Sunday, February 24, 2008

Hardwired for God?

I recently came across this interesting post on Ronlawhouston's blog. I thought I would share.

It is, I think, the spiritual version of the chicken-and-the-egg debate.

God in the Brain

Suppose that you show a group of people three sets of words. The first group consists of neutral words like "chair." The second group contains erotic words like "sex." The third group contains religious words like "God." For most normal people, they will become excited by the erotic word group. However, if you conduct the experiment on people that suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will become excited by the religious words.

Temporal lobe epilepsy like other forms of epilepsy gives physical seizures; however, it is also associated with vivid religious hallucinations. In the Bible, the book of Acts contains Paul's account of his calling. We know that he was struck blind for a time. He also talked of afflictions of his flesh. Could Paul have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy? Similarly the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Movement, Ellen White, suffered a brain injury at age 9 that dramatically changed her personality. She also claimed to have powerful religious visions.

Leaving aside the theological question of the existence of God, there appears to be hard wired into humans an ability to experience religion. In culture after culture throughout the world, there are different expressions of this religious experience. Even noted atheist Richard Dawkins believes there is an evolutionary advantage to having a brain that can experience religion. I've experienced these "transcendent" experiences and have had to grapple with exactly what they mean.

The question becomes whether God is created in the brain, or whether the brain is an antenna for God.

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Blogger Johnny Workentine said...

Ellen White still had a well-functioning brain:

8:05 PM CST  
Blogger Betty S said...

I have no doubt that she did. Having a temporal lobe disfunction doesn't usually damage the more cognitive portions of the brain, unless the damage is far more pervasive.

I think it would be too easy to simply conclude that religious experience is hallucinogenic in nature because of some of these events. BUT, there is also the possibility that it could be a portion of the brain designed in a way to make ligitimate spiritual connections and, like any part of the body, the physiology can sometimes go awry. I think the jury is still out on this one.

11:35 PM CST  
Blogger X. Dell said...

Not wanting to take up too much space here, but I cannot dismiss the brain as the antena for the divine out of hand. I'm not sold on the question one way or the other, but in looking at the work of R.D. Laing and others on the possibility of psychosis as not a cognitive function, but rather an ability to construct reality differently, I'd say the hallucinations/visions seem similar to a psychotic episode. Despite it's name, it's not as bad as it sounds. But if psychosis is not a dysfunction, but rather an alternative function, then that would give more credence to the brain as antenna idea.

2:34 AM CST  
Blogger Rayke said...

Had these people been familiar with religion at all before their "accidents"? Maybe the whole religion was absorbed, be it on purpose or not, and was stored somewhere in the subconscious.

And then once there is some sort of brain trauma, the dormant religious thoughts rear their ugly heads.

If these people had not been exposed to religion at all, and then suddenly turn into evangelists after a brain injury...I'd be a little freaked out.

10:19 PM CST  
Blogger Betty S said...

X, I'm not sold on any type of deity, of course I'm not sold against it either, but should one exist it would seem "natural" for there to be some type of physiological conduit for communication. So, like you, but for different reasons, I don't think I would dismiss the idea outright.

rayke, I think it would be difficult to find anyone in any culture who had not had some exposure to religion. I don't know that in either case their reactions would freak me out, because they could still be nothing more than hallucinations. I would probably pay more attention to the types of experiences people have that use this part of the brain when there hasn't been any potential brain damage. Self-actualization, perhaps. Or, maybe something more. The still small voice that speaks to us in silence. I wonder?

11:00 PM CST  
Blogger Rayke said...

That's true about finding people who haven't been exposed to religion. So I think that the religious thoughts are just stored somewhere in their brain.

And once they bump their head, the thoughts take over.

I wouldn't be necessarily be surprised if someone who saw a surfing contest when they were 12, and never saw another one, hit their head when they were 35, and then suddenly had surfing hallucinations from then on out.

This is all my ignorant opinion, of course, but I think It's just a matter of what memories/thoughts take over after your injury. For some people, it's surfing. For others, it's religion.

12:07 AM CST  
Blogger Rayke said...

Sorry, one more post...

It's kind of like how you can dream about things that you haven't thought about in years. Only you're dreaming while awake...?

Also, in my first comment in this blog, I meant to say "the whole religion thing was absorbed"...not "the whole religion was absorbed".

Just sayin'.

Good to see you back, blogging again.

12:10 AM CST  

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