When they are pressed for reasons or an explanation, a great many people who are religious, maybe most of them, will concur that their religious beliefs cannot be given substantial support in terms of evidence or rational arguments. To corroborate the mainstream view, there has been widespread agreement among philosophers and theologians for decades that rational and evidentialist theology is dead—the classical arguments for the existence of God do not succeed, nor can the full nature of religious belief and commitments be accounted for along those lines. Besides, billions of believers on the planet in history have believed fervently without any reference to or even awareness of anything resembling an argument for God’s existence. The notion that God can be somehow proven with an appeal to argument or empirical observation is the obscure construction of philosophers and is utterly foreign to the grounds of belief as most people see it. A few rationalist theologians and apologists continue to labor away, but their numbers dwindle and their anachronistic pursuits grow more and more out of touch with the scientific vanguard and the nature of ordinary religious belief.
Believing in God for the vast majority of people arises out of a particular set of feelings. They feel God’s presence in the form of guilt, satisfaction, transcendence, passion, beauty, awe, love, devotion and a host of other primal and powerful sensations.
So we have billions of people on the planet who engage in religious behaviors and beliefs, and who disavow attempts to rationally justify those beliefs. And centuries of tremendous and concerted efforts to derive some rational justification have come to nothing.
Meanwhile, in the background, our investigations into the biological and neurological foundations of human behaviors and cognitive dispositions have rapidly expanded and given us unrivaled and unprecedented insights into our nature. The human brain once seemed unimaginably complex and the gap from it to our minds and our cognitive lives as we know them from the inside seemed unbridgeable. But every new issue of the very best scientific journals on the planet contains studies that chip away at the problem. Bit by bit, we gain access to its inner workings.
Recently, prairie voles have gotten a great deal of attention. Neuroscientists became interested in voles because of their rare propensity to form long term monogamous relationships. It turns out that when her oxytocin levels are increased, the female vole locks onto the nearest male. The findings give us more insight into the chemistry of attachment, love, and relationships. In Nature, this week (457, 148 (8 January 2009), Larry J. Young says that the implication of these studies is that “pair-bonding in humans . . . can be enhanced or suppressed by tinkering with brain hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin, and predicts that we’ll be seeing new drugs to do just that.” Imagine being able to supplement marriage therapy, or being able to stifle the obsessive behavior of a celebrity stalker.
See John Tierney’s story in the New York Times, and see the article by Young, “Being Human: Love: Neuroscience reveals all” in Nature.
So if we are now penetrating the neurobiological sources of love, the most mystical and powerful of all human emotions, can similar developments in the neurology of religious feelings and behavior be far off? We have already seen a host of studies exploring religious experiences, propensity towards mysticism, genetic correlates of strong religiousness, the benefits of religiousness, psychological commitments to religious belief despite cognitive dissonance, and countless others. We’ve also seen an increasing body of evidence and arguments that show that introspection by the individual is not a reliable or accurate means of ascertaining the reasons why they believe and act as they do. These arguments for an externalism about belief, justification, and the mind cast more doubt on the antique position that believing in God is the result of some sort of carefully reasoned, deliberative, and consciously rational process.
Overall, what is the situation we are in currently with regard to understanding our own religiousness? We have a set of beliefs and behaviors that by widespread agreement are not based in rational or evidential considerations. And those beliefs and behaviors persist doggedly in the vast majority of humanity. The question is, then, from what do they spring? A live and increasingly well-supported hypothesis is that the real cause of religious belief is built into the neurobiological nature of the human nervous system. Of course, no amount of neurological information about the mechanisms of religiousness will change the way it actually feels or what it is like to believe from the individual’s perspective. Finding out that oxytocin or vasopressin are the physical sources of love won’t make loving your husband feel any different, nor should it make you stop loving him. Knowledge gives us power. If you find yourself not really being able to adequately articulate why you believe, and you can’t provide rational justifications to your own satisfaction or to those who have their doubts, but it just seems right—it feels like God is real, wouldn’t you want to understand what’s really going on inside of you? And doesn’t neuroscience therefore have the potential to liberate and empower us with an understanding of ourselves that has never before been possible in human history?
Thursday, January 15, 2009