why we believe in god(s) — A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith: A Book Review

I’ve been out of town for an extended period and am just getting back to writing for this blog.  I’ll mark my return with a review of a book that I read while I was away.

Before reading J. Anderson Thomson’s book, I had little reason to think that religion, in spite of being widespread, was anything more than a learned behavior that had little to do with evolution. After all, religion doesn’t appear to provide much to aid in natural selection that wouldn’t be better explained by other behaviors. The strength in Thomson’s arguments are that they view religion as a byproduct of evolution.

The bulk of his reasoning depends on the evolution of behavior patterns that predispose the acceptance of religion as a natural outgrowth. The problem for me is that I am very skeptical of explaining much of psychology or behavior as being derived from evolution since so much of the literature seems to be based on flimsy speculation about what might have been useful to our ancestors.

The only ways I see of sorting this out is by observation of behaviors in infants before those behaviors could be learned and by tying a behavior to neurobiology and brain chemistry. If a behavior is found in infants before it can be learned, this strongly implies genetic inheritance, which would supposedly result from evolution, either directly or indirectly. Neurologically based explanations for behavior give a physical reference, which provides a basis for experimentation. Thompson uses both approaches.

Although I found a few of his examples a little weak, they are based mostly on peer-reviewed references or trustworthy outside sources. The example that many people find convincing leaves me wondering how well it was researched in its original source, since I haven’t dug into the literature myself. Thompson uses an argument by Lee Kirkpatrick that a child’s reaching up to a parent is paralleled by Pentecostals reaching toward God when the “spirit” strikes them. This is explained by the psychological mechanism of attachment, where religion supplements or supplants family.

Thomson explains the attachment system as an extension of parent-child bonding, which is neurologically driven by oxytocin. This same mechanism can be extended to other people and entities, which makes it ideal for feeling that a god is a parent-figure or that certain people or ancestors are to be revered above others. This is the general approach to explaining attachment, which I accept.

What I don’t accept is that “reaching toward God” is part of this system rather than a learned response. Since I have been to impassioned evangelistic sermons where this is unusual or non-existent, it would seem either that this is a Pentecostal-related learned practice [by imitation] or that other churches shun the practice, which doesn’t seem likely. Similarly, a wave at a sporting event is certainly learned. I consider the “reaching” to be learned in the same way that glossolalia (speaking in tongues) is – not so much by instruction as by imitation and knowing that it is a physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit (i.e., that it is expected of a good Christian, Mark 16:17, KJV).

As mentioned in the book, the two halves of the temporal lobe make different contributions to one’s sense of self, with the left half usually being dominant. Michael Persinger used Stanley Koren’s “god helmet” to stimulate the right temporal lobe with a changing magnetic field to disrupt the balance between the two lobes. Participants were placed in a soundproof room designed to eliminate external EMF radiation. The magnetic field was about one micro Tesla (much weaker than a refrigerator magnet) arranged to switch from one solenoid coil to another with a non-sinusoidal wave pattern. Over 80% of the test subjects reported feeling the presence of another entity in the same room, with some also reporting mystical experiences and altered states. It seems reasonable to expect that not only does the right temporal lobe become more active, but so does the limbic system behind it.

The usual criticisms of Persinger’s work are that it has never been independently verified under double blind conditions or that the power of suggestion could be affecting the results. I haven’t seen any mention the effects of partial sensory deprivation, so that may be ruled out somewhere that I don’t know about. There is also concern about whether the magnetic field is too weak to cause discernible results, since the related study of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses fields of about 1 Tesla (a million time stronger), and are capable of producing eddy currents in the brain as well as possible undesirable side effects.

 In spite of this, I think Thomson is right in mentioning this work without dragging in the details. I like details, but it would have unnecessarily lengthened the book, and one of its great features is that the book is short and to the point. Curtailing of details occurs again when he discusses neurology and brain chemistry, but that alone could easily have doubled the size of the book.

Thomson discusses 20 adaptations that we have inherited from our ancestors that have been instrumental in making religion feel natural. Religion is integrated into the same brain networks used by social cognition, and Thomson makes an elegant presentation of these points. Although he unabashedly focuses on Christianity to make these points, in chapter 8 he discusses the rituals of three surviving hunter-gatherer tribes and what those portend for modern religions. In chapter 6 he discusses how religions create a minimally counterintuitive world, which is actually easier to learn and remember than if it were completely bizarre or based on normal intuition.

In chapter 9 Thomson describes mirror neurons. They are recently discovered neurons that fire both when an animal acts and when it sees that action performed by another. They are observed in primates and birds, and in humans, there are at least 4 areas of the brain that act in a way consistent with the description of mirror neurons. It has been suggested that they are important for imitation and language acquisition, especially in infants, as well as for empathy and self awareness, and that their dysfunction is related to autism.

I am pretty well convinced that there is probably a strong relation between mirror neurons and these suggested types of behavior, but in reading Thomson’s descriptions and examples, he seems to go well beyond my understanding (which is minimal at best). Since this field is his specialty, I’ll have to defer to his expertise while at the same time holding some reservations.

I have neglected mentioning Clare Aukofer, who worked with Thomson in writing this book. She suggested some of her own ideas and helped make reading the book seem effortless.

In spite of what may seem to be a negative reaction on my part, this is a book that is an absolute must for anyone interested in the interaction of religion and mechanisms used by the brain. It has forced me to rethink some long-cherished preconceptions, and I doubt that there are many people who won’t have to reconsider some of their ideas. Don’t pass up this book.


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