In the last two segments of this article we covered the instinctual nature of human religiosity as well as the neuropsychological basis of human religious behavior. This segment is dedicated to the role of religion in man's search for meaning of life and parapsychology.
Worshipers at the shrine of Imam Hossein in Karbala, Iraq
Man in search of meaning
In my young ages, I had spent many hours thinking and talking about the meaning of life. My first exposure to a man worthy of listening to on this topic was when I met Dr. Victor Frankel in San Diego during my masters program.
Dr. Frankel is quite famous and does not need my approval to be who he is. However, seeing a man of his caliber struggling with the same problem as I had, provided me with the reassurance that my lack of success in this struggle was not due to ignorance.
Since like all others born and raised in the Middle East, I have been exposed to a full array of religious beliefs. I have tried to distinguish superstitions from actual religious beliefs. Also, one needs to develop a sharp eye to pick out charlatans and demogags. I hope all readers agree with me that there is plenty of each.
Today's superiority of religion to science is the same as a thousand years ago. A Religion can very quickly provide the believer with a meaning for his life .The fact that the explanation for meaning of life is logical, illogical, brilliant or ignorant is irrelevant. The very primitive polytheistic religions provided the same outcome as the elaborate monotheistic religions of today.
The main advantage of faith to science is the fact that religions do not require logical thinking, while science is totally hampered by its need for "reason". It is quite interesting that scientists and philosophers like Plato, Copernicus, and Omar Khayyam who were by far more intelligent and educated than most of us, were as inadequate in answering these existential questions as the rest of us. Ironically, a clergyman practicing in a village of Afghanistan can provide his followers socially acceptable explanations of human existence, much better than any known scientist. The task of the Afghan clergyman is quite simple; he has to collect religious stories which match the common beliefs of the villagers. It is astonishing that the belief system of the peasants of Afghanistan is not too different to the beliefs of the people of the most advanced countries of Western Europe and North America. The main difference between an Afghan peasant and an American high school graduate is the fact that the Afghan peasant has some knowledge of the Christian Bible while most of the American high school graduates have no knowledge of the content of the Quran.
It has been reported that when Freud was residing in London in 1939 he was working on psychoanalysis of Hitler. However, when he was asked what he would study if he had one more shot at life he said "Parapsychology". Having heard that about Freud and my identification with him at that time (my friends used to call me Sigmund), and the extremely unusual experiences I had had in the Middle East, it was one of my goals that upon my arrival in the United States, I would study two concepts in depth 1) parapsychology, 2) Marxism Leninism (badly detrimental to your health by Iranian secret police, the SAVAK). Studying Marxism Leninism was a pain in the neck as it didn't make sense and was full of errors but it was easy to overcome and refute. Studying parapsychology was interesting but so convoluted and mixed with superstitions and rubbish which never answered my questions then or now. Throughout history of mankind the use of unknown phenomenon has been the corner stone of religious explanations. If we want to cover the stories of the charlatans of the world and their victims we have to waste many valuable pages of to report rubbish. I will make just two references and leave the rest to our readers.
Organized religion & magical thinking:
In dealing with the issue of religion one is always faced with the fact that there is a significant difference between a religion, teachings of it's' prophet, and the organized activity of that religion.
Transformation of social movements to institution
Since any critical reference to a religion is potentially offensive, it is considered good manners to avoid talking about religion or politics. It is quite obvious that if the masses of society do not get involved in political discussions, political activity becomes limited to those with power and money, whom do not necessarily have the best interest of the masses at heart. The same concept applies to organized religion.
One can make the argument that since the religious drive is instinctual, we should leave it to individual members of the society to apply their faith to their lives at their own discretions. However, in reality religions do not function that way and in every religion there is a lot of room for organized religion to gain momentum and power. The potential repressive power of religions could become so strong that it could cause massive and irreversible harm to society. Examples of runaway power of religion can be seen in most corners of the world. However, the grotesque forms of it are seen in countries of the Middle East and Africa. Even in a country as advanced and educated as the USA, a Mormon or a member of a religious cult has a better chance of getting elected to any office than an atheist.
