah, religion sure brings out the best in people, don't it?
& it sure has lousy therapeutic value, I might add.

Aaron Kinney said...

Paul C. Quillman,

Nice to see you again! :)

At that time in church history, few were allowed to read Scripture, and fewer actually got to read the New Testament.

Yes, I know. Totally off topic, but gee whiz, I wonder why people werent allowed to read it back then, and why they would deliberately keep the Bible written in languages that the locals couldnt speak?

Luther did struggle with an abusive father, and he could not see how he was worthy to preform his duties as a monk. While it is true that in and of ourselves we are unworthy, this vexed Luther. However, when he finally read Romand and Galations in the New Testament, he was finally freed from his nerotic need to constantly wash. When he read the whole Scripture, he found what his constant washing, and preformanced based acceptability could not give him; he found grace.

He traded one OCD ritual for another. I should know. I have Asperger's Syndrome, which can sometimes bring with it some OCD like behaviors (mild compared to true OCDers, but still it can be a PITA). When I was a child I had more OCD like rituals than I do now, and during my childhood years I can remember at least 3 distinct times when I had found something that I thought was important or significant, and it caused me to drop one OCD ritual and adopt another.

Luther realized that God's law is so high, that no one is capable of keeping any of it.

But of course! For the continued existence of the metaphorical "rehab center," we cant let people actually rehabilitate themselves, can we? This sentence I just quoted from you is classic OCD. Just like when Luther said that the more he washed the dirtier he felt?????? Dont you see how this is the same thing?

All of this to say that Luther may have had issues with OCD, however Luther was also brilliant, and brilliant men tend to have some issue or another.

I mean this in a good way when I tell you that you have NO IDEA how profoundly true this is. I totally agree with you 100% here.

Personally, I would be happy to be in Luther's company.

As would I.

But Paul, seriously, just because an OCD sufferer is brilliant and entertaining and an all around good person, DOESNT MEAN that you have to believe their little nutjob symptom that putting a 4x4 grid of peas with 1/2" spacing on your dinner plate is the sure-fire way to avoid indigestion that night.

What Im saying is that there are terrific brilliant people with OCD or some other neurological disorder (like Luther) who are apeshit obsessed with something that simply isnt true.

While everything you said about Luther is correct, his brilliance and his devotion to Xtianity are actually arguments AGAINST the faith just the same... not arguments FOR it. Luther is a classic case of the type of person who, if Christianity didnt exist, he would have likely invented its rough equivalent. These kinds of beliefs are created by brilliant men who nevertheless wash 1000 times a day and feel dirtier each time.

Christianity (and God Himself) are lies created by brilliant shitzotypals and OCDers, Im sorry to say :(

Aaron Kinney said...

Fade to Black,

That was the worst evangelizing attempt Ive ever encountered. With losers like you farting around, no WONDER Christianity is losing its fan base among those in the world making more than $5 a day!

Get down for Jesus, dammit! I wont have any half-assed preaching in my comments section. Now is your chance!

So don't sit there an lamely claim the truth. Instead, try CONVINCING us of the truth of His word! Your Jesus is depending on you to spread His truth and stop the hemorrhaging of his fan base.

I sure didnt deconvert to atheism from some dork plainly telling me "God doesnt exist." So take a fucking lesson, troll.

Anonymous said...

At your core, you are sad aren't you? And angry. Very angry.

Aaron Kinney said...

anonymous,

I used to be sad, but not anymore. I had a big life change around 18 years old, where one of the things that changed about me was my faith. In short, I lost my faith, and it was very liberating.

Nowadays Im a very outgoing, energetic, and happy person. Too bad you cant meet me face to face to see that Im a life-loving type of guy. All you see is the stuff I write, and this blog has a very narrow topic focus, which tends to only show a certain side of me.

As far as the anger goes, sure Im angry at times. But you gotta put it in context. What, exactly, is causing my anger?

God. The Afterlife. Religion.

Happy people who love life react appropriately to things that they believe to be harmful. They react with shock, disgust, and even anger. They react with the desire to call a spade a spade as well as the desire to fix the problem. The things that God and the Afterlife cause people to do, and the values that they contain, make me angry.

I want to help fix it. I want to point out the evil within those concepts. I want to help people rid themselves of these anti-human concepts.

say no to christ said...

This is brilliant Mr. Kinney, Just brilliant!


"Happy people who love life react appropriately to things that they believe to be harmful. They react with shock, disgust, and even anger. They react with the desire to call a spade a spade as well as the desire to fix the problem. The things that God and the Afterlife cause people to do, and the values that they contain, make me angry."

I get the same bullshit about being agry and unhappy from christians all the time. I bet my life is a 100X plus better than theirs. I have a very loving devoted husband, three beautiful happy and well balanced kids. I have never been happier in my life and I owe it to my jouney into atheism. I was not happy as a christian. I was miserable, I hated all life and I wasnt exactly the nicest person looking back. I was self rightous and snobby even though I depised other selfrightous and snobby people. I was a confused idiot. I'm a much better person now, than I ever was as a christian.


Amy

Aaron Kinney said...

Oh, thats a lie Say no to Christ.

We all know that you are just as sad, lonely, and angry as I am due to your rebellion from God!!

Your fulfilling loving family, social life, and career cannot fill the gaping hole in your heart the moment you abandoned God.

How do I know this? Because the little book in the hand of an anonymous commenter said so! ;-)

Just kidding!

