Religion Under The Microscope

The Economist reports recently that a major (if you call 3.1 million dollars major) European research project is under way in which the biological basis for the religious impulse will be studied. Much has been made in the past about a god gene, but this study will focus on whether there is a Darwinian, evolutionary advantage to belief in god, or religion in general. It is slated to run for at least three years, having already started last September, and it will involve research by scholars in 14 major universities, spread over a number of disciplines. Science is taking a proactive stance and putting religion under the microscope.

Explaining Religion is an ambitious attempt to do this. The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a “surveillance-camera” God might improve reproductive success to an individual’s Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a person’s reputation—for instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not? The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of co-operation, for what reasons, and whether such co-operation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.

There are quite a few studies already conducted that are cited in the article. Many of them use recent advances in brain imagery to detect those parts of the brain that fire up under lab induced circumstances designed to emulate religious experiences in daily life.

Though there is clearly still a long way to go, this sort of imaging should eventually tie down the circuitry of religious experience and that, combined with work on messenger molecules of the sort that Dr McNamara is doing, will illuminate how the brain generates and processes religious experiences.

One of the theories is that since religion doesn’t seem to give a selective advantage to individuals, it may do so in a group setting. Group selection as an evolutionary explanation had previously been abandoned by most biologists long ago, but this research may revive it.

Personally, I tend to think that there is an infinitely greater possibility that science will explain why we, as a society, tend to be religious, than that any religion will ever prove the existence of any particular god. However:

Evolutionary biologists tend to be atheists, and most would be surprised if the scientific investigation of religion did not end up supporting their point of view. But if a propensity to religious behaviour really is an evolved trait, then they have talked themselves into a position where they cannot benefit from it, much as a sceptic cannot benefit from the placebo effect of homeopathy. Maybe, therefore, it is God who will have the last laugh after all—whether He actually exists or not.

Critical thinking people have to love science, and a research project like this tends to underscore why. No matter the outcome, we will undoubtedly have learned much about the way the brain works, and why humans tend to seek meaning and explanation by positing supernatural entities, or otherwise believe in things way beyond what the evidence points to. There’s a delicious irony at work here too. Science is driven by evidence. Without it, science withers. The study of religion and belief will be the study of the evidence that explains such beliefs. Religion cares not a bit for evidence, yet it is evidence that will someday explain religion.

The sad thing is that even if science would indisputably show where our religious impulses come from, there will still be people who will shrug it off as more blatherskite from the pointy headed intellectuals who have it in for their god, and will go on praying.

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24 thoughts on “Religion Under The Microscope

  1. The sad thing is that even if science would indisputably show where our religious impulses come from, there will still be people who will shrug it off as more blatherskite from the pointy headed intellectuals who have it in for their god, and will go on praying.

    If science shows “where our religious impulses come from,” true believers may simply cite that region of brain activity (or set of electrical impulses, or who knows what they’ll find) as the “seat of the soul,” or indisputable proof that God reveals himself through an “inner witness” to our spirits. They’ll shrug it off as “a matter of interpretation.” They’re used to doing the latter, that’s pretty much how they agreed to stop fighting religious wars every few years.

    It doesn’t matter what science uncovers, those who want to cling to their religions will find ways to spin it. Big Bang = the moment of Creation; “Darwinism” = prideful rebellion against God, and so it goes.

  2. The sad thing is that even if science would indisputably show where our religious impulses come from, there will still be people who will shrug it off […]

    Yes, but so what. scientia potentia est

  3. I think it’s a fascinating subject. I’ve always wanted to understand more about what made us evolve the way we did as a society. But at the same time science will never be able to explain religion. Just like science will never be able to explain magical unicorns.. because science must be proven in reality.

  4. First, why do these things always occur in Europe? It makes me feel like we’re across the pond in some intellectually vacant swamp sinking into the mud of ignorance incapable of such a thing. Certainly there’s no shortage of subjects to examine here.

    The study is interesting, but I also think kind of silly. There have been studies before of the “god spot” in the brain which have been dismissed as simply joy and happiness spots firing at the thought of god in a religious person’s mind, which is indistinguishable from the result of a chocolate lover’s mind thinking about chocolate.

    Most of this study sounds like it’s a sociology study, not a biology study, so I think it’s confusing to talk about it in terms of evolution.

