I’m starting to really suspect that The Big Think is a misnomer; perhaps it should be called The Big Thunk, for it often produces a lot of sound without much thought. Case in point: Derek Beres’s new piece at that site called “Did religion help our brains evolve?” His implicit answer is “yes.” First, though, here’s who he is, taken from hiBeres’s own webpage:
Derek Beres is a multi-faceted author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor based in Los Angeles. He is the creator of Flow Play, an innovative program that fuses yoga, music, and neuroscience, offered nationally at Equinox Fitness.
And here’s his Big Think:
Neurotheology was born.
The term, also known as spiritual neuroscience, is a modern attempt of rectifying distance between neurochemistry and religious experiences. In many ways this is a chicken-or-egg debate. Did the human brain evolve to experience spirituality or were those yearnings what shaped our brain? Recent research hints at the latter.
I’m not sure what he means about “rectifying the distance between neurochemistry and religious experiences”: does he mean that they should be fused, or simply that the former should investigate the latter? Well, the latter is already being done, and in support of his Big Think hypothesis—that religious yearnings evolutionarily shaped our brain—he offers very thin gruel indeed:
One study investigated nineteen devout Mormons—a very small sample, it must be noted. Researchers pulled from William James’s classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, to define the experience: euphoria, noetic insight, feeling at one with oneself and others. This study follows many other similar attempts at locating the chemical correlates of bliss and rapture, as well as hormones triggering contemplation and mindfulness.
Researchers hoped to isolate the experience in order to replicate it more widely. As they write,
“A neuroscience of religious and spiritual experience is a key step for understanding the motivation of religious behavior and health effects of religious practice across communities. We selected a Mormon population for studying subjective religious euphoria because of the centrality of charismatic religious joy (colloquially, “feeling the Spirit”) in both Mormon theology and practice, and the high frequency with which adherents to the faith report experiencing these phenomena in their daily lives.”
Each young adult (mid-twenties to thirty) was given eight-minute long tasks associated with their devotional discipline, such as reading passages from the Book of Mormon or viewing LDS quotations. While there is no ‘religious center’ in the brain, the self-reported spiritual experiences activated distinct brain regions, including the nucleus accumbens—our brain’s reward center—and the frontal lobes, associated with an ability to form social relationships. These lobes serve as the brakes of the paralimbic system, calming our innate animal emotional responses with reason and logic, which is important when dealing with others in a social setting.
This study led researchers to speculate that the origins of our modern social structure were aided thanks to a spiritual impulse. While this yearning does seem inherent, archaeologist Steven Mithen would likely disagree that religion created the impulse. He points to the neurological origins of religion in cognitive processes dealing with technical, social, and natural history—three once-separate domains that united roughly forty thousand years ago.
But wait a tick! That study didn’t have proper controls! Yes, the Mormons showed more activity in the nucleus accumbens when read more Mormon-y passages, but what if you gave the same test to a bunch of English professors (not postmodernists) and then read them passages from boring science papers, from the newspaper, and from great literature? Maybe they’d show the same result! Would that imply that a “literature impulse” was not only inherent, but helped shape the evolution of modern society? All the authors showed is that Mormons trained to accept Church dogma showed activation of the brain’s “reward center” when they heard that dogma. Big whoop! And even if there were a specific area that lights up most strongly when you hear scripture, that says absolutely nothing about whether religion helped shape the human brain over evolutionary time. The nucleus accumbens is certainly present in other primates. Was capuchin society also shaped by religion?
And of course there are many alternative theories about how religion was a byproduct of other forces that shaped our brains: the advantage of following authority, the advantage of having an agency-detection facility (Pascal Boyer’s thesis), the need to find explanations for distressing phenomena like diseases or lightning (i.e., adaptive human curiosity), and so on ad infinitum. To claim that one silly experiment with Mormons implies that religion helped shape the evolution of our brain is simply fatuous.
To be fair, Beres does mention another non-religion explanation, though the one he limns doesn’t make much sense. But in the end he returns to his thesis by saying this:
It is often argued that morals are meaningless without religion. Yet as journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recently admitted regarding atheism, non-belief is more likely to inspire an appreciation of the moment—and the people you’re surrounded by. Anthropologists have shown at length that our forebears form communities and bond for reasons of survival, not metaphysics.
This does not discount religion’s role in our social evolution, however. While fundamentalist religion is dangerous to culture—the potential appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education is one such instance—communities formed around ritual have played a primary role in our understanding of how societies operate. One need not be a believer to recognize the wonderful charitable work by religious organizations, nor question its beneficial impact on the psychology of mankind.
Now he’s talking not about biological evolution, as implied in his title, but about social evolution, and yes, religion has clearly played a role in social evolution. But whether that role is salubrious is unclear, even if you drag in charitable work (money usually going to religious causes) and human psychology. (I’d love to see Beres’s data supporting the thesis that religion’s net impact on human psychology was clearly beneficial.)
Big Think? More like Big Stink. This article, like so many others, was written merely to make the religious feel better about themselves. “Yes, yes,” they’ll say, “Our very brains are the products of religious belief.” That’s not very far from saying that are very brains are the product of God.