Monday, July 13, 2015

Why Do Some Brains Tilt Toward Atheism?

According to a 2008 Pew Religious Survey only 12.7 percent of those who grew up in religious homes later shuck off their faith and become "nones" or those who hold to no religion. (Also incorrectly called "unchurched")  It turns out the skeptical brain has a lot to do with it, as well as why many nones are atheists.

Conversely, other brains seem to have a biological tendency to gravitate to religion and a wide spectrum of spiritual beliefs. In the popular book “The God Gene,” American geneticist Dean Hamer said that “we have a genetic predisposition for spiritual belief that is expressed in response to, and shaped by, personal experience and the cultural environment.”

Belief - according to many - has been a positive development for the evolution of our species, and we haven’t evolved beyond it. According to a May Gallup poll, 86 percent of Americans believe in God. But with such a majority the question now becomes: Why doesn’t everyone believe in God? What's with the 14 percent who don't believe in God?

Many researchers have asked this same question. Some studies suggest that a skeptical brain works differently than a believing brain.  One example is a 2012 study titled “Is it Just a Brick Wall or a Sign From the Universe: An fMRI Study of Supernatural Believers and Skeptics.” In this experiment, the participants’ brain activity was monitored while they read a scenario, then looked at a picture. They were asked what thoughts the image would evoke if they were in that scenario, then saw that picture on a poster as they were walking down the street.

For example, imagine you just had a job interview. You walk down the street, and see a poster of a business suit. How would that make you feel? What does that poster mean? The supernaturally inclined people were more likely to see it as a meaningful omen, a sign that they would get the job. The skeptics in the group did not see any significance in the image. To them, a poster of a suit is just that, a poster of a suit. No other meaning applies.

Why this non-response for skeptics? The researchers found that one region of their brains (the right inferior frontal gyrus) “was activated more strongly than in supernatural believers.” The more active that part of the brain, the less likely participants were to find supernatural meaning in the images. The researchers think this is because the active region of the brain is associated with cognitive inhibition.

Cognitive inhibition marks the brain’s ability to stop or override a certain mental process — the ability to stop unwanted thoughts, say, or to weed out irrelevant information. One example of where cognitive inhibition is useful is in overcoming prejudice. If people want to avoid discriminating, they need to inhibit or suppress any negative stereotypes they might have toward a certain group of people - say thinking of or referring to black people as "apes".

Recent research has enabled remarkable insights into brains and what drives some toward religious belief, even mania, while others are 'turned off'. The research discloses the latter condition isn't the result of 'demons' or "Satan" afflicting the person, but rather particular brain chemicals, dynamics that differ in their manifestation between religious and non-religious.

Also of particular interest in neurophysiological and neuropharmacological research is the brain region known as the OAA or the Orientation and Activation Area.  In his book, The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience,, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg provides a putative basis for the divergence in religious acceptance, belief by showing how the brain’s orientation association area(OAA) determines the belief system for each of us.

Since each human brain is different, and the OAA varies in cognitive function from brain to brain, then the beliefs we choose will reflect that biological brain disposition.. An atheist, for example, will manifest a very high reductive cognitive function, in addition to very low dopamine levels, according to Newberg. A Fundamentalist will typically display a very high causality cognitive function, overlaid by primitive fears issuing from the amygdala.  The hyper-religionist who believes s/he talks to God or actually knows the deity on an intimate basis exhibits fronto-temporal dementia, as first demonstrated by Dr. Patricia Bannister in Barbados decades ago.

She found that patients at the Jenkins Mental Institution in Black Rock, St. Michael. exhibited hyper-religious behavior, calling out "God" every waking hour and preaching non-stop to whoever might listen. All had to be put on largactyl to calm their feverish,  god-obsessed brains and this was interspersed with ECT. One could be assured, on the basis of her work, that this hyper faction of religious believer comprised a very small fraction, perhaps not even 0.5% of humanity.

Moving on, let's bear in mind that the object of attraction for all religious believers is not something actually known by them, but rather an artifact of their minds - constructed by their previous exposure to religious programming, their personal experiences, and the level of dopamine affecting their brain dynamics and especially the OAA.  We call this subjective approximation, which is in fact a regulative ideal, a "God concept".  Thus, as when a D. Post letter writer (Mary Carter) asserted "everyone thinks they know better than a higher power", she's oblivious to the fact  that she in fact created that "higher power" in her cranium. It's a pure presumption on her part that she hasn't supported by evidence.

We know that because all brains are limited in neural capacity, all God concepts (including "higher powers")  must likewise be limited, as well as relative to each other. Hence, no one can be claimed as 'true' to the exclusion of all others.  One can call this the first principle of religious belief: what people profess belief in is not an actual entity they know, but rather their own brain-confected God concept. So why should we accept or believe in one merely because someone says so?

The biggest factor in parents being able to successfully pass on their religion to their children was their relationship with their children. The authors found that “parents who interact with their children during their formative years in a warm, affirming and respectful manner are more likely to pass on their religious tradition, beliefs, and practices.” Other things that aid successful transmission include having parents of the same faith who do not divorce and having a strong relationship with grandparents of the same faith.

On the other hand, religious conflict between parents and children has been cited  one of the most common routes from religion to atheism. If resistant children were forced into religious activities, they often rebelled as soon as they had the chance. This is exactly what happened to me. Forced into going to church - Catholic Mass - even when I despised it, and  forced to choose between being a Mass server (with my three brothers) or working in our 1/3 acre Fla. backyard pulling weeds.

As soon as I left home, and arrived at Loyola University, I dropped the church shtick and went my own way.  No longer religiously bound,  I'd begun a journey that would lead to becoming one of the earliest outspoken atheists - both in the West Indies and in the U.S. At Loyola,  after attending a guest lecture by Jean -Paul Sartre (in Jan. 1965)  on existentialism, I moved rapidly toward that future  atheism.

Conversely, a child with weak cognitive inhibition and a positive relationship with his married parents of the same faith is likely to carry on in the religious family tradition. A child with strong cognitive inhibition who is forced to go to church against his will is likely to rebel.

Those parents concerned with sons or daughters following in their religious footsteps might do well to bear all this in mind when raising their offspring- assuming the latter's  brains are also predisposed to belief. I don't think mine ever was.

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