- What is Atheism
- Law & Politics
- Press Information
- Christians Take Over Interfaith Army Chapel in Combat Zone
- Press Kit
- 9/11: 'Never Forget' Must Include All Victims
- Atheists Advocate Separation of Church and State at DNC
- Congressman Pete Stark to Speak at 2013 National Convention
- American Atheists Announces 50th Anniversary Logo Design Contest
- American Atheists Announces Harassment Policy for Conventions and Conferences
- American Atheists Jubilant Over Latest Religion Report
- American Atheists Removes Religious Billboards from Charlotte
- Former Pastor Now American Atheists Public Relations Director
- Former Pastor Teresa MacBain New Public Relations Director
- ITALIAN JUDGE LUIGI TOSTI ACQUITTED!
- American Atheists to Protest Bradford County, FL Decalogue on May 19
Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
Why is Religiosity so Hard to Cure
As we are gathered here today in pursuit of reason and the rational understanding of our world, our world once again is in the throes of a most un-reasonable activity - war. For as far back as we have records, our kind has resorted to large-scale violence with such alarming regularity that one might think that warfare is a species-specific characteristic of Homo sapiens. As is the case with practically every war our kind has fought in the past, the Balkan War with which we presently are concerned is deeply entangled in religious disputes. While not too many wars of the past have involved the three-way odium theologicum seen in the present war - with Sunni Muslims, Orthodox Catholics, and Roman Catholics mutually anathematizing and killing each other - it is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of the wars of the past were justified and validated by religion, if not outright provoked by it. It is nearly impossible to wage war without the approval of the pet gods of the belligerents.
If religion is so central to the successful waging of war - it hardly seems to be a debatable point - it would seem obvious that if we were to eliminate religion we would remove the emotional and “moral” impetus for war. While it would be unrealistic to suppose that that would eliminate war altogether, it would certainly make war much harder to initiate and maintain. Peace would become the norm of human existence, not the exception. Without the talismanic Gott mit uns on our belt buckles, we would have to think twice before marching off to fight the benighted infidels. (Actually, the twice is not the important part here: that we would have to think at all is the novelty.)
Shortly after I had become an Atheist, at the ripe old age of eighteen, I discovered the religious roots of war and I thought I could do something about it. I would become the successor to Mahatma Gandhi. I would succeed in bringing peace to the world - by eradicating religion. Without a doubt, I would win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Toward that noble/Nobel end, I set out to prepare myself. I studied everything that seemed relevant to the task of slaying the dragon of superstition. I studied dead languages in which scriptures had been written, and I studied all the science from astronomy to zoology alphabetically and from particle physics to psychology conceptually. I was out to get the goods on religion. I would learn to detect every lie, deceit, and fraud perpetrated by religion. I would learn how the world’s scriptures had been concocted. I would identify the flaws in religious logic (or whatever that passes for it), and I would master all the “proofs” of the existence of gods and refute them. I sought to demolish the logical and evidentiary foundations of religion. Certainly, after accomplishing that, religion should crumble and disappear.
After several years I completed most of my course of study and went out to save the world by converting everyone to Atheism. While I did have considerable success and made a good many converts, I ran into problems. I found scientists who accepted evolution and most of the rest of science, but were deeply impressed by the “evidence” for biblical prophecy. I found biblical scholars who harbored no illusions about the Bible being “inspired,” but were impressed by arguments of certain creationists and felt a god was needed to create rainbows, roses, and motherly love.
To some extent, such problems were successfully overcome by the obvious procedures: teaching some basic evolutionary biology to Bible scholars and explaining the evolutionary history of the scriptures and the completely human dimensions of “prophecy” to scientists. Yet many people remained unconvinced by my best efforts. There was nothing I could explain or demonstrate that would make them abandon their religious illusions or delusions.
Why don’t they give up?
Why doesn’t everyone give up religion when you present all the logic and evidence - utterly conclusive evidence - against it? Why do many people remain unconvinced after all your argumentational ICBMs have exploded every citadel of myth?
