Science of the Religious Mind

January 14, 2014
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For some odd reason, all sorts of folks are still asking the question of whether or not god is real. D.F. Swaab, though, author of We Are Our Brains, is pondering a better question, about why so many people are religious. According to Swaab, there are thousands of belief systems, many of them encoded with hatreds of other systems, and the supposition that theirs is the truth. And to Swaab, religion is not a free choice, but something that’s evolved with us, a part of the genetic makeup we all share.

Swaab’s scientific inquiry seems to suggest that all human creatures contain at least a bit of spirituality, as the brain has serotonin receptors that correspond to perceptions of spirituality. Now that’s wacky (those weird trips you have on mushrooms? not unlike spiritual experiences!). As well, religion is programmed into children’s minds at early ages, just like language, the degrees of which depend on the surrounding stimuli. So regardless of the actual religion, kids receive certain levels of receptiveness towards spirituality based on brain circuitry and the make-up of the community raising the lil’ ones in question.

science and religion

Probably to the rage of certain scientists (fun!), Swaab outlines some of the evolutionary benefits to religion and spirituality. According to Swaab, religion keeps social groups and cultures together, a genetic survival system. Some faiths ban contraceptive tools, promoting the creation of more creatures of that specific faith (look at it like animals, and religion makes populating sense). Also, some of the ancient rules made sense health-wise back in the day (but of course now some faiths contribute to mental health against the backdrop of the modern world). Rules that still exist in religions are sometimes easier to follow than self-imposed rules; having a way to live, and answers to big questions, eases the mortal mind. Religion also makes the fear of dying not so nightmarish.

Finally, many religions have rules for killing others in the species, or justified means in which to protect the survival of the group. Religious wars, seen from the creaturely perspective, reflect the desire to have enough food, enough space to roam and mate, and peace for the winner. Of course, xenophobia still runs rampant, and a globalized economy and culture should do away with old hatreds and grudges, but that part of belief is still so strong that it may take more time than we have.

Swaab’s study is excellent because it shows how religion is a set of behaviors that evolved with us. Our brain chemistry changes with religious belief; spirituality has interesting advantages, and a better understanding of the chemistry offers an augmentation of those and the ability to break down the disadvantages. Knowing the chemical machinations help to understand the differences between mental disorders and religious experience, and the possible correlations between the two. For anyone wishing to know more, check out Swaab’s article in Salon or read his book (the article is actually an excerpt).

It’s important here to note how religion can be used positively. Many scientists wish to do away with the spiritual and metaphorical entirely, but really, that’d be boring and xenophobic in a whole new way. If early human development includes chemical spirituality, maybe it’d be a good idea to instill in a globalized culture a good balance between religious belief and science, thus freeing up the developing child early on to make decisions and have a chemically open mind. If the human animal is always a bit spiritual, why not learn to harness the benefits? Hopefully the more open, educated mind, accessible to all folks, can stop senseless brainwashing, hatred, and violence that is way too prevalent in a collective culture that thinks all too highly of itself.

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