Religiosity-Biology or Brain-Washing?

In this blog I’m going to suggest that the extent of our eventual adult religiosity is more or less predetermined by the way our temporal lobes are “wired”.  Most people accept that their own religious beliefs, if any, are influenced by the religious beliefs of their parents. They also accept these beliefs are also influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the prevailing cultural values of those around them.

Many people simply adsorb the religious culture of their parents. These people are just the product of effective brain washing by their parents, whilst they were still young & vulnerable, as this short video illustrates so succinctly.

Cultural propagation of beliefs from one generation to the next is particularly effective where Islam is concerned. Every Muslim is brain washed from birth to believe Allah is the one true god, & to believe Muhammad is both his prophet and the ideal Muslim. All critical thought, and all opposition to Islam, is crushed at a very early age, and all Muslim apostates are threatened with punishment & often killed. If you think my assessment of Islam is an outrageous over simplification, then I suggest you’re either a Muslim yourself, or a non-Muslim who knows nothing whatsoever about real Islam.

However, early parental brain washing is only one factor influencing our eventual religiosity. Many do just stick with the faith imposed on them as children, and then repeat the process with the next generation. Most people in this category are, I would suggest, just nominal, unquestioning believers, who simply accept what they are told. A few people discard their early belief system & adopt a new one when they get older. Yet others simply grow up & eventually grow out of it. And yet others grow up without any religious influences whatsoever.

So what really decides what we chose to believe as we get older? Why do some of us appear to have an intrinsic need to believe, whilst others are left wondering why anyone would believe what they seem to believe? What other factors are at play that can either reinforce early-established beliefs or lead us to completely reject such beliefs? Obviously we are all defined by our own unique blend of nature & nurture, but in this blog I’m going raise a very contentious issue, and suggest that ardent religiosity, & the complete lack of it, are both more a question of nature and less a question of nurture.

I now believe that our potential religiosity is just another facet of our humanity, and like all such facets, both physical & non physical, there exists a spectrum of potential responses, ranging from total vulnerability to religion at one end to absolute indifference to it at the other end. We all fit somewhere on this religiosity spectrum, & where we fit more or less determines how we respond to religion & religious influences. The controlling factor determining where we actually fit on this religiosity spectrum seems to be the “wiring” in the temporal lobe region of our brains. It is becoming increasingly clear that both ardent religiosity at one end of this spectrum, and the complete lack of it at the other end, seem to be far more dependent on nature , and far less dependent on nurture.

Now I fully appreciate that this idea/suggestion is not going to be well received by ardent theists, but I do think the facts now speak for themselves. I openly admit I neither understand nor fully appreciate the finer points of the intricate physiology involved, but this lack of understanding of the details does not stop me appreciating the implications of a new branch of neurology called neurotheology. This new discipline specifically studies how our brains, most notably our temporal lobes, influence our religiosity. These studies are helping us to understand why some people are more religious than others, and helping us to explain why those with temporal lobe sensitivity can often have hallucinatory spiritual experiences, which leave them totally convinced they are real experiences. Trying to convince these people that their experiences are just hallucinatory experiences triggered by temporal lobe epilepsy [TLE] is extremely difficult, such is their conviction that their experiences are real. To those who remain unconvinced & sceptical about TLE induced religiosity and TLE induced religious conversions I simply say this; those with open minds who are prepared to look will find more than enough information/evidence to satisfy even the most sceptical person.

Perhaps the most iconic example of hallucinatory experiences triggered by TLE is the conversion of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul claims he met Jesus who he knew was dead, but  his various “conversion symptoms” are all classic  symptoms of TLE. Landsborough in 1987 [1] and Brorson & Brewer in 1988 [2], both suggested that Paul may have just hallucinated on the road to Damascus as a result of temporal lobe epilepsy, and both papers state that focal epileptic seizures starting in the temporal lobes are fairly common occurrences, and potentially at least, anyone could have a single epileptic seizure at some point in their life.Most of these epileptic seizures follow a pattern very similar to that experienced by Paul. That is, they happen suddenly, without any warning, last only a relatively short period of time, and then just stop by themselves.

The other iconic example of hallucinatory experiences triggered by TLE is the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. Muhammad claims he received many verbal messages from God, revealed to him through the angel Gabriel, and again the various symptoms exhibited by Muhammad whilst “receiving” these messages are all classic symptoms of TLE. These symptoms have now been well documented, notably by Ali Sina [3], by M. A. Sherlock [4] and by F. W. Burleigh [5]. Looking back at history, it is now possible to see many other such instances that probably resulted from similar experiences, notably Joan of Arc’ visions in 1429 and possibly John Wesley’s Aldergate experience in 1738.

