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.”

“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.

It’s An Inside Job

In Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, Yale Medical School professor of psychiatry Bruce E. Wexler declared that “concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” “Concordance” is peace of mind, which we all know is an inside job.

peace of mind

But the concordance Wexler is talking about is not the kind reserved for the enlightened few, it’s the kind that’s a brain health necessity. Our brains work unceasingly to maintain harmony between us and our surroundings, including our cultural setting. When internal and external are out of sync, the result is cognitive dissonance which, when left unresolved, leads to physical, mental, and social disease, distress and disorder. Neurological concordance is therefore a surviving and thriving skill, and can be traced to the corresponding part of the brain:

“Thanks to advances in imaging methods, especially functional MRI, researchers have recently identified key brain regions linked to cognitive dissonance. The area implicated most consistently is the posterior part of the medial frontal cortex (pMFC), known to play an important role in avoiding aversive outcomes, a powerful built-in survival instinct. In fMRI studies, when subjects lie to a peer despite knowing that lying is wrong—a task that puts their actions and beliefs in conflict—the pMFC lights up.”[1]

cognitive dissonance

The straightest  path to concordance is conformity. Nonconformity, on the other hand, generates both intracultural and intercultural neurological conflict. [2] This potential for conflict was the context for Wexler’s peace of mind declaration — let’s hear it again, the full quote this time:

“This book argues that differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” (Emphasis added.)

Peace of mind therefore requires the alignment of inner and outer belief systems. This article[3] defines the term:

“Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually ‘make sense’ of the world around us.

 “The species Homo sapiens developed so-called belief systems. These are sets of beliefs reinforced by culture, theology, and experience and training as to how the world works cultural values, stereotypes, political viewpoints, etc.”

In order for personal (internal) and shared (external) belief systems to align, the culture’s members must share comparable neural pathways, consciousness, perceptions, sensory tastes, physiology, and the like.[4] When they do, the culture becomes recognizable in its members. Think of the Olympics’ opening ceremony parade of athletes:  the Yanks are obviously the Yanks — nobody else has quite their swashbuckling sense of derring-do. Or think of professional cultures — lawyers, accountants, engineers, physicians — meet one, and you can just tell. Or remember what it’s like to visit a foreign culture — it’s not just the signage but it’s… well, everything —  how people look, sound, act, their customs and values….

All of that is the result of biological, chemical, environmental, and other influences, all stored in individual brains and bodies. But how is cultural patterning transmitted from one individual to another? John R. Searle, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, wanted to know, and finding out led to his seminal book The Construction of Social Reality:

“This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time:  there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking about things like money, property, governments, and marriage.

“If everybody thinks that this sort of thing is money, and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling, political offices, and so on.”

“How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?”

This article[5] provides this summary answer to Searle’s questions:

“Because mental states cannot be transferred physically, they must be transferred by being re-created in the mind of the receiving individual.

“[W]hat is transmitted is some state of mind that produces behavior.

“[The transmitted state of mind includes] a myriad of… beliefs, values, desires, definitions, attitudes, and emotional states such as fear, regret, or pride.”

Vastly simplified, the process of enculturation looks like this:

  • New members enter via an entry point such as birth, naturalization, initiation, etc.
  • They observe the culture’s members thinking and behaving in the culture’s characteristic ways.
  • Through observation and imitation, they take on the culture’s mindset and become habituated into its belief and behavioral norms.
  • In time, they become recognizable as members of the culture along with its other members.
  • Then, an organizing principle called “emergence” asserts itself, so that the whole culture takes on a life of its own that is bigger than the sum of its individual members.

We’ll talk about emergence next time.

[1] “What Happens to the Brain During Cognitive Dissonance?” Scientific American Mind (Nov. 2015).

[2] There’s been a lot of research on conformity and nonconformity in the past ten years. If you’re interested in digging deeper, searching “neuroscience of conformity” and “neuroscience of nonconformity” will turn up several scholarly studies.

[3] “What Are Belief Systems?” Usó-Doménech and J. Nescolarde-Selva, Department of Applied Mathematics. University of Alicante. Alicante. Spain.

[4] See the prior post, Microbes of Meaning.

[5]Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture”, Philip G. Chase, former Senior Research Scientist and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania,

“Be the Change You Want to See” — Why Change MUST Always Begin With Us

the-beginning-e1503252471356

In the beginning, somebody…

Told a story. Made something. Made something that made things. Drew a picture. Used their voice melodiously. Moved a certain way and did it again. Took something apart, put it back together, and built another thing like it. Watched how weather and sky and flora and fauna responded to the passage of time. Sprinkled dry leaves on meat and ate it. Drew a line in the sand and beat someone who crossed it. Traded this for that. Resolved a dispute. Helped a sick person feel better. Took something shiny from the earth or sea and wore it. Had an uncanny experience and explained it.

And then somebody else did, too — and then somebody else after that, and more somebodies after that, until the human race had organized itself into families, clans, tribes, city-states, and nations, each with its own take on life in this world. Millennia later a worldwide civilization had emerged, organized around trans-cultural institutions of law, economics, science, religion, industry, commerce, education, medicine, arts and entertainment….

And then you and I were born as new members of a highly-evolved human culture of innumerable, impossibly complex, interwoven layers.

From our first breaths we were integrated into site-specific cultural institutions that informed our beliefs about how the world works and our place in it. Those institutions weren’t external to us, they were embodied in us — microbes of meaning lodged in our neural pathways and physical biome. Our brains formed around the beliefs of our culture — our neurons drank them in, and our neural networks were wired up with the necessary assumptions, logic, and leaps of faith.

These cellular structure informed what it meant for us to be alive on the Earth, individually and in community. They shaped our observations and awareness, experiences and interpretations, tastes and sensibilities. They defined what is real and imaginary, set limits around what is true and false, acceptable and taboo. And then they reinforced the rightness of it all with feelings of place and belonging, usefulness and meaning. When that was done, our brains and bodies were overlaid with a foundation for status quo — the way things are, and are supposed to be.

All that happened in an astonishing surge of childhood development. Then came puberty, when our brain and body hormones blasted into overdrive, dredging up our genetic and environmental beginnings and parading them out for reexamination. We kept this and discarded that, activated these genes instead of those. (The process by which we do that is called epigenetics, and it explains why your kids aren’t like you.) We also tried on countercultural beliefs. welcoming some and rejecting others. From there, we entered adult life freshly realigned with a differentiated sense of self, us, and them.

From there, adult life mostly reinforces our cultural beginnings, although the nuisances and opportunities of change periodically require us to make and reaffirm shared agreements in our communities, professions, workplaces, teams, and other groups, each time reaffirming and refining our shared cultural foundations. In doing so, we sometimes flow with the changing times, and sometimes retrench with nostalgic fervor.

Where does all this biological, cognitive, and social development and maintenance happen? In the only place it possibly could:  in the hot wet darkness inside the human body’s largest organ —   our skin. Yes, there is a “real world” out there that we engage with, but the processing and storing of experience happen inside — encoded in our brains and bodies.

be the changeWhich is why individual and cultural change must always begin with us — literally inside of us, in our physical makeup — because that’s where our world and our experience of it are registered and maintained. Gandhi’s famous words are more than a catchy meme, they describe basic human reality:  if we want things to change, then we must be transformed. Think about it:  we have no belief, perception, experience, or concept of status quo that is not somehow registered in our brains and bodies, so where else could change happen? (Unless there’s something like a humanCloud where it can be uploaded and downloaded — but that’s another issue for another time.)

The implications of locating human experience in our physical selves are far-reaching and fascinating. We’ll be exploring them.

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