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How Religion Hijacks Neurocortical Mechanisms, and Why So Many Believe in a Deity

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Andy Thompson, the psychiatrist referenced in the OP who teaches at the University of Virginia, recently did a radio show in Charlottesville. He discusses his work on sociobiology and evolutionary biology, including the effect of neurotransmitters on our brains, as well as the neural infrastructure which results in the emergence of predispositions toward religious practice and belief in deity.

 

The thrust of the point is that the brain, like the rest of our bodies, has evolved to be a problem solving entity through the millenia. As the problems increased in complexity, so too did our approaches to solving them, as well as the adaptations in our minds. One of these key problem solving approaches in our bias toward looking for explanations, and finding patterns and causes for what we see.

 

 

This interesting, short, and straight forward dialog is available here via Quicktime:

http://www.wina.com/play_window.php?audioType=Episode&audioId=3860508

 

 

It's more interesting than a simple lecture because he also responds to questions from callers.

Enjoy.

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I want to take a moment first to thank all of you for sharing with me in the "archive" which this thread has become. I've been pulling together information from many various sources on this topic, and sharing those here has allowed me to collect, organize, and clarify my thoughts all while simultaneously giving me the satisfaction of sharing the information with friends.

 

On that note, I listened to another interesting program today. It is available below to those of you who are interested in this topic.

 

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00m1nlh

Tom Rees has conducted research into religion and personal insecurity in 50 countries. Using figures on how much people pray and how unequal income is in each of them, he claims to have found evidence to show that the most religious societies are the most unequal, and concludes the inequality leads to religion. Is it fear and hardship that makes people of one country more religious than another, or is there a mysterious third factor that can explain why some nations pray so much more than others? Laurie Taylor talks to Tom Rees about his findings, and to sociologist of religion David Voas.

 

 

Listen to the short program here (it's only the first 14 minutes): http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00m1nlh

 

 

 

Enjoy. :)

Edited by iNow

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Here's an interesting story. Maybe it's not all about the wiring of our brains, and belief requires information from taken directly from the structure of society.

 

 

http://www.newsweek.com/id/211746

The brain may indeed be predisposed to supernatural beliefs. But that predisposition may need environmental input to be fully realized.

 

 

It was a good story, and they leveraged the fact that non-believers have been growing in number at an enormous rate, suggesting that it may be more environmental, despite genetic predispositions.

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I disagree with some of what he says. I believe people who embrace religion have serious mental disorders. Like many people my parents made me go to church. It never made much sense to me and when I learned about evolution I pretty much gave up on religion. I think many people embrace religion because of inadequate parenting. They have a need to give internalized pain some value, some meaning, things like that. I have to go now so will keep this short but may come back to this later as I am very interested in this subject. ...Dr.Syntax

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i wouldn't say people who embrace religion have a mental disorder(well, maybe some of the extremeists).

 

i know plenty of people who subscribe to various religions and i would class none of them as having a mental disorder.

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I disagree with some of what he says. I believe people who embrace religion have serious mental disorders. Like many people my parents made me go to church. It never made much sense to me and when I learned about evolution I pretty much gave up on religion. I think many people embrace religion because of inadequate parenting. They have a need to give internalized pain some value, some meaning, things like that. I have to go now so will keep this short but may come back to this later as I am very interested in this subject. ...Dr.Syntax

I don't think the religious have any mental disorders (so far as being religious or just believing in a god or gods).

 

One of the popular disorders to associate with religiousness is delusion. The definition would appear to match - the belief in something without or in contradiction with evidence. However, we see children having odd beliefs all the time - like the belief that what you see on television is being acted out by miniature actors right inside the box. This belief does not go away when presented with a look at the electronics in the box. (It does go away, however, as a general understanding of the world around that box increases. Belief appears to have a systemic facet.) We don't call these children delusional, even though the definition appears to fit again. This is because it's a natural part of the learning process.

 

Religious belief also has a learned behavior facet. (This is an environmental factor as mentioned before in this thread.) They learn this belief from their parents and the other adults the parents associate with. In some respects this may be a sign of good parenting, only with the parents passing on unsubstantiated beliefs as the basis for their understanding of reality. Something they probably got from their parents as well, continuing on down the generations.

