Monday, January 21, 2013

Brain Studies Show Religious Absolutism Can't Be Defended

In the image shown, from 'A History Of Torture Through The Ages',  designated torturers from the Holy Inquisition are fervently applying assorted torments to a witch (far left), a generic "non-believer" (center) and a heretic. Their reasoning is simple:

They are so emphatically certain of their own religious truths, that they cannot abide any expression of anything contrary.  Hence, the witch who professes belief in Magic must be disembowelled, the unbeliever must have molten silver poured over his body, and the heretic - professing "untruths" - must have his ears, tongue cut out.  Now, by comparison, we examine below the words of a modern Fundamentalist Christian, from his blog - who saw my earlier blog on my niece who has cancer and how her spiritual  support system is Eckanckar.

"Eckankar is just another Satan-led religion to lead many well-meaning, albeit 'blind' souls to hell. The main reason that people cling to these false religions is mainly due to the fact that they seldom - if ever - talk and teach their followers about hell. They'll call us true Christians "hateful," "intolerant," "insensitive," and worse. Why? Because we tell them the truth...GOD'S TRUTH! ("Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" - Gal 4:16). However, what they miss is its because we love them as God's creations that we tell them and speak of hell. We would be remiss in our obligations as Christians if we did not!"

What is the commonality between the examples? Obviously,  the primary difference is that in the case of the devout Inquisitors - who fervently wish to save the trio they're working on from Hell's fires via physical torment (to get them to change before they die)-  their victims perish. In the case of the fundie's target, she merely gets dispatched to Hell, no pain in the current life. (Fortunately, Hell is a myth, but such overt oral-written consignment typically wreaks mental havoc on the less secure.)

The commonality, however, is the sense of absolutism : the conviction or firm belief that what the attacker upholds as "truth" is the final, absolute truth and there can be NO alternative. Nor can any remote difference be accepted. Thus,  the heretic, witch or unbeliever must be taken apart piece by bloody piece, just as the Eckanckar devotee must be consigned to Hell fire. Absolutist belief allows no wiggle room! "God" or whatever the engrained brain embolism is, has spoken! Now, check again the fundie's further words on Eckanckar:

"It is clear from the outset that this (Eckanckar) is a “religion” created by Satan, the father of lies. But it differs from the many other false religions in its dangerous practices of giving an opening to demonic forces. Satan is "your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour"

We also see here the emergence of an adjunct belief, in each case. To the Inquisitors, steadying their firm hands to rip flesh, castrate, scald or disembowel there was the underlying conviction that witches, unbelievers and heretics were each driven or possessed by "Satan". To the fundie, the follower of Eckanckar is opening herself to "demonic forces" and hence can be used by "Satan".

Now, it is possible to coolly analyze each of the examples, based on recent brain research, using actual scans from positron emission tomography (PET) or single photon emission tomography (SPECT) .  The data, results provide a look inside the brains of the believers forcing their agendas and dogmas, pet credos on others. The advantage of PET and SPECT scans is that they show the effects of active, resident beliefs in real time on the brains of firm believers. Not merely a static image. We see where the brain activity lights up as it were, and where it becomes more muted.

Much of the work has been published in the 2002 book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief  by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili. Their main findings have to do with the OAA (orientation association area)  brain region. The authors note that in normal circumstances:

The OAA helps create a distinct, accurate sense of our physical orientation to the world. To do its job well….depends on a constant stream of nerve impulses from each of the body’s senses. The OAA sorts and processes these impulses virtually simultaneously during every moment of our lives

However, in abnormal situations, or when abnormally strong beliefs are held, the OAA can be distorted. For example, a fundy given an image of Christ and asked to focus on it has his OAA go into overdrive within minutes.  Neurological measurements, i.e. from PET and SPECT scans, show electrical discharges spiraling down from the right attention area (right OAA) to the limbic system and hypothalamus “triggering the arousal section of the structure”. The authors’ test results and measurements actually revealed that as the subjects focused on an image of Christ, both the left and right association regions were activated. As assorted cortical thresholds were crossed, a maximal stimulation (given by spikes in the SPECT scans) produced a neural “flood” that generated feedback to the attention association area.

To make a long story short, the visual attention area of the OAA was seen to begin to deprive the right orientation area (responsible for balance) of the OAA of all neural input not originating with the contemplation of Jesus. In order to compensate, and thereby preserve the neuro-spatial matrix (in which the self could still exist) the right orientation area had to default to the attention area focusing on “Jesus”. As the authors put it :

“ It has no choice but to create a spatial matrix out of nothing but the attention area’s single-minded contemplation of Jesus”

In other words, belief in Jesus (and by proxy, his offer of "salvation")  became a matter of life or death. Newberg and D’Aquili go on to note that as the process of "re-cerebralization" continues, all irrelevant neural inputs are stripped away until the only reality left is Jesus. That reality (actually a pseudo-reality confected by the right attention area) thereby takes over the entire mind. Or, in the words of the authors, “it is perceived by the mind as the whole depth and breadth of reality.”