If we assume that human religious behavior has organic causes, then we can assume that we would not need a church or a mosque to be religious. This is similar to the fact that going to restaurants is a way of eating and having a good time, while we know that we do not need to have restaurants to fulfill our need for food. Humans are as capable of cooking on their own, as they are able to worship on their own. In other words, if we are going to be religious anyway, and the source of the religiosity is within our own brain, why do we have to have prophets, temples, shrines, and the continuous struggle between religion and state?
The source or root of organized religion is almost identical in all religions. Religions usually begin as a movement. They are ideas which stand up against established governments and their accepted faith. They defy wealth, power, and regulations of the organized faith. Although every new religion has a prophet, either the prophet himself, or one of his followers pulls out a sword against the rich and the king and the chief clergy. If they are successful, there will be an Islam or Christianity. If they are not successful, they are usually devoured by bigger religions. With time religions have a tendency to lose their intensity and defiance. Religions become more conservative and turn into an institution. When religions are changed from a movement to institutions, they lose their beauty and the ability to provide assistance to the members. They begin to interfere with affairs of the state. Since they have an insatiable appetite for members and temples; they provoke the kings to use their military might to capture new territories and save new members. Within a short time the concept of "institution of a religion" turns into the "organization of a religion". Gradually, the original revolutionary idea turns into a large organization, which is expensive to run and hard to tame. Throughout the human history there have been many types of organized religion. The power of organized religion is a significant factor in that society. Although, periodically organized religion has had some minor benefits for a society; it is usually a severe drain on the resources of that society. As a rule, the function of a temple is not to be a charity society. The function of a temple is to protect and preserve that given faith. The maintenance expenses of organized religions are probably only second to the expenses of the armed forces of the world. Throughout human history, the best of the human brain and treasures have been wasted on organized religion. The most vivid example of these wasteful behaviors is the murderous practice of making the pyramids of Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of slaves, building a totally useless structure, to make sure that the body of the pharaoh is protected. Considering the fact that grave robbers were able to get to most of these pyramids, speaks volumes about the efficiency of pyramids. Perhaps the only manmade object on planet Earth more useless, and more expensive than the pyramids, is the Sphinx. That odd looking statue was supposed to protect the pyramids. As if pyramids need any protection? Ironically, when it came to the devilish behavior of grave robbers, Sphinx couldn't do anything neither. If the practice of organized religion was limited to making places of worship to gratify the inner drive of religious people, then it would have been reasonably tolerable. However, those buildings, shrines, or temples are utilized to educate clergymen.
All religions have a group of experts in that religion, whose job is to persuade the followers of that faith to practice certain behaviors and pay their hard, earned money to the temple. This is to ensure that they go to a garden in the skies that has never been seen. In order to be able to sell such a tall tale to millions of people, one cannot be a crook or a charlatan, he must really believe in what he is saying. It is the sincerity in the belief, which causes the followers to take the clergy so serious and to follow their lead. The majority of the clergymen of the world are well educated and intelligent, which makes it very difficult to keep them away from politics. They have been quite successful in imposing theocracy on many countries throughout history. Countries which have lived under theocracy, and tasted the brutal methods employed by religions, have a tendency to be less religious. The highest numbers of atheists in the world are in South Korea and France, about 20 percent. Countries like Italy have more atheists than countries like the U.S. Although, since Renaissance in 15th century, there has been a significant attempt to push the gene of the clergy back to it's' place. They do have a tendency to survive, and modify the faith, in order to adapt to the needs of the time. For example, although it is strongly advised not to modify the writings of the Bible; when referring to creation, we clearly see that a reference to "one day" has been changed to "one period". Before Darwin's teachings of 19th century, all Bibles would refer to days one through seven, as a regular day, from sunrise to sunset. While the Bibles which are printed in the last 50 years, mostly refer to a day, as a period. This minor modification makes it possible to defend the idea of creation, against the scientific facts of evolution.