One might naturally suppose that low intelligence is the main cause of religiosity. After all, thinking is so much harder than believing - hence the great preponderance of believers over thinkers in all ages and cultures. But what can one say when members of that small coterie we identify as thinkers are also believers? Low intelligence is not necessarily the problem.
Consider a recent experience I had on the Internet. One morning I received an extremely insulting e-mail message from a creationist who had read something that I had written about creationism on the American Atheists Web-page. A months-long exchange of messages ensued in which we argued creation versus evolution at every level of evidence imaginable. To the end, the man remained steadfast in his belief that the universe is only several thousand years old and that I was a professional deceiver.
It turned out that my anonymous antagonist holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Boston University and is engaged in very sophisticated biochemical research of great relevance to cancer studies and other areas of medicine. Why could such an obviously intelligent person not be made to see something so obvious as the great antiquity of the earth? There was a clue.
Early on in our dispute, the creationist had made the claim that there were no errors or contradictions in the Bible. Immediately, I shot back with two passages that were so obviously contradictory that I thought there could be no further argument:
II Kings 24:8 And Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months.
II Chron 36:9 Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem.
Imagine my consternation when I received an invective-filled reply that denied outright my contention that Kings and Chronicles could not both be true. To make my consternation even greater was the fact that he did not deign to try to explain away “the appearance of contradiction” (as most Bible apologists would express it) in the two passages. There was no contradiction between those passages! Period. Clearly, he was not able to see what was so obvious to me. Clear also was the fact that there was a perceptual problem involved.
Was he mentally ill? To be sure, religious ideation and behavior of any sort can be considered forms of mental illness. But if there is no impediment created in attending to one’s daily needs or body functions, and if the religious thinking doesn’t interfere with one’s ability to earn a living - if the distortion of religious mentation doesn’t spill over into the practical domain of life - it seems a bit too much to write off occasional fits of religious delusion as mental illness. As far as I have been able to determine, my antagonist gets along just fine in the laboratory workplace and knows when it is appropriate to wear a bathing suit.
Certainly his condition was not as serious as that of the people who tell me, “I know God is real because He speaks to me.” And even most of the people who affirm such nonsense are not mentally ill in any serious sense of the term. Under questioning, most of them will admit they aren’t really hearing voices. Rather, thoughts that spring up unbidden in their minds seem so unlike their ordinary mental fare that they think the thoughts come from outside themselves. In both the creationist and the persons who can’t recognize their own thoughts when they think them, we face the problem of subjective experiences and distorted perceptions so compelling that they are able to overcome all external sensory evidence that might oppose them.
Why should the human brain so easily slip into such disordered function? How could natural selection allow such widespread deficiency to survive - indeed, thrive - in a species? We must try to learn the answer.
Religion as a species-specific behavior
Long ago, Charles Darwin wrote a book called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, in which he explored the evolutionary roots of psychology. Laughing, crying, smiling, and many other human behaviors were seen to be found in all races and cultures. Moreover, the roots of these behaviors could be traced in apes and other “lower animals.” Like the human body, human behavior was seen to have evolved from a prehuman condition. Behavioral traits, like anatomical ones, could be species-specific and could be used to define a biological species. This being the case, it seems obvious that these behaviors must be genetically conditioned: the behaviors result from the “wiring” and physiological functioning of the brain, and these in turn result from the expression - to the extent the environment permits it - of the instructional messages inhering in the human genome.
If religiosity be a species-specific character for Homo sapiens as a whole (and not just a secondary sex characteristic of the human female, as G. B. Shaw once quipped), there must be an anatomical and physiological basis for it in the human brain.
Evidence for a neural basis for religion has been available for a long time. We have known for a long time that entheogenic drugs can cause people to have religious experiences, sacred hallucinations, and other “awesome” sensations. The peyote cactus (which contains mescalin) is used by Native Americans in their religious rites to induce a sacred psychosis, and the fungal drugs psilocybin and amanitin may have been used as entheogens in the ancient Near East. The Atheist Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, John Allegro, once wrote a book called The Sacred Mushroom And The Cross. In that book, he traced the Near Eastern experience with the poisonous, hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria back to ancient Sumer and made a reasonable case for the argument that resonances of “magic mushroom” experiences could even be detected in the New Testament.