Many other lesser examples of TLE induced religiosity can now be found in the scientific/medical literature. In 1970, Dewhurst and Beard published a paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry [6] called “Sudden religious conversions in temporal lobe epilepsy”. This very comprehensive review paper, demonstrated that religiosity of the epileptic was a recognised medical phenomenon, even as far back as the mid 19th century. Dewhurst and Beard’s review paper summarises many scientific reports mentioning religious experiences triggered by epilepsy, many of which were published well before the advent of sophisticated brain imaging techniques. In 1872/73, Howden [7] reported a conversion experience in which the patient believed that he was in Heaven. In 1899, Mabille [8] discussed religious hallucinations associated with epilepsy. In 1919, Boven [9] stressed the intensified piety of the epileptic after a severe seizure, and mentioned a 14 year-old boy who, after a seizure, saw God and the angels, and heard a celestial fanfare of music. In 1955, Karagulla and Robertson [10] discussed four temporal lobe epileptics with visual hallucinations. One of them had a seizure pattern which included a vision of Christ coming down from the sky.

More recent reports listed by Dewhurst and Bear include the following. In 1963, Beard [11] reported the conversion experience of a man who considered that he had received a message from God to mend his ways and help others, and the fact that he had been singled out in this way meant that he was God’s chosen instrument. The man completely believed in the validity of everything he had seen and heard during the acute phase, and specifically rejected the idea that the experience could have been the product of a disordered mind. In 1963, Slater and Beard [12] reported that mystical delusional experiences were remarkably common, and that patients were convinced of the reality and validity of their religious experiences. In 1963, Christensen [13] reported on the religious conversions of 22 men, all professionally engaged in the field of religion. Christensen also defined conversion, as an acute hallucinatory experience, occurring within the framework of religious belief, and characterized by its subjective intensity, apparent suddenness of onset, brief duration and observable changes in the subsequent behaviour of the convert. Finally, in 1966, Sedman [14] mentioned states of ecstasy, in which the victim sees the Heaven open, hears God speaking, and feels himself transfigured, and even believes that he is God.

Such, apparently, is the power of one’s mind to deceive one’s senses. I was particularly struck by obvious similarities with Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. In particular, the conversion experience of a man who considered that he had received a message from God to mend his ways and help others, and the fact that he had been singled out in this way meant that he was God’s chosen instrument. The man completely believed in the validity of everything he had seen and heard during the acute phase, and specifically rejected the idea that the experience could have been the product of a disordered mind” as reported by Beard [11].

Also, Christensen’s definition of conversion [13] as an acute hallucinatory experience occurring within the framework of religious belief and characterized by its subjective intensity, apparent suddenness of onset, brief duration and observable changes in the subsequent behaviour of the convert” could have been describing Paul himself. I also thought that Slater and Beard’s report [12] that mystical delusional experiences were remarkably common and that patients were convinced of the reality and validity of their religious experiences” was also highly relevant.

Since the publication of Dewhurst and Beard’s 1970 review paper [6], medical understanding of temporal lobe epilepsy has come on in leaps and bounds, thanks in part, to the development of more and more sophisticated brain imaging techniques. More recently, scientist like Dr Michael Persinger, Ph.D., professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Laurentian University in Canada, and like Dr Vilayanur Ramachandran, Ph.D., director of the Brain and Perception Laboratory at the University of California at San Diego, have regularly reported on, and/or lectured on, new developments in this new field of brain science called neurotheology viz. the cognitive neuroscience of religious experience and spirituality.

In 2009 Dr Persinger [15], working at Laurentian University, reported that 80% of normal people felt a sensed presence within the room, when their temporal lobes were stimulated with magnetic fields. He also found that very religious people, with temporal lobe sensitivity, had a religious experience when their temporal lobes were stimulated with magnetic fields. Working in parallel, at the University of California, Dr Ramachandran and his team studied the brains of people with temporal lobe epilepsy, and found that the extent of a person’s religious belief, may depend on how enhanced is this part of the brain’s electrical circuitry. Perhaps the most sensational headline in this scientific field occurred back in 1997, when Dr Ramachandran’s team of neuroscientists first announced the discovery of the god spot or “God Module” in the brain. This announcement was widely reported in the world media e.g. by Steve Connor (LA Times) [16] and by Robert Lee Hotz (Seattle Times) [17].

