Why Faith Endures

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62 NIV

I once told a leader of our campus Christian fellowship about doubts prompted by my religion major classes. “Get your Bible and read Luke 9: 62,” he said. I did, and can still see the hardness on his face when I looked up. Religions venerate those who long endure, honoring their moral steadfastness. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter.

Scarlet letterReligions punish doubt and dissidence through peer pressure, public censure, witch hunts, inquisitions, executions, jihads, war, genocide…. The year before, the dining halls had flown into an uproar the day the college newspaper reported that the fellowship had expelled a member for sleeping with her boyfriend.

Religions also have a curious way of tolerating their leaders’ nonconforming behavior — even as the leaders cry witch hunt.[1]

These things happen in all cultural institutions, not just religion. Neuroculture offers an explanation for all of them that emphasizes group dynamics over individual integrity. It goes like this:

  • When enough people believe something, a culture with a shared belief system emerges.
  • Individual doubt about the culture’s belief system introduces “cognitive dissonance” that makes individuals uneasy and threatens cultural cohesiveness.
  • Cohesiveness is essential to the group’s survival — doubt and nonconformity can’t be tolerated.
  • The culture therefore sanctifies belief and stifles doubt.
  • The culture sometimes bends its own rules to preserve its leadership power structure against larger threats.

This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017) illustrates this process:

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017) explains why the process seems so perfectly reasonable:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”

What does it take for individual dissent or cultural change to prevail in the face of these powerful dynamics? We’ll look at that next time.

[1]  This “bigger bully” theory was remarkably evident when Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, said evangelicals “kind of gave [Donald Trump] a mulligan” over Stormy Daniels, saying that evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that’s willing to punch the bully.”

Religion on Demand

god helmet

“Given that the neurological roots of religious experiences can be traced so accurately with the help of the latest neuroscientific technologies, does this mean that we could — in principle — ‘create’ these experiences on demand?”[1]

It’s a good question. And so is the obvious follow up: if technology can create religious experience on demand, how does that affect religion’s claims to authenticity and its status as a cultural institution?

Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the “”God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article) for use in neuro-religious research.

This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. “If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,” [says Dr. Persinger]. [3]

The experiences created are not doctrinally specific, but are of a kind widely shared among different religions — for example, sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. All of these states have been measured or induced in the laboratory[4]:

Some recent advances in neuroimaging techniques allow us to understand how our brains ‘create’ a spiritual or mystical experience. What causes the feeling that someone else is present in the room, or that we’ve stepped outside of our bodies and into another dimension?

“In the last few years,” says [Dr. Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City], “brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”

Prof. James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., [says that] “We are able to even understand when a person gets into ‘ecstasy mode’ … and to identify specific brain areas that participate in this process.”

“If ‘beings’ join the mystical experience,” Prof. Giordano goes on, “we can say that the activity of the left and right temporal lobe network (found at the bottom middle part of the cortex) has changed.”

 “When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [which is a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe] or our prefrontal cortex increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change,” Prof. Giordano explains in an interview for Medium. “These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to.”

The parietal lobes are also the areas that [Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of neurotheology, has] found to have lower brain activity during prayer.

And much more. In addition, research has also helped to explain such things as why people with chronic neurodegenerative diseases often lose their religion:

“We discovered a subgroup who were quite religious but, as the disease progressed, lost some aspects of their religiosity,” [says Patrick McNamara, professor of neurology at Boston University and author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (2009)]. Sufferers’ brains lack the neurotransmitter dopamine, making McNamara suspect that religiosity is linked to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. “These areas of the brain handle complexity best, so it may be that people with Parkinson’s find it harder to access complex religious experiences.”

Does this research signal the end of religion any time soon? Probably not, says Dr. Newberg:

Until we gain such answers, however, religion is unlikely to go anywhere. The architecture of our brains won’t allow it, says Dr. Newberg, and religion fulfills needs that our brains are designed to have.[5]

Tim Crane, author of The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), agrees:  religion, he says, is simply “too ingrained as a human instinct.” See also this article[6]’s analysis of the current state of the science vs. religion contention, which concludes that the scale seems to be tipping more to the latter:

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy.

There are plenty of contrary opinions, of course, and all the technology and research in the world is unlikely to change anybody’s mind. pro or con. We’ll look at why not next time.

[1] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

[4] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,” Medical News Today (July 20, 2018).

[5] Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Vince Rause (2001).

[6] “Why Religion Is Not Going Away And Science Will Not Destroy It,” Aeon Magazine (Sept. 7, 2017).