The implications of this are obvious. If molecules of certain drugs are able to make us have religious experiences, there has to be circuitry in our brains that is being activated or inhibited by those molecules - and that circuitry is at least indirectly a product of genetics.
Further support for a neural basis for religion comes from the fact that there are atheogenic as well as entheogenic drugs. In at least some psychoses characterized by extreme religious delusions, antipsychotic drugs can dispel the religious delirium. Can anyone doubt that, in exorcising the gods from such patients, the drugs are acting on particular neuronal receptors and affecting neuronal firing? Is it too much to hope that someday that a drug cure will be available for religious addiction? Won’t it be a great world when a doctor can say, “Take two Thorazines and call me in a month if you still feel the urge to tithe.”
We must remember too that temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) is often accompanied by hyperreligiosity, and it is likely that St. Paul - arguably the creator of Christianity - suffered from epilepsy of some kind. Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, has studied TLE patients and has found that their Galvanic Skin Responses are disproportionately aroused by presentation of religious words. The word Jesus will make their palms sweat as much as those of normal people do when presented by sexual terms. Once again it appears that brain processes (and pathological ones at that!) are the cause of religious experience. For good measure, the argument would seem to be settled by recent experiments that demonstrate that “religious experiences,” “numinous perceptions,” and the like can be triggered by electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain.
Before trying to discern what the “normal” function of the brain’s “god circuitry” might be, we must note one final clue. Religious experiences since ancient times often have been associated with trance induced by hypnotic phenomena such as dancing, chanting, and other factors that increase suggestibility.
If, as now seems indisputable, there are parts of the brain that mediate religious experiences and are the cause of our delusions of divine communion, we must ask why they exist. What is their normal function? Why would a hard-nosed process such as natural selection have produced such structures? I believe that the answers to these questions are to be found in the solution to a larger puzzle: why, if religion is veridically false, would natural selection have allowed it not only to survive but thrive?
The evolutionary background
In order to discover the “normal” functioning of the “god module” of the brain, we will have to investigate the evolutionary dimensions of three intimately interrelated phenomena: religion, hypnosis, and music.
While the particular details of religion are transmitted verbally by culture - our substitute for instinct - I submit that the religiosity of Homo sapiens can be considered to some extent instinctual. That there could be such a thing as a religious instinct becomes plausible, I think, when we consider the implications of the fact that we evolved as a social species, not a solitary species. We evolved as social animals - herd animals. We evolved as wolves, not foxes.
In the evolution of big-brained social species there must arise a conflict between the desire for autonomy - self gratification - and the group need for integration and subservience. In many social species, autonomy and separation from the group produces anxiety. A lost sheep is not a happy animal, and many Christians separated from their congregations, priests, and pastors experience profound Angst. (This is why excommunication and shunning can be so devastating to certain people.) It appears to be one of the functions of religion that it allows people to “escape from freedom,” as the psychiatrist Erich Fromm once put it. When we do what our priests tell us to do, we avoid the anxiety that comes from having to make our own decisions - anxiety that arises from painful knowledge of our own inadequacies and proneness to make mistakes. Religion serves as a vehicle for discharging anxiety by connecting isolated individuals to the group and making them feel as though somehow the power of the entire group flows through them. In doing so, I shall argue, religion employs the neuronal circuitry evolved in prehuman social animals for non-verbal communication within the group.
In the evolution of social species, natural selection can act at the group level as well as at the individual level. This means in practice that groups can compete with each other and entire gene pools can be selected (preserved) or extincted, depending upon the overall “fitness” of the groups in competition. Extermination of the genetic opposition is the object of this evolutionary process. Genocide has a long history - or perhaps we should say prehistory. The sociological concepts of in-group and out-group are useful for understanding the dynamics of this sort of social evolution.