  5. Thank God there’s a biological reason for the religious impulse! I mean, what the hell would be going on if there wasn’t? Luckily for me I’m a Buddhist, and we believe everything is interconnected, so the impulse to look outside of oneself to find happiness and fulfilment would also benefit the wider environment, so the individual is integrally conected to the rest of life. The problem seems to be more the intransient and untraditional ideas of modern Christianity that everything is disconnected, than the apparent disagreement with science.

  6. “No matter the outcome, we will undoubtedly have learned much about the way the brain works, and why humans tend to seek meaning and explanation by positing supernatural entities, or otherwise believe in things way beyond what the evidence points to. There’s a delicious irony at work here too. Science is driven by evidence. Without it, science withers. The study of religion and belief will be the study of the evidence that explains such beliefs. Religion cares not a bit for evidence, yet it is evidence that will someday explain religion.”

    I think your assumption is only partially right. Yes, throughout history people and cultures have spiritualized many phenomena that science discovered were natural processes. However, science has no ultimate empirical explanation for the forces driving those processes. For example, gravity, electromagnetic, and other forces accounts for shape but not for a multitude of form. DNA seems to account for the variety and function, but DNA does not provide the source or reason for the body plans. I think Bohm has the most comprehensive explanation for it. Nevertheless, the ultimate answer has to do with origins, which answer science–including Bohm’s–cannot supply because origin deals with singular, unique, non-repeated events or it must resort to philosophy/religion. Yet, many people experience God as a person perceived directly not mediated by sensory organs within the brain. Therefore, to say religion cares nothing for evidence is not so. Blind faith in intellectual propositions is not the case. The evidence is not of test tube type. God is experienced as a person to many. The evidence is no different than that of psychology.

    Therefore, the interesting study may teach us alot, but without the cooperation of God the results will be at best partial just as Persinger’s study proved.

  7. I think Descartes said that God imprints his mark onto all of his creation. If science proved that there are brain mechanisms that make religious thought possible they would only be serving this theory. In other words, the outcome of this study will result in approximately nothing. Why aren’t they trying to find a cure for cancer with all that money? Or maybe even trying to find a link between religious lifestyles and cancer?

  8. Yet, many people experience God as a person perceived directly not mediated by sensory organs within the brain. Therefore, to say religion cares nothing for evidence is not so. Blind faith in intellectual propositions is not the case. The evidence is not of test tube type. God is experienced as a person to many. The evidence is no different than that of psychology.


    Like schizophrenia, syndrome of subjective doubles, or some comparable delusion? Your talk of how one experiences a god is indistinguishable from these mental delusions but I certainly will agree with you that “the evidence is no different than that of psychology”. Perhaps they can create a pill to fix the chemical imbalance, maybe call it Godno.

    I think Descartes said that God imprints his mark onto all of his creation. If science proved that there are brain mechanisms that make religious thought possible they would only be serving this theory.


    I can see how a religious person would come to that conclusion, but a nonreligious would see that as proof for why we can’t shake this religious crap, a genetic disorder of sorts. In other words, it would show the disorder causes belief in gods, not that there’s a god or gods who built us with a god receiver.

  9. Ex

    as Ricky used to say to Lucy, “You’ve got some ’splainin’ to do.”

    The thing I find encouraging is that to undertake a project like this, they have to start from the assumption that there is no supernatural explanation for religious belief (as good science should), so that if they are able to “‘splain” religion in purely biological, sociological, or other naturalistic terms, they will have provided more evidence that the assumption is valid. Win-win as far as I see it.

    Chappie

    They’ll shrug it off as “a matter of interpretation.”

    Yes, but won’t it be fun for us bloggers (we bloggers?)? More nonsense to feed the blogs.

    John M

    Yes, but so what. scientia potentia est

    Agreed. But right now, who has the power?

    OG

    But at the same time science will never be able to explain religion. Just like science will never be able to explain magical unicorns.. because science must be proven in reality.

    The nice thing about this, or at least the potential of it, is that in explaining why we have religious beliefs, we will have scientifically explained religion. We dismiss people who seriously believe in unicorns as mentally ill, so we’ve already explained that scientifically. My guess is an explanation that involves brain processes will be similar.

