In the Christian bible 1st John 4:8 states, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
In my religious days that verse was one of the cornerstones in my life. Even as a child before taking religion seriously I had always felt a strong connection with nature and had a deeply passionate feeling for life. It felt deeply meaningful to me like a pure natural love and I felt it everywhere and in all people. It gave me a sense of confidence in where I was in my known world. Later, whether in my Christian years or my meditation years it was still by use of this feeling where I was able to discern that I was in the right place.
When I was a kid we went to church on Sundays. But I couldn’t seem to associate the sense of spirituality I experienced in my life with the biblical god whom I was taught about. It wasn’t deliberate it just didn’t feel like it was the same thing even though my experiences could be classified as spiritual. It was of course promoted during those years by good parents, kind friends, and good experiences. Back then one could have called it “spirituality” but it is now what I call a natural sense of unity.
In my mid teens I took Christianity quite seriously and in my early twenties I left that and started practicing ancient yoga meditation to which I became deeply devoted. Though I had profound experiences in meditation I think most lasting was that same natural sense of unity I had as a child but only magnified. Funny enough in my late twenties I became an atheist because of significant lingering issues that neither god nor religion could address. But yet as an atheist I could still experience the benefits of meditation, closeness with nature and a deep sense of humanity, just in a more sophisticated sense. How could this “spiritual” sense still exist if I no longer subscribed to the idea of god or religion?
Now I wouldn’t want to misrepresent myself and say that everything was the same one way as a religious person and continued feeling the same way as an atheist. There was a change, a transition. I lost something I never had but I gained a new understanding of something I always had. Part of this was that natural sense of unity which was eclipsed during this change but later shined again within a new understanding. For more details about this transition please see my previous articles.
I honestly believe that had religion not been introduced to my life I would have become roughly the same man that I am today. Christianity was an unfortunate loss of time with a lot of hard work and very little reward. The heavy discipline of original yoga meditation, though relaxing, I found still damaging to the ego by surrendering the self just as in Christianity (see my article on “The Virus in Religion”). It was now clear to me that those passionate feelings I experienced as a child were not from god because they were still able to survive in one form or another throughout my transitions. “How could spirituality exist if there is no spirit?” I wondered. It’s quite simple: it came from within me. It is not a spirit in the supernatural sense but spirit meaning the psychological seat of emotions and character. This can still be an important part of who we are but ultimately it is of an emotional origin.
Now I don’t like to refer to life stories as a way of proving a point because science doesn’t utilize anecdotal evidence; rightfully so. But I try to provide relevant experiences for which scientific and historical evidence already exists. This is to encourage free-thought in readers who are “on the fence” who have newly embarked on this area which is otherwise forbidden by religion. It may seem audacious for me to suggest that spirituality is merely a psychologically based experience but there is more of a consensus than some may think. Next time you or someone you know is experiencing something spiritual, whether it is praying, yearning for comfort or feeling the presence of god, try to find out what they’re really feeling rather than what they were told what they are feeling.
One of the most common false conclusions religious people make when asked about their most convincing proof of god is, “I can feel Him. Therefore I know.” Christians often claim that it is their “personal experience” of god which renders proof. We know it would be incorrect to say that what they feel is not real. Those feelings are very much real. But it is the attribution of these feelings which is incorrect and has been done so almost traditionally. The religious have neither had a better explanation for it nor have they the reason to look for one. For the religious, they label it the way they were taught to: they are told that it is god. This is true in the emic perspective. But as scientific facts started emerging we started to see that those feelings are not god.
Contemplation and Expressed Desires
Our genes have a lot to do with our intelligence, our character as well as our moral inclinations. Though this amazing and complex subject certainly has some ties to ideas behind spirituality it is something which we will leave, however, for a future article. For the purpose of staying on topic we will continue on the idea of spirituality as an emotional byproduct.
When it comes to spirituality, the brain’s complex laboratory of neurochemicals, cognitive mechanisms and emotions all play the leading role. For starters, Sigmund Freud wrote in depth on his theories of the psychological development of god. An article from Philosophy of Religion sums it up well by stating, “For Freud, as for [Ludwig] Feuerbach, religion is wish-fulfillment. Freud adds the explanation that the adoption of religion is a reversion to childish patterns of thought in response to feelings of helplessness and guilt. We feel a need for security and forgiveness, and so invent a source of security and forgiveness: God. Religion is thus seen as a childish delusion and atheism as a grown-up realism.”
It may seem a little far fetched but there is a lot of psychological investment in what we intrinsically feel toward parents and inherently in a psycho-social sense toward a loving god. Many of the emotional needs that people seek from their “heavenly father” are the same as some needs sought by children from their parents. But the psychological need that religion tries to fulfill is only a small part of the picture and isn’t so much regarded in this area of study anymore. It does however provide a platform for us to examine what we vainly seek for our selves through the avenue of religion. I might even add that as the origins of religion are highly emotional so are the resulting scriptures. It follows that as a passionate species we still feel a sympathetic resonance with it. I argue that as emotions are often irrational or illogical, so too are the many “quirks” we find in religion.