“The Opium of the People”: Sex, Drugs, Rock n Roll, Gambling, and … Religion

dice

Religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. What happens next might surprise you.

Last time, we heard from Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, who says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“[N]eurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, another pioneer of “neurotheology.” agrees that the religion-brain link promotes social cohesiveness and morality.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’ says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discusson.'”

The Apostle Paul, whose pre-conversion theological training was ultra-legalistic, likened law-based belief to being under the care of a guardian:  we need something to keep us in line until we grow up enough to embrace responsibility along with freedom. Paul’s Letter to the Galations 3:22-24. Until we make that shift, the brain’s religious wiring is equally adept at promoting individual and communal health as their opposites. Dr. Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist that reflect the implications of this neurological indifference:

  • Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety, but just 12 minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
  • Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
  • Fundamentalism, in and of itself, is benign and can be personally beneficial, but the anger and prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.
  • Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain—altering your values and the way you perceive reality.

In fact, the brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning”

“What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

These findings suggest a fascinating explanation for a wide range of religious behaviors — everything from charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and “fellowship” dynamics on one end to clergy sexual crimes and misconduct, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other. Shocking as it may seem, the whole spectrum qualifies for the brain’s addictive feel-good list, along with sex, drugs, music, and gambling.

More from neurotheology next time.

Why Belief Works

Our experience of the “real world” will conform to what we believe. It has to, because our brains insist upon it.

They do that in part through neuro-cultural conditioning — the process by which the neurological wiring of a culture’s individual members is patterned after the culture’s belief system, and vice versa. This is the case with any kind of cultural institution, whether national, religious, scientific, economic, corporate, professional, team, tribal, or otherwise.[1] This post looks at religion as an example.[2]

Tim Crane is a professor of philosophy at the Central European University in Budapest. “I work in the philosophy of mind,” his online CV says, “I have attempted to address questions about the most general nature, or essence, of the human mind, and about the place of the mind in the rest of nature.” In his book The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), he cites William James’ 1902 classic The Varieties of Religious Experience for a definition of what he calls “the religious impulse”:

“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms, one might say that it consists in the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

Christian Smith is a sociology professor and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Here’s his definition of religion:

“Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on promises about the existence and nature of supernatural powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align themselves with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.”

Religion: What It Is, How It Works, And Why It Matters (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Both authors stress that religious principles and practices need to match in order for religion to be effective. In other words:

“Faith without works is dead.”
The Epistle of James 2: 17

As it turns out, “faith without works is dead” is not just scripture, but accurate neuroscience as well. When we practice what we preach, we set up a self-sustaining loop in which belief drives thoughts and behavior, which in turn reinforce belief. In that way, religion develops the brain while the brain develops religion:

“Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined.’”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

The more widespread and enduring the religious practice, the more the religion develops scriptures, rituals, icons, and institutions to sustain itself. Therefore a Bible passage such as this…

“I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
 or their children begging bread.”
Psalm 37: 25 NIV

… becomes both community truth and the “testimony” of individual adherents. But what happens when belief and experience don’t align — e.g., when a member of the congregation and her children in fact go begging?

Some religious thinkers, like the writer of this Huffington Post article, reckon with the contradiction by distinguishing belief from faith. Beliefs are products of the mind, she says, and deal with what can be known, while faith is a product of the spirit, which traffics in what cannot be known. Since knowledge is always shifting, belief can and probably will let us down, while faith in what can’t be known remains inscrutable. Faith therefore invites belief to step aside in favor of “trusting beyond all reason and evidence.”

That outlook captures the essential center of the definitions of religion we saw above:  that there is a “divine order” populated with “supernatural powers” that exists alongside but separate from ours. (Of which we have only limited understanding, the belief/faith outlook would add.)  Whether this satisfies the brain’s need to align internal patterning with external experience is the kind of issue being taken up by the new discipline of neurotheology which looks at where religion happens in the brain.

Neurotheology’s inquiries have far-reaching implications for many of our common assumptions about how reality is structured. For example, if faith can be explained in neurological terms, then it could be located — in whole or in part — along with belief on this side of the theoretical divide between human and supernatural existence.  This shift would likely have a ripple effect on similar dichotomies, such as known vs. unknown, real vs. imaginary, objective vs. subjective, observed vs. inscrutable, temporal vs. transcendence, etc.

More on neurotheology coming up.

[1] For more on cultural patterning, see the other posts in this blog’s category The Basics of Belief. Culture, and Reality.

[2] I talk about Christianity because it is the only religion I have personal experience with. And I am aware, by the way, that I write this post under the influence of my own neuroscientific cultural bias.