From the Big Think: more confirmation bias about the benefits of religion

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.


  1. Linda K
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    You have to be selective in reading Big Think–they do feature Bill Nye….

    • Linda K
      Posted December 15, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      … and Steven Pinker!

      • Carl
        Posted December 15, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure if Bill Nye is intended as a selling point, but Steven Pinker certainly is (for me), likewise his wife.

  2. Carey Haug
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    How can studies of the brains of religious people prove anything about the existence of supernatural beings? Even if religious feeling has some physiological basis that does not prove anything about whether God is real or imaginary.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 16, 2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      I suspect that the science here is covering over a variation of the old stand-by apologetic of the Argument from Beauty.

      Which goes like this:

      “If there is no God, then there’s no good way to explain why human beings would have such strong reactions to things which are beautiful. There’d be no good way to explain why things themselves are beautiful, either. How does appreciating a sunset aid in survival? Why would listening to the lovely notes of a singing bird fill us with such wonder and joy? These aesthetic experiences and heightened emotions make no sense unless they’re anchored in an underlying reality which transcends the mere physical world. Some call this ideal ‘the Spirit of Beauty;’ others call it ‘God.'”

      Substitute feelings of “joy” or “transcendence” or “the sacred” and it’s basically the same argument.

  3. eric
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    This study led researchers to speculate that the origins of our modern social structure were aided thanks to a spiritual impulse.

    That’s just silly. IMO its far more reasonable to think that the researchers have put the cart before the horse here, and that our social instincts are being co-opted into triggering a reaction to the theological material. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that humans occasionally treat fictional characters as if they are part of our social circle – people get into soap operas. Or fictional stories. You feel for the character. Empathize with them. So, when you take a bunch of very religious Mormons, and you have them read the Book of Mormon about characters they are familiar with from childhood, its pretty much like letting an old friend of mine watch Dynasty. I’m sure his brain would’ve lit up in the frontal lobes too. Because to part of his brain, he was having a social relationship with the characters. Even if the other parts of his brain knew it was a fiction.

    IOW, I fully agree with Jerry. Though personally, I would think the right control group would not be English professors reading journal articles, but rather Beliebers reading an article about Justin Bieber. Or followers of soap operas reading Soap Opera Digest. Take anyone with a strong but fictional social relationship. Test them to see if their frontal lobes light up when they read about their fictional friend. I bet it will.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 15, 2016 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      My reward centre lights up for pictures of steam trains or rally cars.

      Not sure what that implies for my evolution…


  4. J. Quinton
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    His entire premise is flawed. Religion is something that we invented, like football or chocolate cake. It’s not the whole that is significant, but the constituent parts that we evolved to crave. We just mashed those constituent parts together in order to create a superstimulus.

    It doesn’t make sense to say that we evolved to be religious any more than it makes sense to say that we evolved to buy iPhones.

  5. nicky
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    What can be another contributing cause of religion is that dead beloved ones so often appear in dreams, not dead after all!
    I imagine it is but a small step from there to believe in spirits and life after death.
    I’m sure the nucleus accumbens would be blazing during those dreams.

  6. Steve Pollard
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    News just in: Mormons are stimulated by reading Mormon literature. Well I never!

    Says nothing whatever about the origins of religion, or why people go for it, or why they stick with it, or (given the evidence) why they still bother with it

  7. George Atkinson
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t “bereshit” the very first word of the bible?

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    When I read a phrase like “rectifying distance,” I put distance between me and what I was reading.

    Such vapid language is a sure sign of sloppy thinking.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 15, 2016 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      And he’s multi-faceted as well, which probably helps with the rectifying.

      The woo is string with this one.


      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted December 15, 2016 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

        Ack! The woo is *strong* with this one…

        I hate it when that happens


      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted December 16, 2016 at 5:47 am | Permalink

        String theory?

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 16, 2016 at 6:17 am | Permalink

          Yep, something like this:


    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 15, 2016 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      I got as far as

      He is the creator of Flow Play, an innovative program that fuses yoga, music, and neuroscience, offered nationally at Equinox Fitness

      and my New Age Hard-of-Thinking Rip-Off merchant alarm went off.

      sure sign of sloppy thinking.

      I’d check the tread in your shoes too. The smell lingers.

      And he’s multi-faceted as well,

      OH… multi-faceted! I can do faceting. Somehow, I don’t think this person would want me to introduce him to some new facets of his personality.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted December 16, 2016 at 12:17 am | Permalink

        It would indeed have been hard to cram any more new age key words into that phrase.
        Creator, flow, play, innovative, fuses (fusion is always a good one), yoga, fitness, equinox and of course neuroscience.

        Some of those words aren’t pure new age but some are and the context makes the more normal words very new agey.

        I had the same alarm.
        It is troubling that some people can continue to churn out this nonsense in that language style and so many people swallow it all up.

        The same kind of crap language that they use to describes all the worthless alternative medicines.

