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Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky spreads the good word about brains and religion

Of Gods and minds


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To Dr. Robert Sapolsky, the question of religion isn't whether "God" or gods exist. It's more along the lines of, as he says, "How would a stridently atheistic scientist use neurobiology to make sense out of religion?

"This is irresistible for a neurobiologist," he continues, "but it would be just as easy to try to make sense out of atheism."

The Stanford University professor of biological and neurological studies and author of six books, who will speak Wednesday, April 3 at Colorado College, wasn't always "stridently atheist."

Raised as a ritualistic Orthodox Jew, a young Sapolsky thoroughly believed his religion. "When I was about 14, something happened. It was a moment of sheer, inexplicable ... whatever ... that happened, and it all didn't make sense. I couldn't believe any longer."

As strident as he is now about disbelieving, Sapolsky is just as vocal about wanting to understand people's needs in this area. In short: He's not Christopher Hitchens. He doesn't try to lambast the religious for their beliefs. He's been trying to grasp religion in terms of neurobiology since research for his 1997 book of essays, The Trouble With Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament.

"The last piece in The Trouble With Testosterone [called "Circling the Blanket for God"] is the basis of about half the talk I'll be giving at Colorado College," he says. "... I anticipate lots and lots of eggshells, but I'm not out to step on them."

Serving a purpose

As an adult, Sapolsky's been asked how a person can be a scientist and not be religious. Pairing the two, he says, is "easy if you can do the contortions. But if you study the neurology of the human brain, it's impossible."

Religion, he says, serves a lot of purposes. He says most atheists don't like to hear it, but religion does make people healthy. "It makes you feel better. It tends to decrease anxiety, and it gets you a community."

On another note, the larger the culture, the better the chance it will generate a religion that helps control the people. "Desert peoples tend to adopt monotheism. Deserts seem to induce the idea of singular absolutes." Cultures from less restrictive environs such as jungles and forests tend to produce polytheistic religions, he says.

Religions also allow individuals the ability to speak in terms that would otherwise be considered odd. "Meta-magical talk," which includes things like raising people from the dead, and other miracles and magic, "is one domain of religion. It's what allows someone like former First Lady Nancy Reagan to consult with psychics and tarot readers, and still be taken seriously in the fashion pages," says Sapolsky.

Of course, from a neurobiological perspective, "meta-magical talk shares a remarkable fit with schizotypal disorder," he says, noting that schizotypal disorder is not schizophrenia. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, people with schizotypal disorder may be unusually superstitious or preoccupied with paranormal phenomena that are outside the norms of their subculture.

Ritual rings true

Another domain of religiosity Sapolsky has studied is its ritualistic aspect. He says there are basically four types of rituals: self-cleansing, food preparation and other preparations devoted to everyday living, entering and leaving places, and numerology and symmetry. "All of them are astonishingly close fits to OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder]. It's a good match."

That doesn't mean practitioners can necessarily be diagnosed with OCD, he adds, although many people with that condition find comfort in the rituals that are part of many religions. "When you look at where religions come from," he says, "my guess is that charismatic OCD individuals were involved in the inception of these [rituals]. They were highly influential people who stepped into the breach at the right time."

For centuries, theologians have warned followers to be on the lookout for scrupulosity, "which," says Sapolsky, "was probably their term for OCD." He says that St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Mohammed himself, warned of becoming overly constrained by rules for their own sake.

In the end, Sapolsky says, humans are animals, byproducts of the same sorts of nuts and bolts as every other animal. And there is something in our shared brain chemistry that demands some sort of creator or being to which we can ascribe all of our worries, victories and shortcomings.

"Humans," he says, "are just another animal with wants and needs."


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