This is a profound insight, and fully explains why it is essentially impossible to wean believers away from their objects of worship or devotion (including their "good books")  based on logic and reason alone. What has happened, in other words, is the subject’s whole existence and identity has become bound up with the focus of his brain’s OAA- or more specifically – the right attention area’s focus on his specific belief,  which channels nearly all neural inputs to that region. (As shown by the PET SPECT scans lighting up)

In the mind of the professed believer, focused on Jesus as his “Savior”, there is no possibility of leaving that focus behind because his OAA brain areas are now exclusively dependent on it for him to survive. Take them away, say by surgically removing the right attention areas of the OAA, and the person will die. He’ll either commit suicide, unable to ground himself in any continuous or recognizable reality, or he will go mad.

In other words, on having their brains' OAA regions adversely stimulated to negate their beliefs (or so they thought) both the Inquisitors and the Fundie were constrained to act in order to eject the challenging meme. The Inquisitors did it via tortures, and the Fundie by mentally dispatching his target to "Hell" - a lurid fairytale confected originally by the Mithraists but later plagiarized in Christian scriptures. (Lauran Paine, in his book, ‘The Heirarchy of Hell’ , observes that the Christian copyists did add further refinements in terms of a number of further denizens of Hell, including: wights, imps and demons. Of course, this compounds the nonsense of it all by the fact of wholesale confabulation and addle-pated frivolity.)

A more recent take on this hyper-belief dynamic has been provided by Michael Shermer in his (2011) book, The Believing Brain, wherein he uses an impressive compilation of research - from neuroscience, to biochemistry to evolutionary psychology- to show that belief inevitably trumps reason. Also, that in many ways, the unchecked brains of believers are like those of drug addicts run amuck...say on meth, or crack. As Shermer puts it:

“Our believing brain dictates what we are seeing!"

Thus, if a person doesn't wish to believe any contradictions exist in his bible he won't see them. He will simply explain any or all objections away by whatever rationalizing arguments he can muster. As an extension of this tendency, according to Shermer, the brains of believers actively seek out any and all sources and information which confirm their pre-existing beliefs. Meanwhile, they actively avert their eyes (and brains)from any information or sources that appear to controvert those beliefs. In this way, they protect their self-running program loops, and auto-approving brain dynamic while keeping irritating skeptics at bay.

Thus, sowing countervailing evidence or presenting rational counter arguments to either Fundie or Inquisitor would have no effect, because in order to accept them, each believer would have to get off his respective belief 'crack pipe'. But if they did that, their very existence would be threatened, since their undermined OAA brain regions would then reduce them to vegetables or total zombies. In other words, to preserve their identities via the OAA brain regions, they need to retain those absolutist beliefs.

Of course, since the beliefs are based in brain dynamics, they aren't real, and all end up as relative. The tragedy is neither Inquisitors or Fundies seem aware of how their own brains have played them.  In the end, the heretic's beliefs are no better or worse than the Inquisitors' Catholic ones, nor are the Eckist's beliefs (say in reincarnation)  any worse than the Fundie's. Though I will say they likely are since the Eckist makes no condemnatory word or gesture toward the Fundie, like he does to her. She then understands  - unlike the Fundie- the fragility and relativity of beliefs. Of course, the Fundie will insist he got his truths from the "Bible" but as we know that invention has multiple belief defects of its own, see e.g.

More to the point, the biblical writers' own OAA brain regions were culprits, or if you prefer, accomplices, in the manufacture of their imaginary confections, like a whale swallowing a man and retaining him alive for 3 days, or Joshua stopping the Sun with his horn. Hence, when the biblical believer alludes to his bible as the fount of truth it's like a leader allowing 2,000 -year old "inmates" to run the asylum--- of his brain!

Will the Fundie accept any of this? Not likely! It would mean having to remap his OAA region of the brain, and that would be impossible without....probably some deep brain surgery and neural rewiring! In her wonderful book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes:

"A personalized God can become a mere idol carved in our image. A projection of our limited needs, fears and desires. We just assume then that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them."

It would be well for all the religious, biblical, Deity absolutists in our midst to process this, and learn the degree to which their own brains manufacture their gods as often cruel mirror images of their own  personalities! Listen to them for their "helpful" truth? We'd do better to run as fast and as far as we can!

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