The neurological origins of religious belief

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It has been known for some time that religious beliefs and behaviors affect the brain, in the same way that all habits, emotions and memories build neural pathways. But can we identify specific chemicals, genes, and groups of neurons that give rise to religiosity or atheism?


Rutgers University evolutionary biologist Lionel Tiger thinks we can: “Religion is really made by the brain. It’s a secretion from the brain, ”says Tiger, who believes that the root of religious belief is an evolutionary willingness to seek out that“ secretion ”- namely serotonin – that gives the believer a sense of well-being. A neurotransmitter that regulates mood and appetite, serotonin is linked to feelings of well-being when it floods the central nervous system.

“One way to look at religion is to know how much and how does it generate the serotonergic juices that make us feel good,” says Tiger. Attending a church service, for example, can be a wave of social activities and controlled procedures, which release a cocktail of serotonin-directed neurotransmitters into the brain. This chemical response “calms” the organ, he says, echoing the results of recent studies. Working with neuroscientist Michael McGuire, Tiger linked this research on serotonin as it works in the brain with social aspects and the origins of religion.

“Religion can be a major producer of the brain-calming phenomenon in a way that is not that costly, destructive, or difficult. All you have to do is show up on Sunday morning, ”Tiger says. Religion, in this sense, becomes a self-created and self-consumed business, he adds.

Tiger’s conclusion is that religion’s neurochemical response fulfills a biological need in humans, as its absence shows. As an example, he cites France, a nominally Catholic country with low mass attendance and rare religious practice that has one of the highest antidepressant consumption rates in Europe. “They might take the lump in their skull with a pill, so there’s the pharmacological element of calming the brain,” he says.

Yet religion is not only calming, and serotonin itself cannot explain the fits of religious ecstasy and visions of – in Christianity alone – Pentecostal glossolalia and the charismatic movement dating back to conversion. drama of Saul on the road to Damascus.

To get to the root of religious zeal, scientists are looking beyond neural chemistry to the architecture of the brain itself. There is not a single part of the brain dedicated to processing the divine, as the pineal gland was once considered the seat of the soul. Instead, according to recent research, religiosity is dislocated and extends along a neural network made up of the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes.

Decreased parietal lobe activity, for example, has been linked to some religious experiences, while decision-making and social aspects of religion appear to interact in the frontal lobes. It is the temporal lobes that have received significant recent interest for their link between epilepsy and religious views and conversion. Epileptic seizures and the brain chemistry at work between seizures lead in some patients to a “gradual change in personality that predisposes them to mystical and religious thinking,” says neurologist Oliver Sacks in an interview with Big Think .

Additionally, a study published in February sampled patients’ level of spiritual belief and behavior before and after brain surgery. The surgery has enabled research to determine whether site-specific brain damage alters religiosity. The researchers found that damage to the parietal lobe (saddle in the middle of the brain) upset otherwise relatively stable levels of spiritual belief and behavior. These findings, the study notes, suggest that the architecture of the brain itself, and the changes caused to it by neurological and mental disorders, could be a neurobiological basis for altered spiritual and religious behavior.

The implications of a cerebral origin of religiosity are that the composition of the brain determines the level of belief, rather than choice or inspiration. More so, religious fervor could be induced by non-divine means by altering the chemistry or structure of the brain. To test this, cognitive neurologist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Canada, built a “divine helmet” fitted with electromagnetic solenoids intended to induce a religious experience. Famous, in 2003, evolutionary biologist, ardent atheist and Big Think expert Richard Dawkins tested the craft without undergoing religious conversion.

The implications go further. If religiosity operates in specific parts and chemicals of the brain, then its origins could be written in the blueprints of life, our genes. At this point, research by geneticist Dean Hamer at NIH finds God in a single gene – the vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2). Hamer identifies it as the “gene of God,” one of the most important genes in our genetic code that predisposes people to religiosity. A point of genetic origin of religiosity could come from an evolutionary trend towards inclusion. In this way, learning a society’s religion, like learning its language, is hardwired to humans through inherited genes.

To take with

Believing in God generates soothing “juices” in the brain that make us feel good, says Tiger. Scientists have identified the neurotransmitter serotonin, a network of neurons in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes, and the VMAT2 gene as points of chemical, structural and genetic origin that may be responsible for religiosity.

Interest in the overlap of the brain and beliefs has led to the new field of neurotheology. Some cite new neurological research as confirming a completely organic and earthly origin of religion, independent of divine inspiration. Others say that while research begins to explain religious experience and practice, religion itself is more than the sum of its experiences.

Learn more

—Borg, J., et al. “The Serotonin System and Spiritual Experiences.”

—Kapogiannis, D., et al. “Cognitive and Neural Foundations of Religious Belief. “

—Urgesi, C., et al. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence”.


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