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Thank you everyone for your interest in this topic, and for sharing your thoughts. I do, however, have one request.

 

Please remain clearly focused on the science of belief and why it may have stayed with us humans for so long. By focusing on the science, we can have an interesting and mostly objective dialog about the topic, all while not offending people who themselves hold belief, and (perhaps more importantly) without breaking the rules of this forum regarding religious discussion.

 

 

 

So, please... Keep contributing, keeping sharing information and thoughts, but let's avoid comments regarding religious people, whether they have mental disorders, and similar lines of thought.

 

 

The intent of this thread is to explain, via evolutionary processes, why so many people believe in deities and why so many people are religious.

 

Thanks! :)

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As this article stated: the least dysfunctional countries are the most secular, the most dysfunctional are the most religious. I consider religion a form of mental illness. And with many a very dangerous one. It is the primary reason for the wars the USA is now forced to be involved in. The same is true throughout the middle east. At least some people are beginning to talk about it. Religion is not some inherited trait. Mentaly ill people can be persuaded to believe in just about anything as long as it fulfills some neurotic needs within them : hope against hopelessness, courage against fear, some loving god when there is no real love in thier lives. Oh yes and you get to live forever in some blissfull state if you measure up somehow and on and on. ...Dr.Syntax

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Again, I want to be cautious about some of the negativity I sense in the above, but also wish to take a moment to briefly challenge it.

 

Since so much of religious practice comes from social custom, and from learning/teaching from our parents, I really do not think it's fair to suggest that all religious people are mentally ill. Now, trust me, I'm not one to be kind to theists, but I also try to stand up for accuracy and truth, and it's simply untrue to assert that religious people are mentally ill.

 

It's not as if they are running around claiming to be Napoleon. They simply engage in a tradition which has been reinforced socially, and strongly ingrained in their minds during childhood. While belief in god does demonstrate many aspects of delusion, religious practice itself is not on the same footing since it's more about social custom and sharing of stories from trusted elders and parents.

 

Again, though... This is not the topic of this thread. If anyone desires further comment on this particular tangent, please open a new thread to do so, or I will request the staff move your posts on our behalf via the Report Post feature. Cheers.

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IMO

 

it's either we evolved into believing in god, meaning it's better for us, or more exactly: it's important for our survival.

 

or the big mac we evolved into liking is bad for us, bringing evolution's functionality into question; and hence it's inability to make us reach the complexity we have become OUT OF NOTHING.. which makes it fail..

 

:eyebrow:

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This is not a discussion about the existence of god. I've tried very hard to prevent this thread from being closed, and I'm not about to let some evolution denier such as yourself change that.

 

The answer is, No. Our belief in god is a predisposition given by evolution, as is the neocortical infrastructure which predisposes us to be persuaded by the grouping tendency which is known as religion, but it is the belief which is the subject of discussion here, not the existence of the deity.

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iNow,

 

"The intent of this thread is to explain, via evolutionary processes, why so many people believe in deities and why so many people are religious."

 

The OP video presenter, used the idea that religion hijacks genetically predisposed facilities meant for other survival related things. I don't doubt the findings of certain areas of the brain lighting up with certain kinds of thoughts, nor the notion that we have wiring that has been redirected (hijacked) for uses other than the initial problem solving use. But I put it together in a slightly different way.

 

Looking at the map of religions of the world, one can easily picture the influence of Moses, Christ, Mohammed, Martin Luther, Confucius and their subsequent followers, laws, political systems, armies, societies and cultures. Philosophers all, who hijacked the authority of reality to forward their philosophy and societal rules.

 

(I have read the Bible, old and new testament, the Koran a couple times, was brought up Presbyterian, and read some Tao stuff. I have visited the Mayan temples, and learned about the Dogon and Egyptian religions. I had a long talk with God one night in bed when I was 13 and understood him, I "felt" the love of Jesus in the air when I was 18. In college where I took Philosophy, I read about the thoughts of many a mind, and decided upon my definition of God, which was "that which is beyond our understanding." As a 24 year old serviceman on a hilltop in (peacetime) Germany for a month I had a "revelation" of sorts where I understood the nature of treeness from beginning to end, and hence life on this planet, and the way life has grabbed hold of form and structure and passed the pattern on for a fleeting instant in the enormity of a universe tending toward entropy.)