For a particular in-group to prevail over the various out-groups with which it competes for resources, high-level intragroup cooperation and coordination are required. There is need for cohesion of the individuals comprising the group so it can behave as an integrated superorganism. For maximal effectiveness in warfare it is necessary that an entire group of soldiers be able to act and function as though it were a single well-coordinated individual.
Fundamental to successful cooperation and coordination is communication. But how is communication effected before the origin of language? How, for example, do wildebeest know when it is time to stampede? Unless the entire herd stampedes in unison, the herd will be vulnerable - and a “stampede of one” would almost certainly be fatal to the individual charging into a pride of lions. What is it that brings about the necessary ego dissolution and fusion of each individual with the “spirit of the herd”?
While chemical signaling such as release of pheromones, physical signals such as raising the tail or other displays, and auditory signals such as snorts, bellows, cries, and the like may be employed to enlist cooperation, for success they all require that the recipient animals be “suggestible” - i.e., able to internalize the signal received, make it their own “state of mind,” and pass it on. Communication at this level is largely the transfer of emotions throughout the members of a group. Emotions must be as contagious as yawning and scratching of itches.
It is generally accepted that suggestion and suggestibility are at the root of hypnosis. Hypnosis and hypnotizability, I would argue, are relics of the communication system that functioned in the preverbal human herd. I know of nothing that can equal hypnosis in the ease with which it can change affect - whether the change involve laughing, crying, exhilaration, or insensitivity to pain. In all these changes in affect, perceptions are of necessity altered. Sour lemons are perceived as sweet oranges, lighted cigarettes are perceived as lotion applicators, and the smoke of incense is perceived as angel spirits hovering in the air.
Hypnosis also is able to induce religious experiences ranging from the simple feeling of one-ness with the universe to fulminating hallucinations of heavenly voices issuing commandments. Add to this the fact that trance (in the form of chanting and fasting-conditioned prayer and meditation, the altered consciousness of people who think a faith-healer has cured them, etc.) is an important component of many religions, and we have a clue as to why religion evolved. Religion evolved as a means of inducing and channeling hypnosis - originally to increase group cohesion and to weld weak individuals into mighty superorganisms ready to go out and exterminate the genetic competition. Religion originated as an effective catalyst of effective warfare by being a conduit for the flow of bellicose suggestions. Because hypnosis can function at a preverbal level it can evade the radar of the rational mind. It can produce warriors that know no fear despite the most fearful of circumstances. It can create the bright illusion of a better world on another plane - an illusion so powerful that warriors will not hesitate to fight for it no matter how frightful the real world.
There should be no perception of paradox in the fact that religion and war go together so frequently. The facilitation of war was the raison d’être for religion in the first place!
To get back to the subject of this talk, let us ask once again why religiosity is so hard to cure. Why are religious perceptions so hard to change? A clue can be found in the intimate association of hypnosis with religion and the tenacity with which hypnosis-implanted perceptions can be maintained despite external evidence. Religious perceptions are, I believe, hypnotically implanted.
Just how pertinaciously hypnotic beliefs may be held can be seen in an experiment I carried out many years ago when I was actively pursuing research in the area of experimental hypnosis. In one of my experiments I hypnotized a man who happened to be wearing leather dress-boots. He was a very good subject, and so I decided to explore the puzzle of post-hypnotic suggestions. I gave him the post-hypnotic suggestion that several minutes after awakening he would “discover” that he had put his boots on the wrong feet. I awakened him and we talked for a few minutes. Suddenly, he looked in startlement at his feet, as though he were feeling discomfort if not outright pain. With alacrity, he pulled off his boots and then put them back on: the right boot on the left foot, the left boot on the right foot.
