What do scientists think of religious people

Religion - A pipe dream or an evolutionary advantage?

by Lisa Peter

Religiousness as an object of research is currently very popular. The humanities and natural sciences approach it from different angles, but are dependent on each other in interpreting their results. Neurologists, psychologists, religious scholars and anthropologists try to clarify what goes on in the brain of religious people and what advantages it could have for Homo sapiens to deal with transcendence.

The natural sciences are gradually disenchanting the world around us. Brain research seems to rob people of their self-image: culturally firmly anchored and also politically important concepts such as free will and the associated autonomy of human action are increasingly being questioned. Now God and every idea of ​​transcendence is getting on the collar. At least one could think so, if one follows the discussions in the so-called neurotheology of the last few years.

People in the 21st century have to grapple with their radical mortality anew, believes Thomas Metzinger, Professor of Philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and Adjunct Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Frankfurt am Main: “Neurosciences and the theory of evolution make it clearer than ever beforehand that we are not only very vulnerable, but also seemingly completely mortal beings with a completely inner-worldly origin. "

The left hemisphere with the temporal lobe, which is considered the seat of religious feelings.
Graphics: Peter

Where does religion sit in the brain?

Nevertheless, religious communities are experiencing a strong increase, especially among young people. Why does religion still play such a big role, even 300 years after the Enlightenment and in the age of brain research? Are we genetically preprogrammed to think of a transcendent authority, regardless of its expression in detail? What advantages could that have?

In the past five years a number of studies have been published which ask about the location of religious sentiments in the brain. One of the most sensational is certainly the series of experiments by Michael Persinger. The Canadian neuroscientist from Laurentian University in Ontario exposed his test subjects to weak but constant magnetic fields using a converted motorcycle helmet. This technique, called “transcranial magnetic stimulation” in technical jargon, stimulates the left temporal lobe, a region that was previously suspected of being associated with mystical perceptions. In the so-called temporal lobe epilepsy, uncontrolled, thunderstorm-like energy discharges occur in this area of ​​the brain. According to Persinger, many temporal lobe epileptics then report mystical experiences during their seizure, the feeling of having encountered a foreign power, or of having experienced a revelation of a divine being.

On the basis of other symptoms such as acoustic hallucinations and perception of light, some researchers go so far as to interpret the spiritual experiences of Joan of Arc or even of the Apostle Paul retrospectively as an epileptic seizure. Persinger took these findings as the starting point for his investigations and set himself the goal of consciously producing comparable experiences under laboratory conditions. In fact, around 80 percent of the test persons stated that they felt another presence next to them in the room after stimulation with the motorcycle helmet.

"God's helmet" and "God's module"

Persinger's helmet, which in the Anglo-Saxon region was immediately dubbed the “God helmet” with effective advertising, is, however, not without controversy. A research group at Uppsala University led by Pehr Granqvist has tried to recreate Persinger's test procedure and thereby tighten the control conditions. In a so-called double-blind study, in which neither the test subjects nor the doctors knew who belonged to the control group and who was actually exposed to the magnetic fields, they could not confirm Persinger's results.

"God's Helmet".
Source: www.blume-

Still, other notable researchers seem to support some of Persinger's arguments. The psychologist and neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran from California University in San Diego also believes that he has discovered a “God module”. He also identifies the left temporal lobe as the seat of religious experiences, but at the same time makes it clear that several areas of the brain are involved in the subject's continuous preoccupation with transcendence. There must be connections to the limbic system and the amygdala, the so-called almond kernel, which assigns an emotional value to the experiences and thus highlights religious experiences as "special".

Is neurotheology coming now?

The question now arises as to what consequences these results have for our self-image. A new science is emerging: neurotheology. While natural scientists tend to reject this term, the religious scholar Michael Blume (University of Heidelberg) finds the combination “neurotheology” appropriate and defines its objective as follows: “Based on results in brain research, statements are made about God, the soul and free will, i.e. about Concepts that exceed the limits of knowledge in neuroscience. "

This is not meant as a criticism. Because instead of frowning to refer to the areas of responsibility of the disciplines, Blume sees the researchers' attempted transgressions more as evidence of the necessary transdisciplinary approach to the topic. "Religious feelings can certainly be traced back to neural states, but religion encompasses much more than just experiences of the transcendent, for example interpersonal rituals such as dance or marriage." In order to fully clarify the phenomenon of religion, he believes that natural cooperation is required - and humanities scholars.

Pious couples have more children

Neuroscience alone cannot make it clear why humans developed this ability for spiritual experience and, above all, why this “superfluous” function was not sorted out by evolution. “The brain is not necessarily pre-programmed to create a transcendent authority, but religiosity brings biological advantages,” says Michael Blume. With the help of a census in Switzerland, he found that religious women are more likely to look for religious men and that these partnerships also result in more children. In this way, religious communities ensure the survival of the species by encouraging women and men to form secure bonds that, on average, produce more children.

Similar evolutionary advantages as a further reason for religiosity are also provided by the study by the American anthropologist Richard Sosis, who found that those religious communities in which strict rules apply and where renunciation is exercised last longer than communities with lax regulations. One can quite rightly ask oneself what advantages these “expensive rituals” bring to the members. Sosis explains this behavior by signaling loyalty: "Anyone who performs a painful ceremony communicates unequivocally: 'I identify with our group and believe in what it stands for.'"

The belief in a higher authority that directs our fate may therefore offer no direct benefit for food consumption or the defense against enemies, but in social processes it helps to secure and maintain the community. It can therefore be assumed that brains with the fundamental ability to generate mystical states have been preserved in evolution. The exact connection between the neurological knowledge about the seat of religious feeling in the brain and the socio-anthropological-religious-scientific approaches has yet to be established. Blume's conclusion: "The human brain is endowed with abilities that have biological advantages, God is not a fault of our brain."

Further information:
The current topic page "Science and Belief" of the journal Brain and Spirit on the subject.

Book tips:
Andrew Newberg. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief. (Ballantine, 2001); German: The thought of God: How belief arises in the brain. (Piper, 2003).
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. The blind woman who can see: puzzling phenomena of our consciousness. (Rowohlt, 2002).