        I am going off to flow my chi now. (or something)

        • Sastra
          Posted December 16, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

          It didn’t say anything about his being holistic, though. And “energy.” Not a goddam word about “energy.” Bad New Age gibberish, woefully insufficient, imo.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 17, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

          I feel an attack of the quantum herminustics coming on !

    • Helen Hollis
      Posted December 16, 2016 at 1:07 am | Permalink

      When I read a phrase like “rectifying distance” I usually think about how what I am reading will be used to wipe my ass.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 16, 2016 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        Might prove to be uncomfortable when you read it on a computer screen. 🙂

        • Helen Hollis
          Posted December 17, 2016 at 2:30 am | Permalink

          I was simply looking at rectifying and rectum.

  9. Peter
    Posted December 16, 2016 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Betteridge’s law of headlines is confirmed once again.

  10. Tom
    Posted December 16, 2016 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    I have recently “discovered” that the invention of money has played an even more important part in human evolution.
    No other species has ever twigged the social and spiritual advantages of money.
    Recent research in Wall Street and Canary Wharf have proved that money is the chief motivator, providing men and women with that so important hit to the reward centres of the brain.
    More research is necessary to ascertain how and when our remote ancestors took this giant step in our evolution.

  11. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted December 16, 2016 at 3:04 am | Permalink

    …and yet Big Think also published an article about Steven Kotler where he says that Aaron Dietrich realized that transient hypofrontality underpins every altered [brain] state.

    So the Big Think could be just confused or it could be in the business of supplying soapboxes.

    I think that if ‘naturalism’ is the default assumption then transient hypofrontality explains a great deal about human experiences. All without needing the religious narrative to ‘explain’ the causes.

  12. Posted December 16, 2016 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Reminds me of an idea I had a few years ago. My theory (which is mine) is that religion was permissive for us developing our complex minds.

    For animals life is incredibly harsh. As our nonhuman ancestors evolved ever more complex emotions the harshness of life would have become unbearable. How many babies do you need to see suffer and die before you decide not to bother having any yourself? Religion is just the modern expression of an ability which must have developed to help our ancestors cope with reality- essentially by denying reality and making up their own. Once that ability was in place and compartmentalized our minds had no limits for emotional and rational expansion

    • eric
      Posted December 16, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      I think that’s probably putting a very 20th century view on things, and humans in the past were (of necessity) far more inured to death and violence than we are today. Remember, the childhood mortality for humans up until the 20th century was about 1/3, but pre-20th century people laughed, loved, created art music etc…. They didn’t drop into an angsty funk just because the death rate was higher than what we 21st century types are used to. In many other big, intelligent animals, its also that high. Those animals appear to mourn their dead children for a while, then get on with life…without religion. I very much suspect humans are fully capable of the same.

  13. Sastra
    Posted December 16, 2016 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    This study led researchers to speculate that the origins of our modern social structure were aided thanks to a spiritual impulse.

    This entire line of argument undermines the value of religion. It doesn’t have to be “true” to work; it doesn’t have to be true to “work.” Even if their theory is correct, people of faith should take no comfort from it. Rather, it ought to alarm them.

    Once the whole emphasis is placed on history, neurology, evolution, community, bonding, and feeling good, they can kiss the whole “God embedded a yearning for Him deep inside our very nature” crap good-bye. Not only have God’s mysterious ways been reduced to the mechanism of evolutionary biology, but it doesn’t matter what god, what religion, what morals, what sacred text or what rituals originally shaped the human brain. And, as others have eagerly pointed out, the same transcendent epiphanies accompany other things. To explain mystical experiences through neurology is to explain them away.

    Imagine if the studies had found the exact opposite of what they claim to have found. When devout Mormons have spiritual experiences, nothing special happens in the brain. Zip. Zada. People are obviously undergoing strong emotions and reporting many things but the brain isn’t showing any effects at all. There are no chemical correlates of bliss and rapture when and only when the subject taps into their religious impulses. The science is clear — neurology stands by helpless and evolution is inadequate when it comes to investigating or explaining anything concerning the numinous. There’s no connection to nature or nurture: mystical experiences have turned out to be a black box.

    That would be a f*cking proof of God, right there.

    They can’t have it both ways.

  14. somer
    Posted December 18, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I disagree with Derek Beres take of Stephen Mithen:

    “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.”

    Mithen (especially Ch 9) does not argue for any hardwired religious inclination; rather he said that whereas very early human forebears sharply distinguished inanimate things, lifeforms, and manipulation with tools. Later humans learned to overlap the different domains – intuitive knowledge of biology with knowledge of inanimate things and phenomena – that allowed for advanced abstract thinking and planning but also happened to make religious thinking possible – belief in supernatural beings that partly behave like humans and conform to biological rules and partly have behaviour and powers that are completely super-natural. Frankly maths in Greek societies was intended to be useless and pure theory – though internally consistent – but eventually proved very useful. The other by product of this mix up of domains – religion – is not consistent with the real world once we developed means to test this.

    So this does not mean religion was necessary – rather it was an interim step that was rendered obsolete in more recent times.

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