For ten or fifteen minutes he talked with me, completely unaware of his absurd condition. Only when he got up to walk - and nearly broke his neck trying to walk on the carpet - did he suddenly realize that his boots were on the wrong feet. This experiment was neatly analogous to a case of tent-meeting hypnosis I once witnessed. In that case, a woman with severe arthritis was hypnotized by a faith-healer to believe her arthritis had been cured. Although she had come into the tent with crutches, after receiving the divine zap she commenced to run around the tent full tilt - joints snapping, cracking, and complaining, but no pain was felt by the poor creature being exploited by the preachers presiding over the show. Unlike the fellow in boots, however, it is doubtful that the woman ever did realize that she had not really been cured at all - even though she had to be carried home from the meeting. I would bet that the next morning she thought that Satan had brought back her disease.
The tenacity with which hypnosis-implanted perceptions are held despite the evidence of the physical senses gives us some understanding of why religious perceptions are so hard to change. Religious mentation, like post-hypnotic suggestion, navigates below the radar of reality. It is to a large degree preverbal, and thus immune to that quintessentially verbal process we call logic.
Putting It All Together
As we have already noted, in dealing with religious experiences we are faced with the problem of subjective experiences so compelling they are able to overcome all external sensory experience. Both electrical stimulation experiments and personal reports often indicate that during religious experiences there is a break-down of the ego and the boundaries of the self, creating a sense of at-one-ness. The subject feels at one with the cosmos, one with the human race. Subjects report the sense of receiving ineffable wisdom or knowledge, knowledge that cannot be expressed in words.
While it is possible that speech-processing parts of the brain are involved in religious experiences, I suspect that the core brain functions involved are those associated with non-verbal communication - the brain elements that allow herd animals to communicate and perceive the intentions of the herd. Emotions are contagious, and the neuronal circuitry underlying that fact is probably involved in religious experiences as well.
As I have already suggested, the evolutionary function of religion has been to increase in-group cohesion in order to enhance competition with out-groups: Israelites vs. Jebusites vs. Hivites, or Catholic Croatians vs. Orthodox Serbs vs. Muslim Bosnians. It provides a means for reduction of anxiety caused by autonomy, by allowing dissolution of self and absorption into the collective mind - the collection of preverbal and verbal messages active in the environment in which the religious activity is being carried out.
This primary function of religion is most effective when effected hypnotically. By providing a focused means for induction of trance, religion facilitates the imposition of the will of a group (or its leaders!) upon its individual members. It does this by means of hypnotic preaching, rhythmic singing, dancing, clapping, monotonous chanting, or drumming - and gives us a clue to the evolutionary “purpose” of music. Almost certainly, rhythm antedates melody. We began as drumming ruffed grouse and evolved into warblers only late in the story. Why? Because persistent rhythms are useful in inducing trance. Brain electrical rhythms change as states of consciousness change, and there may be a connection here with the use of music to induce altered states of consciousness. This would appear to explain the use of drumming and dancing among many Amerindians before they went out to war. Music was the portal through which the warriors entered a world that knew no fear, a world without anxiety. Thus, music evolved as a means of inducing hypnotic trance.
Hypnotic susceptibility, although older than the human species itself, was elaborated by natural selection as a means of increasing intragroup cohesion and as a means of producing highly ordered, efficient competitive behavior at the intergroup level. As cultural transmission of learned behavior replaced genetic transmission of instinctive behavior, religion emerged as the system deciding the ends for which hypnosis would be applied. The actual mythical content of the individual religions probably did not make much difference. Zeus and Yahweh and Baal are all imaginary, and there is no obvious reason to recommend one over another. However, the structure of the cultural organizations behind the various deities was of great importance. It is obvious that the wizards who pulled the strings in the temple of Yahweh had a much more effective way of running the land of Oz than did those who hid behind the curtains in the temples of Zeus and Baal!
One Last Time - Why is religiosity so hard to cure?
