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11/05/10

Neuropsychology of Human Religious Behavior

By Abbas Sadeghian, PH.D.


Photo: View of Jerusalem's holly sites

Throughout the history of psychology, the topic of human religiosity has been referred to as a learned behavior. In other words a person's religion is the final outcome of the person's interaction with his environment. Therefore the assumption is that if you are born in a Christian country, you are going to be a Christian.

Theoretically, since the person has been exposed to his religion from early childhood, it would be quite unlikely that he would choose a different religion or have the desire or the need to practice something else. Although, we do see occasional cases of conversion of single individuals from one religion to another religion, mass conversions are usually rare and mostly are caused by wars and force.

Although, the followers of great religions of the world do not like to admit this historical fact, an honest historian would admit that my ancestors' conversion from Zoroastrianism to Islam was only achieved by sword.

The same is true for natives of South America becoming Christians. Their faith was sealed by Spaniard swords.

Interestingly, the forceful attempts to make a population atheist have never worked. The most famous historical example of these attempts is Stalin's brutal confrontation of religiosity. Stalin did not look at religion as just "opium of the masses" he looked at it as a menace for the society and considered clergymen as parasites. Stalin's method of dealing with religion was the same method that he used in dealing with anything... elimination. His answer was total elimination of religion. He ordered all mosques, churches and temples to be burned, as well as the killing of all clergy.

It should be noted that upon the collapse of the Soviet Union the first changes included reappearance of mosques, churches, temples and clergymen.

In other words you can force people to convert to a different religion, but you cannot force them to become an atheist, as if they can not live without it.

The Case for the Organic Nature of human religiosity.

The idea of hereditary causes of human religiosity was originally introduced by Charles Darwin. This idea is articulated in his autobiography:

This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I Wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker. But then arises the doubt can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect, which strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake".

Charles Darwin, Autobiography,1887

It is known that Darwin personally delayed publication of his "Origin of Species" by twenty years. The cause of this delay was not his fear of the response to his introduction of the theory of evolution, rather, he feared the response to his assertions on the organic nature of human religiosity, which was totally unacceptable at that time. It should be noted that 1250 copies of the first edition of "the origin of species" was published in London; all 1250 copies were sold on the first day.

The evidences for organic nature of human religiosity

There is a general rule in psychology that universal behaviors have organic causes. And consequently their origin could be traced to human brain. For example all human beings manifest sexual behavior as well as aggression. These behaviors are seen universally, in all cultures at all times.

Therefore, if one runs into a person who is totally devoid of sexuality or aggression, one can assume that the person is suffering from some kind of disease or condition. If one examines the human brain, one can easily locate those parts of the brain which are in charge of sexual and aggressive behaviors. At the same time if one cannot locate the original site of a universal behavior it does not mean that the behavior does not have an origin in the human brain. It just means that one does not have the instrumentation or the knowledge to find it.

We should remember that the human brain is the most complex machine on the planet. And up to very recent times man's knowledge of its basic functions were not known. Aristotle referred to the human brain as the cooling system of the body. In other words Aristotle's explanation of the human brain was that it's just a radiator. A look at the content of the bodies of the Egyptian mummies show that they are all missing the brain. Apparently, in the process of mummifying of the deceased they used to cut out all of the internal organs and at the end, they would put back those organs that were going to be needed in after life, into the cavity. Since they thought that the human brain has no value they used to throw it away.

If one investigates any archaeological site one would notice that there are several items which are commonly seen in all of them (if the site is intact). These items include utensils, weapons, jewelry and religious artifacts. Each one of these artifacts represents a universal behavior. Utensils represent hunger and thirst. Jewelry represents human sexual behavior and, weapons refer to human aggression. Since religious artifacts represent religiosity one can postulate that human religious behavior is in the same universal behavior category as the rest of them.

The oldest documented religious behavior is recorded among the Neanderthals. Although Neanderthals were totally different from homosapiens (us) they did leave a few artifacts which point to the possibility that they were the first animals who developed religiosity. These artifacts include burying the dead with utensils, weapons and food. This behavior represents a belief in life after death, which is fundamentally a religious belief.

Big bang in anthropology

The Big Bang Theory is usually used to refer to the origins of the universe. However, there is also a Big Bang in evolution. Homo sapiens appeared on the planet Earth about one hundred thousand years ago (maybe more but not less) And although it's a common belief that there has not been much of a change among the homo sapiens from the beginning until now one can easily see an evolutionary process in human brain development which is superimposed within the evolution of human species.

About sixty thousand years ago, there was a significant change in human behavior which represents a significant change in the function of the human brain. However, since we do not have any fossils of the human brain itself our studies are limited to the study of the skull which does not show any significant change.

The change in function of the human brain can be confirmed by the significant change in human behavior that the giant leap indicates. All different components of the brain got integrated so well that it made the human brain much more functional.

A careful analysis of the archaeological sites shows the appearance of the language, knowledge to self, compassion, the creation and utilization of complex tools, and appearance of religion. The best indicator of development of compassion is the observation of human bones, which indicate that the person had sustained severe injuries but the victim had died of natural causes not related to the injury. This finding promotes the idea that the person must have been taken care of by others. Such behavior is specific to the last generation of the Neanderthals and homo- sapiens after the big bang.

If we put these facts together then we can easily see why human beings developed religiosity and how it became a part of human genome.

If a human is capable of developing insight to self and is a social animal and has devolved compassion, living in harsh environments of sixty thousand years ago, he is going to be badly vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Considering the fact that the most potent human instinct is motherhood and a human child requires a minimum of twelve years to become independent one can imagine how a mother would have felt if she would observe her child being stolen by an animal in her view.. That individual without any doubt would have developed clinical depression. Therefore, those humans encountering such terrifying experiences, in those harsh environments would not have survived the following clinical depression if they did not have the innate tool of religion to deal with the problem. It is well known that severe depression, if not treated, is a fatal condition.

We can observe similar religious behaviors in societies which were totally isolated for tens of thousands of years, making the learning theory of religiosity null and void.

For example Australian Aborigines who were separated from the mainland about thirty thousand years ago and Native Americans who were separated from the main body of Asia about fifteen thousand years ago, all indulge in some type of religious behavior.

If the theory of the innate nature of human religiosity is accurate then one can conclude that the environmental factors only help to shape the religious thought, and that they are not the cause of it. The fact that a Muslim from Saudi Arabia and a Catholic from Italy and an Aborigine from Australia manifest religious behaviors of different forms and shapes is quite similar to any other universal human behavior.

There is also the controversial study by Dr Dean Hamer who claimed that he was able to locate the gene for religiosity. He coined the term "god gene" and reported that the God Gene worked with serotonin.

My last point is that I have been able to significantly modify the religious behavior of a few patients who manifested hyper religiosity. This change was accomplished with the use of SSRIs. Therefore, I would like to refer to human religious behavior as "Prozac of the Neanderthal."

About the author: Dr. Abbas Sadeghian is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine

... Payvand News - 03/25/16 ... --



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