Seriously though, I want all the commenters here, especially the anonymous ones, to read this line from Say no to Christ:

I have a very loving devoted husband, three beautiful happy and well balanced kids. I have never been happier in my life and I owe it to my jouney into atheism. I was not happy as a christian. I was miserable, I hated all life and I wasnt exactly the nicest person looking back. I was self rightous and snobby even though I depised other selfrightous and snobby people. I was a confused idiot. I'm a much better person now, than I ever was as a christian.

What other than personal testimony will a theist accept as evidence that an atheist can be happy, when the only communication/information medium available in this instance is that of text on a computer screen?

They will accept no standard of evidence other than their own subjective feelings and preconceptions.

BlackSun said...

say no to christ-- that was a great testimonial!

breakerslion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
breakerslion said...

Sorry, left something out the last time.

Fade to black:

With Aaron's indulgence, let me add my own heartfelt and politically incorrect razzberrys in regards to your apallingly nonsensical statements. Deconstructing them is so simple that I almost feel too much pity to illustrate. Almost.

"Truth is found only in God"

Since you are not God, then by your own words, there is no truth to be found in you. If this is true, then your statement above is false. Since Genesis tells us that we will seek God but find him not, then if you believe your own words, there is no truth to be found on earth. Lucky for all of us that there is no truth in your words.

Are you beginning to sense that the walls of your own denial are crumbling? Is that why you are here? There is no god, and you know it.

"There is only one way to truth and that is Jesus"

If that were true, then since you are not Jesus, we would be foolish to listen to you. Therefore, again what you say cannot, by your own words, be true.

If I have one apple, and only one apple, I do not have two apples. This is true. I did not need a god or a god-man to tell me this. I have a brain and I use it to think.

Aaron Kinney said...

Testify!

beepbeepitsme said...

I agree. I have also wondered about the obsessive compulsive factor associated with religious ritual, worship and prayer.

The unfortunate thing for people who suffer from OCD is that no matter to what lengths they go to get it right, it is never enough.

I think people who are fundamentally religious, suffer the same malady.

Anonymous said...

Freedom from Judging, Freedom for mercy
We spend an enormous amount of energy making up our minds about other people. Not a day goes by without somebody doing or saying something that evokes in us the need to form an opinion about him or her. We hear a lot, see a lot, and know a lot. The feeling that we have to sort it all out in our minds and make judgments about it can be quite oppressive.

The desert fathers said that judging others is a heavy burden, while being judged by others is a light one. Once we can let go of our need to judge others, we will experience an immense inner freedom. Once we are free from judging, we will be also free for mercy. Let's remember Jesus' words: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged" (Matthew 7:1).

Aaron Kinney said...

According to anonymous' interpretation of Mat 7:1, agnostics can get to Heaven!

The bible also commands the death of adulterers. Is that also "not judging"?

Krystalline Apostate said...

anonymous:
Once we can let go of our need to judge others, we will experience an immense inner freedom.
Off you go to the desert, then.
Oh, wait, was that you that judged Aaron earlier? Sad & angry, wasn't it?
Done shot yourself in the foot, no?
Limp away, limp away.

Anonymous said...

Kinney:

"As far as the anger goes, sure Im angry at times. But you gotta put it in context. What, exactly, is causing my anger?"

God. The Afterlife."


Wow! Strange view of causation. Things that don't exist "cause" you to be angry.

Whatta dork ^

David Cale said...

Somewhere around 'the middle of my life I awoke in a dark forest, my way wholly lost" (Dante) so I gave up Christianity for lent.

I am a physicist by training and I spent 30 years teaching it. Now I am working as a freelance travel photographer. (see my website)

However that is not say that leaving religion was liberating, rather it was leaving organized religion. That was certainly a very positive change.

I will say though that at one point long before this (1968) I was involved with an organization called "Campus Crusade for Christ" and I went to a retreat at the Banff School of Fine Arts and had a similar experience to Herr Luder. It changed my life at the time enormously. I was quite a misfit (classic science geek) and was also consumed with my sense of being damned due to my sinful nature.

The speaker was Hal Linsay of "Late Great Planet Earth" fame. (end times stuff, you know Christ return s Christians raptured to heaven, everyone is in deep shit). I now give NO credence to his ideas.

His message was basically the same one Luther realized "saved by faith not by being sinless"

It took the horrible pressure off and I was so relieved it transformed my beliefs about my self worth.

So why did I give up formal religion eventually? It was simply too narrow and yes controlling and toxic to me and the world.

On the other hand I did not give up on the idea of spirit and I did not adopt the "atheist religion"
I did not want to swap one fundamentalism for another. Now this is not an attack on atheists I have great resonance for those who see the toxicity of formal religions and say that there is no God.

However I think that is throwing the baby out with the cleaning fluid.

Currently I have just finished reading Dr. Bruce Lipton's book "The Biology of Belief" and while I am not entirely convinced by his arguments they certainly broaden the dimension of what a human being is including the concept of spirit.

So I invite you all, in the spirit of scientific inquiry to have a look at what he has to say.

Please understand I am not trying to get anyone to believe anything, in fact I am looking for thoughtful reflection on his ideas and research. I am beginning to think that there is something to the "mind body" ideas he has. It fits with the trans-formative nature of changing your beliefs that I experience so long ago.

Warning there is a lot of hype around his stuff and it seems a lot of money is being made but if you can get by that, I think the core ideas are worthy of consideration by those who have flexible minds.

I am making absolutely no money or any other person gain (other than more understanding) from this.

You can reach me at photowriter@rogers.com

David Cale

Anonymous said...

How much do you relate this to the right brain? Is it related to being right-brained? The right brain processes spatial information, could relate to the emotionality about places. A similar obsession with the cleanness of food is also seen in autism if I'm right. Do you know the MBTI personality type INTP and its relation to OCD (at least, I get that idea)?