Analogous to hypnosis, religion distorts perceptions, rendering them resistant to correction. Often, strong emotions must be evoked before the spell can be broken: it is like using ice-water to awaken a hypnotized person. The neural circuitry of religion is intimately intertwined with that which distinguishes us as herd animals, as a social species. Surgical attempts to remove the harmful, religious components of this circuitry are quite naturally resisted - as though they were attempts to deprive people of their group identity. Loss of religion produces more autonomy, but this again can increase anxiety levels. Illusions that reduce anxiety will not be given up easily. Not withstanding all I have said here today, fear remains the soil in which the roots of religion feed. Unless better means are made available for reducing fear, religion will continue to feed upon our neuroplasm.
The meaning for Atheists
Why are Atheists so hard to organize? If 8-12% of the population is de facto Atheist, where are they? Why aren’t they joining us? At the same time, many of the Atheists who do join us want more social events, more interpersonal interaction opportunities. Are there two kinds of Atheists? I suggest there are: Inherent Atheists and Converted Atheists.
Inherent Atheists (Type A) are those in whom religious indoctrination never worked very well in the first place. Are these Atheists persons in whom the genetic and neurological underpinnings for social animals have loosened up somehow? Are these persons by nature less gregarious, more reserved, and less subject to emotional contagion? Are these the quintessential introverts?
Converted Atheists (Type B) are those who early in life were quite religious, but due (perhaps) to some highly emotional experience were able to let the weight of evidence against religion finally “get through” to them. Are these the Atheists who take pleasure in being with other Atheists, the ones who want more luncheons, conventions, etc.? Do they still have the regular-issue underpinnings for social animals? Are these the quintessential extroverts?
If I be correct in this hypothesis, Atheist organizations will need to employ different approaches to recruit these two different types of Atheists.
Type-A Atheists must be drawn to us by arguments that they can relate to their own well-being. They must be helped to see that although there is no god, there are lots and lots of devils out there who, if not opposed, will be taking away their freedoms and impacting their pocketbooks and personal comfort. The emotional as well as logical impact of such recruitment must be sufficient to overcome their normal reticence to join groups of any kind. They must come to see joining us as an act of self-defense.
Type-B Atheists - that is, those who have already become Atheists - will normally be quite willing to join us. They do, however, need to know we exist and how to get in touch with us. Well-managed publicity and getting our magazine and newsletter into public and college libraries can bring them in.
Type-B individuals who are still in churches will need to be exposed to arguments that are not only logically and scientifically solid, but deliver an emotional wallop as well. There has to be a component that can break through the normal perceptual barrier that protects the religion centers of their brains. The argumentational equivalent of buckets of ice-water - or the pinching of boots finally seen to be on the wrong feet - has to be created. The spell must be broken. This may require flamboyant or even outrageous ploys, such as when (on television) I challenged the national secretary of the so-called Moral Majority to demonstrate his faith by eating the poisoned peanuts that I offered him (Mark 16:18) or castrating himself (Matt. 19:12) with the rusty Boy Scout knife I was willing to supply.
The need to find a cure for religiosity is pressing. The world cannot survive much longer if problem-solvers’ minds are clouded by the opium of religion. We must perceive reality as accurately as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle will allow! We cannot afford illusions. The games our species is playing with us and with our environment are of life-and-death importance.
We Atheists must do all in our power to brew the wake-up potion that will clear the minds of our fellow men and women. We must revoke the evolutionary curse that nature laid upon us when it created religion as the mediating agency for the most complicated form of sociality life on our planet has known. We must break the evil spell that religion has cast upon the castles of our minds and upon the towers of our thoughts. We must do everything in our power to free the thought-prisoners of our planet.
Not only is this an ethical necessity, it is a practical necessity as well. We who, by whatever means it came about, have freed our own minds, cannot forever remain free when all about us not only are not free but are busy forging - in their ecclesiastical dungeons - chains with which once again they can confine our minds.
It is too great a job for Batman and Robin - too much even for Superman. But it is the job American Atheists has taken on. It has given its solemn promise that it shall work ceaselessly and with all its energy resources to bring about the liberation of the human mind, to free religion’s prisoners, and to find cures for all the varieties of that most deadly disease, religiosity.
Formerly a professor of biology and geology, Frank R. Zindler is now a science writer. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Science, The Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is the editor of American Atheist.