I might even go on to speculate on my natural sense of unity by saying that this form of spirituality is a yearning to return to the pureness of childhood: if one is fortunate to live in a family where a healthy childhood was promoted, a child’s early mind, which is unhampered by adult struggles in life, is relatively “perfect” or sets the standard thereof. In this sense ignorance is not just bliss but it is simplicity and retrospectively speaking a reformatted version of our fundamental selves. It can simply be a refreshing way to decompress from the pressures we accumulate throughout life. In this ideal is the purity we seek; it is a return to innocence.
This is in part spoken in a theoretical sense but by this we begin to understand that what we seek in the form of spirituality, quite possibly an introspective mirror, reveal the desires we seek for our personal selves. Having fulfilled those emotional needs fills the “god-sized hole” we have in our hearts.
Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience of Religion
In more recent studies in the area of cognitive neuroscience we’ve been able to gain more of an insightful understanding as to why our minds tend to render the notion of the supernatural. Freud almost hit the nail on the head with his idea of transference: continuing the desires for a caretaker or parent into the adult age by conceptualizing god(s). I wouldn’t deny this exists in some form or another but the whole of spirituality is much deeper than this.
Since the days of our early ancestors, or even primates for that matter, instinctive and cognitive mechanisms evolved along side of their behavior to assist them in meeting the challenges they encountered in life. These are the demands of daily living such as care taking, avoiding predators, hunting, migrating, etc. These developed as instincts or traits which made these tasks easier and more efficient. This is analogous to the reason why you don’t have to learn to ride a bike each time you set-out on one! But some of these mechanisms can interplay and indirectly create “quirks” on which we then derive strange explanations for. I hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble but in contrast to the religious mentality, our brains are not perfect. There, I said it! (Wink)
Ancient times or modern, we have always been a social species. Hunter/ gatherer societies lived and flocked in groups as it was advantageous for things like hunting and protecting their selves and their young from predators. As living in groups deemed advantageous it became inherent in the brain to provide positive chemical feedback to infer “this is good” and to “keep doing it”. Thusly they continued this behavior. So derivatively speaking it’s easy to understand why going to church can feel spiritually beneficial to us because we naturally feel comforted and encouraged while in the company of like minded people. It is a sense of community.
Church services themselves, particularly those with rigorous worship rituals like the Baptists, the Evangelicals and especially indigenous tribal groups can be tremendously moving. In their worship rituals they reproduce the rush of adrenaline much like how one instinctively experiences through running or even like being pursued by a predator (experiencing urgency, enhanced strength and hopefully achievement). As a matter of fact the good old Boogie Man, that monster lurking in the dark that we as children have all feared, is an instinctive survival trait from our ancient past. Remember, before our early ancestors learned how to build shelter they lived in the midst of nature and they were well aware of the fact that there were nocturnal predators out hunting for food. Waking up to a Bengal tiger licking your foot tickled only for a moment!
Aside from instincts there are also cognitive factors which we often attribute to the supernatural. The notion that the mind or spirit could conceptually continue after physical death is largely a result of us being unable to conceive cessation of consciousness. We encounter a paradox when attempting to imagine non-existence because doing so requires one to be receptive to even perceive this notion. This is, in part, a side effect of what is known as the mind body split. The mind body split in cognitive neuroscience is responsible for the introspective part of our selves: the internal self as opposed to the physical self. Most people claim this suggests that the mind actually does continue beyond mortality but this is fallacious. We know a lot about the mind now days and that includes its idiosyncrasies.
Another aspect that plays a very important role in spirituality is in peoples claimed ability to perceive the will or direction of god. It is spurred from decoupled cognition. Its intended purpose serves us the function of being able to hypothesize what a known person might think or act in a given situation. It is useful in guiding ourselves socially especially in accordance with a parent or a boss for example. Similarly this function acts in the extraordinary feature of postulating “What would Jesus do?” or “I hope my dearly-departed grandparents aren’t watching me!”
Interestingly enough neuroscientists found that the frontal temporal lobe, which houses our sense of self, is also the same part of the brain in which we associate our sense of god. This doesn’t mean that there really is a “god part of the brain”, it’s “our” part of the brain but the notion of god is often so personal that it becomes part of our identity. This also explains why some religious people could be personally offended by reading my articles! To add to the experience, the activity in the parietal lobe, which is responsible for our physical sense of orientation, can decrease during meditation rendering the illusion of being “larger than life” or an expanded consciousness. We can clearly see that, as I’ve mentioned throughout this article, spiritual experiences come from directly within us.
By seeing that there is this mental mixture of god and self we can deduce that those who claim to perceive the “voice” or “will” of god are literally speaking of themselves- not god. When they say “God told me to run for president.” as a few of the 2012 Republican Primary candidates stated, they were subconsciously saying, “I really want to run for president!” Like talking about ones self in the third-person perspective, the little voice of god is really an extension of the self. It is only misattributed to their identity and association with god. But of course I would be proven wrong if we elect three Presidents of the United States this year!