Dr Ramachandran’s findings, back in 1997, pointed to a region of the brain [temporal lobes], that when stimulated, creates hallucinations that are interpreted as mystical or spiritual experiences. It was claimed, that this “God module” may be responsible for man’s evolutionary instinct to believe in religion. This god spot is affected by epilepsy, and it is often stimulated naturally during meditation and prayer. It can also be affected by externally applied electromagnetic fields. Those who responded to this external stimulation, tended to explain their hallucination experiences in terms that were related to their own personal beliefs. Typical examples include visits from angels, visits from lost loved ones, an extraterrestrial encounter, a higher plane of consciousness and even visits from God.

It is now widely thought, that hallucinations occurring as the result of temporal lobe epilepsy, may be the real cause of mystical, spiritual and paranormal experiences, such as out-of-body experiences, and feelings of a presence in the room. It was suggested, that such experiences may explain why so many epileptics become obsessed with religion. However, most scientists today, including Ramachandran, think the idea of a single God module in the brain is far too simplistic. Nevertheless, it is now possible to routinely induce epileptic-like religious experiences in perfectly normal people. Obviously, those with strong emotional needs to maintain the religious status quo will have great difficulty accepting the implications of these new studies, but for the rest of us, they offer a chance to look anew at the origins of religions.

Having now offered some food for thought, I’m hoping those with anything resembling an open mind will now accept that both ardent religiosity & complete indifference to religion may indeed be just biological responses to biological needs triggered by biological stimuli. I’ll thus finish this blog by asking a very simple personal question. Where do you fit on this religiosity spectrum? Are you simply someone in the middle who follows blithely in your parents footsteps? Or does your temporal lobe “wiring” make you a needy religious person who has great difficulty understanding why some of us have no need for religion. Or perhaps like me, your temporal lobe “wiring” makes you impervious to all religious influences and leaves you wondering what all the fuss is about.

References

[1] Landsborough D, St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy, J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1987 Jun; 50(6):659-64.

[2] Brorson J R & Brewer K, St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy, J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1988 Jun; 51(6):886-7.

[3] Ali Sina, Muhammad and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE)

[4] M. A. Sherlock, Did the ‘Prophet’ Muhammad Suffer from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy?

[5] F. W. Burleigh, Was Muhammad an Epileptic?

[6] Dewhurst K & Beard A W, Sudden religious conversions in temporal lobe epilepsy, British Journal of Psychiatry 1970: 117: 497–507.

[7] Howden J C, The religious sentiments in epileptic, J Ment Sci 1872; 18: 491–7.

[8] Mabille H, Hallucinations religieuses et d_elire religieux transitore dan l’epilepsie. Ann M_edicopsychol 1899: 9–10: 76–81.

[9] Boven W, Religiosite et _epilepsie. Schweiz Arch f Neurol u Psychiat 1919: 4: 153–69.

[10] Karagulla S & Robertson E E, Physical phenomena in temporal lobe epilepsy and the psychoses. Brit Med J 1955: 748–52.

[11] Beard A W, The schizophrenia-like psychoses of epilepsy. Brit J Psychiat 1963: 109: 113–29.

[12] Slater E & Beard A W, The schizophrenia-like psychoses of epilepsy. Brit J Psychiat 1963:109: 5–112 & 143–50.

[13] Christensen C, Religious conversion. Arch Gen Psychiat 1963: 9: 207–16.

[14] Sedman G, Being an epileptic: a phenomenological study of epileptic experiences. Psychiat Neurol 1966: 152:1–16.

[15] Persinger M, 2009, Are our brains structured to avoid refutations of belief in God? An experimental study. Religion, 39(1): 34-42].

[16] Steve Connor, Los Angeles Times, Wednesday 29 October 1997

[17] Robert Lee Hotz, via Seattle Times, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 1997

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7 thoughts on “Religiosity-Biology or Brain-Washing?

  1. Excellent information Ken. I’m very excited with anticipation to see what the neurosciences will further prove in the coming decades about our temporal lobes and other regions of the brain. I was aware they were already stimulating/creating “Divine” experiences with electrode stimulations, however, for the betterment of humanity they are also able to switch-off other neurological-physiological disorders (e.g. tremors and seizures) via tiny electric pulses in the brain allowing patients to lead a more normal, less problematic life. These are all VERY GOOD advances in health/medicine! 🙂

    Where do you fit on this religiosity spectrum?

    On the Spectra of Religion & Magic (and the Supernatural?) scale/spectrum image here:

    I am clearly in the orange, in the Humanism/Secularism portion. With many years in the Psych/A&D rehab and therapy field, I saw firsthand how these biological affects form these acute cognitive psychological perceptions (divine connections?) in individuals. What’s more fascinating is that this temporal lobe activity and/or misfiring is much more common than we realize! And here is an even bigger question…

    Are we now to the point in technology’s advances that we can create or remove “God,” gods, ghosts, demons, fairies, and angels? 😈🤩

    Liked by 1 person

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