 

So, religous beliefs, to me, are a combination of our personal relationship with the universe, and the teachings of philosphers that usurp the power and authority of the universe and use it, as their own, to establish an authoritative and legitimized political power. This is mostly done to unify the particular set of believers, and cause them to work together, take care of each other, and make sacrifices in the name of the universe, and truth, for the leadership and the set of rules and morals that the group holds dear. Now this is not bad, its good, and promotes the survival of the group, and all its members over individual selfish considerations, and hence has survival value, and might be woven in some manner into adaptive problem solving evolution theory. But that is not the way I look at it. To me, it is, what it appears to be. Philosophy, based on reality, used to substantiate, the adherence to the insights of a Philosophy that solves human problems.

 

Whatever wiring we have that would naturally allow us to visualize and listen to the thinking of our parents, and think of them quite truely as our creators and protectors and teachers (our authority) combined with our "gap filling" ability would naturally allow us to visualize, maybe even require, an authority that our parents must rely on.

 

Regards, TAR


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P.S. Forgot to mention Buddah.

P.P.S According to Wiki;"Hinduism is formed of diverse traditions and has no single founder.[8]" So, I suppose my suggestion about Philosophers is not such a clean explanation. Except, Krishna does gives us a nice half diety, half person, to inspect. He can be either literal or figurative. We can respect the authority of his teachings, AND know we made him up.

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Wow, this thread has grown quite a bit since I last saw it, I'll definitely have to read it again :)

 

and btw, I saw altruism in animals was mentioned.

 

If anyone is interested, in APA's magazine "Monitor" - there is an article (in the most recent one) about monkeys being nice and food, and how sometimes they'll give the more desirable food to another monkey for seemingly no reason.

The Evolutionary reason being that it's easier to survive in a group than to go solo or try to find another group, so being nice and getting along can help out.

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Andy Thomson, a practicing psychiatrist, uses his knowledge of the human mind and countless neuropsychological research studies to make the case of how religion and belief in god are by-products of our evolved neural architecture. Below is his talk titled 'Why We Believe in Gods' which he presented at the American Atheist 2009 convention in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

 

Press play. Use full screen.

 

1iMmvu9eMrg&e

 

 

 

Let us know what you think.


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If you understand the psychology of [why we crave] the Big Mac meal, you understand the psychology of religion. We evolved adaptations for things that were crucial and rare... the sugars of ripe fruit... fat of lean game meat... for salt... those were crucial adaptations in our past. And now the modern world creates a novel form of it that comes from those adaptations, but hijacks them with super-normal stimuli... not ripe fruit, but a coca-cola... not lean game meat, but fat hamburger and french fries soaked in meat juice... and it creates these super-normal stimuli, but they're based on ancient adaptations.

 

Let me take you on a bit of a tour of a few of these cognitive mechanisms.

 

The first is Decoupled Cognition... <more at the video>

 

 

He argues how our complex social interactions with unseen others (think visualization and mental rehearsal) are just one step away from communicating with a dead ancestor and one step further to communicating to a god or gods. He also illuminates our susceptibility to optical and other illusions, and how these same "gap filling" tendencies in the brain lend a giant opening for supernatural figures. It's called intuitive reasoning, and it underlines the essence of religious ideas, which are minimally counterintuitive worlds.

 

Haha. Didn't you know? A far cry from 'pink unicorn farts', aye? It's an experience, a 'God experience'. :)

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So, let me get this right. The OP is saying that God engineered instinctive beliefs of HIMSELF directly into our neuro-cortex? Cool :cool:

 

;)

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Cool thread, iNow.

 

I think I read about most of this in Dawkins' "The God Delusion". Is this meant to disprove a God? If so, it fails quite miserably.

I understand the concept of "religion is a by-product of something else", but to me, that only seems applicable to the people that actually think that the entire world was covered by water.

 

I don't see how it applies to me at all...perhaps you can offer some insight, iNow?