One of those rare occasions when organized religion has been a source of help, rather than hindrance, is with the case of the Amish community and their vast web of churches. Even though the practice of being Amish is badly primitive, and defies any logic; the existence of the Amish church has protected the Amish people during the last 100 years. The Amish people were terribly mistreated and taken advantage of during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century in Europe and Russia. Their intelligent behavior of immigrating to the United States; buying land and growing crops, was quite effective in getting them out of harms' way. Additionally, the concept of donating the earnings of one days' worth of work, a week, to the community fund, has helped them to receive proper medical care; and to build strong enough of a lobby, to not have to go to combat during the war as conscientious objectors. The Amish lifestyle, although very primitive, is quite similar to the socialist system that many intellectuals of the world are striving for.
Unfortunately, the intensity of human emotions regarding their faith is so strong, that it is next to impossible to hold a reasonable discussion regarding people who are referred to as prophets of god. If a person is a little inquisitive, he probably would have a few legitimate questions regarding the issue of prophets of god. The simple question is that, "Why does god need spokesmen, after all, he is the creator of the universe, with such tremendous power and unlimited creativity; why does he need human beings to transfer his message? If we assume that our hypothesis of religion as an innate drive; then the issue of the prophets changes entirely. The prophets would not be god's spokesmen; rather, they are people who think that they are messengers of god. And, they think that there is a problem associated with the mechanism of religiosity, which has caused them to make such grandiose claims. In one case, "Muhammad" the prophet of Islam, I was able to render a diagnosis and provide the support for the notion that he suffered from complex partial seizures. In the case of older prophets, the documentation is sketchy and unreliable. The more recent ones are easier to read, but they do not have such a following, to make it necessary to spend years of research to figure out. However, if we broaden our scope, and look at the common denominator among them; we can see some similarities, which might be able to answer some of our questions. The main prerequisite to be able to claim that one is a prophet, is the ability to perform miracles. Although, the biggest miracle is the fact that there are people who still believe that there is such a thing called a miracle?
What is a miracle?
Miracles are supposed to be the ability to conduct behaviors that other humans can not do. The prophets can wish things to happen that others can not (turning a staff into a snake). In the case of Muhammad, he claimed that the Quran is his miracle, that no one else could write such an eloquent book. This lays the ground work for Shakespeare (in English), and Firdausi (in Persian), and Garcia Lorca in Spanish, to make similar claims.
(1)The idea of miracles is quite similar to the concepts of magical thinking, in clinical psychology. Magical thinking refers to "causal reasoning that often includes such ideas as the ability of the mind to affect the physical world, and correlation mistaken for causation"; for example, in most religions there is a belief that religious leaders, prophets, and saints, have a tendency not to decay after they die. Many of these intact bodies could be found in Europe and Asia (Saint Bernadette in France). However, when their bodies are checked properly, we easily detect different embalming methods. Ironically; the bodies of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, who are founders of communism, and are all renowned atheists, are totally intact and have been on public display for decades. In the practice of psychology, magical thinking is specifically used in the differential diagnosis of patients that suffer from Schizotypal personality disorder. The other common denominators among prophets are:
(2) Hearing the gods messages, teachings, and orders (auditory hallucinations)
(3) Seeing things that other people cannot see (visual hallucinations)
(4) Strong sense of mission, and the belief that the person is the only one who has the truth at hand (delusions of Grandeur)
(5)The first contacts with god are made at younger ages, mostly before 30 (genetic nature of the illness).
If we take all these characteristics and put them in the diagnostic criteria of mental disorders, we can quickly come up with schizophrenia and its' different variations. Those mental health professionals who have worked in state hospitals are quite familiar with a high number of schizophrenic patients, who claim to be god or a prophet of god, and stop these claims once they receive the antipsychotic medications. The main exceptions to schizophrenic prophets are those suffering from seizure disorder. In my book, Sword and Seizure; we were able to show how Mohammed's seizure disorder caused him to believe he is a messenger of God, and founded a faith which includes 25% of the population of earth. More astonishing of this phenomenon, is the behavior of the devout followers of polytheist religions. For example, if we were in India, we could observe people who would go to a grocery store, buy a can of cow urine, and wash their face with it as well as have a few sips. Considering the fact that at least one billion people on planet Earth believe in Hinduism, one wonders what makes a person believe in such an irrational behavior. Each one of these behaviors, drinking the cow's urine, worshipping statues, building pyramids, and believing in after life, are different forms of magical thinking.
About the author: Dr. Abbas Sadeghian is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine
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