    Philly

    why do these things always occur in Europe?

    Because Europeans are way ahead of us in religious thinking? They are in the advance stages of shedding religion (and possibly inheriting Islam), and don’t have the usual nut cases objecting to the small expenditure of public funds for a possibly worldwide enlightening study.

    Jillrees

    Thank God there’s a biological reason for the religious impulse!

    Yes! Let’s do that. Thank God. I agree that everything is interconnected, but only in the biological sense, not the spiritual, though there may be a biological component we call spiritual.

    David Downs

    the interesting study may teach us alot, but without the cooperation of God the results will be at best partial

    Partial explanations are better than the pure ignorance we base our assumptions on now.

    LP

    Why aren’t they trying to find a cure for cancer with all that money? Or maybe even trying to find a link between religious lifestyles and cancer?

    Relative comparisons are worthless. Why don’t we spend the money we are now shipping to Iraq on education, cancer research, etc? Arguably, religion causes much human suffering in the world also, so why not study it?

    kumoiku

    hello..

    Hello

  10. You should have just kept the original ‘Hand of God’ as your image. If you look at where God is lying you’ll notice it’s actually a human brain.

  11. I feel pity at seeing the cover of the blog with a naked woman, representing Jesus, in the holy dinner. Everything you want embarrar with sex. This reveals what it is that sick mind.

    It is regrettable that even “some” scientists claim that may define “all”, based on their knowledge, who are trying to base without God.

    One thing is clear: there is more hope in one who believes in God, and he responds, that those who are called atheists. ”

    From God are the concepts of family, brotherhood, fraternity, loyalty and love in its entirety. Will Encourage these sentiments is fatal?

    Of the decálogos oldest is the commandment that says in Ephesians 6:2: “Honor your father and your mother, which is the first commandment with promise …” A religion, a search for God in this regard Does something wrong?

    The departing from the true God is what has brought so much trouble to mankind.

    The present tense is indicated by the Bible as a moral and ethical degradation: “For evil is called good already bitter sweet.”

  12. Great post. I agree with the sentiments of those above who say that even if we could isolate all of the variables that give birth to religious belief, it won’t end up proving anything to those who already believe. They will simply claim that we’ve discovered the physical mechanisms by which our body’s respond to revelation from above.

    The more I think about it, the more I think that the best science can hope for is to continue cutting off avenues of escape for god– close off more and more of those gaps people try to hide god in– until the picture of god no longer resembles anything remotely like Yahweh. Some, like myself, might say we’re already there, but others might require more convincing.

    Great post and great discussion

  13. I’m kind of with LP on this, although my rationale comes from the opposite side of the spectrum. Still, his question is good, and I’ll paraphrase it: Why do a god/brain study at all? Why not spend money on something practical, like medical research?

    I don’t think there’s a universal “god gene,” because I don’t have it. Millions of other skeptics and atheists don’t have it. Why look for it at all? And scary thought: Doesn’t the study have to start with the hypothesis that there is such a “god gene,” and then attempt to falsify that hypothesis? And how will the study be conducted? Will there be experiments? If so, what will the controls be? If not, will the “study” be based on lots of historical, sociological, and psychological anecdotes? Most important: What is the anticipated upshot of the study? If an evolutionary god-imperative is found, will that make belief in nonsense hunky-dory? Or is it supposed to disprove the existence of a god to people for whom the discovery of such a gene will merely be more evidence to prove that a supernatural being created humans?

    Philly is 100% correct: The study is interesting, but I also think kind of silly. I’d delete “kind of.” It’s silly, pure and simple.

  14. Exterminator:
    The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a “surveillance-camera” God might improve reproductive success to an individual’s Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a person’s reputation—for instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not? The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of co-operation, for what reasons, and whether such co-operation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.

    Unless they’re incompetent, these studies will generate data.

    It’s silly, pure and simple.
    OK, you think scientifically studying religious belief is silly. I don’t. Two different opinions.

    Is it not true that, BY THE standards of European scientific collaboration, €2m ($3.1m) is not a huge sum?

  15. I think this is wasted money – and I doubt that the results will change the minds of people (it may help – however – some people to get tenure etc :):).

    In my opinion – the best and most important things in life cannot be tested and/or proved in the lab – as unscientifc and that may sound.

