Do humans have a ‘religion instinct’?
Are spiritual beliefs an inevitable consequence of evolution? In the second article in a two-part series, Brandon Ambrosino examines the ways that spiritual beliefs emerge from ancient psychological tendencies.
When I was in grade school, there was an anti-drug commercial that regularly came on television. There were a few different versions of it but the gist was, an egg would be shown to the camera as a voice said, “This is your brain.” And then the egg would be smashed by a frying pan and the voice would say, “This is your brain on drugs.” We all got the point: drugs did something to your brain.
At my Pentecostal Church, drugs were talked about somewhat differently. We didn’t need them, we were told, because we could get high from God. God could do the same thing to our brain – give us a rush, a sense of euphoria – but our brains wouldn’t end up scrambled. God provided all the “positive benefits” of heroin with none of the damaging side effects. (Of course, when we consider the amount of religious violence throughout history, it’s impossible to claim that there are no damaging side effects to some beliefs in God. More on that later.)
I long ago left my childhood church and often feel embarrassed about the “God as a drug” theology. But the more I think about religion as an emerging phenomenon, the more I wonder if, for all their sloppy Pentecostal vocabulary, my youth leaders were onto something: God does something to your brain.
“This is your brain. This is your brain on God.”
Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist who studies the brain in light of religious experience, has spent his career following this hunch. “If you contemplate God long enough,” he writes in How God Changes Your Brain, “something surprising happens in the brain. Neural functioning begins to change. Different circuits become activated, while others become deactivated. New dendrites are formed, new synaptic connections are made, and the brain becomes more sensitive to subtle realms of experience. Perceptions alter, beliefs begin to change, and if God has meaning for you, then God becomes neurologically real.”
Religious experiences, he tells me in his Pennsylvania-area office, satisfy two basic functions of the brain: self-maintenance (“How do we survive as individuals and as a species?”) and self-transcendence (“How do we continue to evolve and change ourselves as people?”).
Newberg and his team take brain scans of people participating in religious experiences, such as prayer or meditation. Though he says there isn’t just one part of the brain that facilitates these experiences – “If there’s a spiritual part, it’s the whole brain” – he concentrates on two of them.