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So, let me get this right. The OP is saying that God engineered instinctive beliefs of HIMSELF directly into our neuro-cortex? Cool :cool:

 

;)

 

Ah... The magical powers of the wink smilie. :D


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I think I read about most of this in Dawkins' "The God Delusion". Is this meant to disprove a God?

No, not at all. The basic idea is this. Our brains and behaviors have evolved over very long time periods. The behaviors and mechanisms which evolved did so to solve very specific needs, and to solve very specific challenges to our survival.

 

So, from that, the idea is that the behaviors and neural architectures which evolved have led to "other" things like belief in deities and the commonality of religious practice. It's not about proving or disproving god, but about offering a coherent explanation for why belief and religious practice is so common in all human cultures.

 

Did that clarify? Please... ask any questions you may have. I won't always know the answer, but I will certainly try to steer you in the proper direction whenever possible. Cheers. :)

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I see.

Well, seeing as how I didn't understand any of the nueroscience he was speaking of, I don't suppose I'll be able to ask any good questions.

Would you mind summing up what he was trying to say? (Other than we evolved a certain way, and this led to a general belief in a deity)

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Sure. As best I can tell, when it comes to belief in a deity, there are two major components in our minds we've evolved.

 

First, we have the ability to mentally rehearse social interactions. Our brains have evolved to be able to think about what another individual might do, even though that individual is around and we cannot see them. We have the ability to "practice conversations" with others in our head, even though they are not really there talking to us. We can "mentally rehearse social interactions with unseen others."

 

Second, we tend to see everything as having a cause. We "over-read" causality. We see a tree, we know it was caused by a seed. We see ashes, we know it was caused by a fire. We see a child, we know it was caused by a parent, etc... For this reason, we automatically assume that something caused the world. Also, we are born thinking everything has a reason. Ask kids what a sharp rock is for, and they will answer that it's there to "let the wolf scratch it's back." The rock is not there for the wolf to scratch it's back, but we innately assume that this is its function, so that is why it's there. Lots of interesting studies with kids show this effect.

 

So, take them together and you have a preconceived notion that things are all caused and have a reason, and then couple that with the fact that we can imagine people are present when they are not, and... voila... now god is a common belief.

 

 

There are also lines of thought about why religious practice is so common, but much of this has already been covered in the thread and I'm really not sure what you'd like me to elaborate upon, so will just stop here.

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irst, we have the ability to mentally rehearse social interactions. Our brains have evolved to be able to think about what another individual might do, even though that individual is around and we cannot see them.

Just as an aside, and as a detail to the OP:

 

Rebbecca Saxe, a social neurophysiologist (meaning she studies the brain's structure as it relates to social behavior) has had great success in exploring this particular aspect of our social instincts. She did a TED talk on her findings this past July.

 

Well worth watching, and it will (albeit indirectly) illuminate some of what's been discussed thus far.

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Rebbecca Saxe, a social neurophysiologist (meaning she studies the brain's structure as it relates to social behavior) has had great success in exploring this particular aspect of our social instincts. She did a TED talk on her findings this past July.

 

Well worth watching, and it will (albeit indirectly) illuminate some of what's been discussed thus far.

 

Right on, Jill. What an awesome contribution. Thank you, so much. I really quite enjoyed the discussion about the cheese sandwiches with the pirates, and how the kids understanding of the situation changes as they get older. Additionally, I found it fascinating how... as they got older... they were better able to attribute moral feelings to the unseen others. Quite cool.

 

It was also cute at the end how she said that the folks at the Pentagon was calling, but she wasn't taking the call... and then, a bit later to another question that "it's not called the hard problem of consciousness for nothing." Good stuff. Thanks again for sharing this. :)

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Second, we tend to see everything as having a cause. We "over-read" causality.

 

I was under the impression that causality was a universal effect. That everything occured because of something else caused it?

 

And I did assume everything was created, be it by a seed or a nebula or a deity...am I in the wrong to think this?

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Discussed in post #8.

 

 

Also, just to discuss your question more directly, I feel with a high degree of confidence that you're about to make the argument that everything has a cause, and then tell me that god does not. Your logic is broken. However, again, this thread is not about the existence of god, but about the existence of our beliefs in god. Important difference which has allowed us to remain focused on the science and not the bickering.

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