    A God “tested and proven” in a test-tube is not God anymore. And the same goes for religion.

  16. I feel pity at seeing the cover of the blog with a naked woman, representing Jesus, in the holy dinner. Everything you want embarrar with sex. This reveals what it is that sick mind.


    Thinking naked women are sick is, well, sick. As far as mimicking the Last Supper by Leonardo? If you have a problem with that, well, it’s not your blog now is it?

    One thing is clear: there is more hope in one who believes in God, and he responds, that those who are called atheists. ”


    First off sparky, could you be a bit more careful with what you’re copy/pasting? You caught a quotation mark there. Second, hope is nice, but false hope is sad, real sad, but worse is those who peddle it, preying on those who may need real hope in something tangible, something that might help them.

    From God are the concepts of family, brotherhood, fraternity, loyalty and love in its entirety.


    Well no, that’s wrong. Plus, is it me or is sisterhood and sisterly love being absent there somewhat telling?

    Anyway miguel, honoring father and mother is nice, having to or else face being stoned isn’t, nor is any of those other old bits of your bible that are, well, let’s just call them not so hopeful, unless you like bashing babies on rocks.

    Have a nice day there, and good luck with the English.

  17. “The thing I find encouraging is that to undertake a project like this, they have to start from the assumption that there is no supernatural explanation for religious belief (as good science should)”

    Shouldn’t “good science” begin with no suppositions whatsoever and attempt to discover the truth?

    I seem to remember making a comment to the effect of “if theists dispute the result of this scientific research, then the results cannot be considered indisputable.” I like how you only approve messages that agree with your original premise. That’s one way to win an argument I guess.

  18. “I can see how a religious person would come to that conclusion, but a nonreligious would see that as proof for why we can’t shake this religious crap, a genetic disorder of sorts. In other words, it would show the disorder causes belief in gods, not that there’s a god or gods who built us with a god receiver.”

    Phillycheif, this seems like a strange sort of logic. Perhaps I’m just arguing semantics with you, but it seems a little odd that the vast majority of human species would have a genetic DISorder, while only a few would have the correct genetic order.

    I assert that this experiment will fail to prove anything useful at all. If it were found that humans have a genetic predisposition to believe in God would only further validate the belief in God. If it were found that humans don’t have a genetic predisposition to believe it God, then it might suggest one of two things: 1. That humans invented God — a position that is already held by atheists. 2. That belief in God comes from an external party — a position that is already held by theists.

  19. If it was found that people have a genetic predisposition to believe in a god or gods, do you know what that proves? That people have a genetic predisposition to believe in a god or gods. THAT is all, logically, that could be determined.

    I fail to see how something that’s a disorder fails to be a disorder because the majority of people have it. It may be the norm due to numbers, but it doesn’t make it any less of a disorder. Suppose there was found today certain people or even one person who had a genetic immunity to cancer or AIDS. The rest of us would be no less deficient compared to this group or person simply because we’re the majority. That group or person would have a genetic advantage over the rest of us. Perhaps then, if there is shown to be some genetic predisposition to god belief and some of us either don’t have it or have some ability to block it’s effects, I would argue that we have a genetic advantage.

    YOUR logic needs work, LP, perhaps due to a lack of objectivity? I can certainly see how you’d come to your conclusions if you were a believer, for if you hold a certain premise as absolutely true then you’ll see everything as proving that truth when, at best, it’s mere conjecture.

  20. I’m not sure that calling the presence of absence of a “god gene” a disorder is correct. From an evolutionary viewpoint, assuming there is such a gene, and assuming that at one time it was universal in the human population, when a random mutation occurs destroying or neutralizing the gene, if it enhances the survivability of the species, that’s natural selection at work. It’s only a disorder from the viewpoint of those who don’t have it, because it’s an aberration. But if it spreads, and eventually wins out, who would call it a disorder?

    But then I’m not convinced that religion has any genetic basis. I’m more inclined to think of it as something that developed as the human brain advanced in complexity and size. Pathways were created that worked a certain way, causing us to be predisposed to think a certain way. Training and indoctrination from birth reinforces and strengthens those pathways. But the mere strengthening of the processes sows the seeds of its own destruction, because a well developed brain trained in logic and reason tends to reject religion.

    My $.02

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