As we can see this conflicting sense of self and god can be troublesome if not totally disastrous. As devoted believers speak not only as themselves they often also speak from what they believe is the infallible and monumental standpoint of god which is seemingly exempt from any or all criticism. This can result in ideas from “God has asked me to tithe to the church” to “God has asked me to kill the infidels.” This cynical result brings a sobering awareness to those critical of religion and hopefully to those in religion because it reveals the necessity of understanding where spiritual impulses comes from and how it can affect each and every one of our lives.
People who were unfortunate to have incurred brain injuries can also experience spiritual-like side effects. We understand now that these types of experiences are injurious manipulations of the neuroanatomy in the brain. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, had an experience unparalleled by other researchers in her field. Jill suffered a major stroke and a brain hemorrhage. After eight years and a full recovery Jill’s description of the onset of her injury provides a real and tremendously moving account of her phenomenal experiences as a byproduct of the brain. Both the detail and significance of this is so great I cannot afford the room herein and so I refer you to this must see video link I’ve attached above which applies perfectly to this point.
Those who incur life changing brain injuries are often not as fortunate to have the extensive recovery as Jill did. They are sometimes incapable of willful direction of their post-injury behavior such as in the classic example of Phineas Gage; the brain is responsible not only for the notion of spirituality but behavior as well. It is the same misfortune for those who are born with the psychological predisposition of a sociopath or other negative social dysfunctions rooted in the brain. When the brain is damaged or defective are they exempt from gods “laws” when the men who wrote the bible weren’t even aware that this possibility could exist? What is the religious people’s explanation for the purpose and destiny of one who was born with a defective brain?
There are volumes written and volumes to be written on this area of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience of religion and it is incredibly fascinating. I’m certainly no expert in the field but I encourage everyone to read Dr. J. Anderson Thompson’s general audience-friendly book, why people believe in god(s) for an incredible tour through our early human behavior and modern psyche.
Here are a few more real claims to the supernatural of which we now know have their origin in neuroscience. We all know that there are people out there who honestly believe that they are psychic. In an experiment some of these people were tested as they claimed that they can psychically perceive, with high accuracy, the shapes on the back of Zener cards hidden from view. But in the scientifically controlled setting where the results are statistically analyzed we see that they are the same to that of a random draw. Have you ever seen a psychic win the lotto? Neither have I. The cause: self delusion.
Another example is the Ouija Board. Legend has it that they can be used to talk to the dead. Understandably so! Years ago back in my paranormal investigations I’ve tried it on several occasions and the planchette actually moves! But what’s moving it is far from dead. It’s very much alive and it’s us! It is what is known in psychology as an ideomotor response. It is unconscious movement made by the body such as salivating while only thinking about the sourness of a lemon, the suggestive forces in hypnosis, reflexes and even the shedding of tears while crying. It is commonly explained as the driving force in many other supernatural tools such as pendulums, divining rods and automatic writing.
Another claim of spirituality is where the consciousness seems to leaves the body during a near-death experience. Though it is often a tremendous and unforgettable experience we have learned that it is a type of survival mechanism that is triggered within the brain when it is undergoing severe trauma or stress. It removes the conscious mind from the current of pain neurally and into tranquility or euphoria at which point pleasant hallucinations may occur. It does this as simply as flipping a switch.
We cannot deny that these experiences mentioned in the paragraphs above, especially the ladder, may be deep and meaningful but once again, these are experiences which come from inside of us and not from outside of us. We can now see that these are all fine examples of how natural physiology can create “quirks” on which we then draw the erroneous conclusion of “something else”.
Let My People Go
We’ve already shown here and in past articles that these experiences are not a result of a god and religion; god and religion were the initial resulting explanation for these experiences. Religion throughout the world is as varied in the cultural sense as music, food, dance, clothing and superstition. Cross culturally, however, children learn to believe without question because their parents believe as did theirs. In that tight constraint they do not have a world view of the myriad of ‘competing’ religions and the logical contentions against them. Consequently, in the cyclical sense, society attempted to do the same to myself but I broke the cycle. In light of this fact it doesn’t mean that these feelings are no longer meaningful; they can be but understand them for what they are.
I find it frustrating that churches perpetuate ignorance by not teaching the accredited historical facts in how their religion was developed and spread but they also blatantly ignore science which is the foundation of the developing world around them. Developing science utilizes critical processes in testing and validating points before professing them, something that religion seems to be exempt from. My point here is that there are several reasons why people take refuge in religion but in the wake of the progressing world around them it is the responsibility of their churches to inform and educate them. Certainly the church is worried about one day becoming obsolete but by not confronting reality they are doing themselves and their followers the disservice of misleading them. This is the height of irresponsibility. Someone once said, “By standing still as time goes forward you move backward.”
Spirituality or the natural sense of unity is different for everyone. As spirituality has its complex roots in our emotions let us utilize this knowledge to seek within ourselves, or other qualified humane resources, aid in the fulfillment that we desire while utilizing common sense, critical thinking and a loving sense of self-betterment. We all have different feelings and connections to our surroundings and we all have different ideas of the purity of mind we may seek in our efforts to mentally reclaim or revitalize our worn selves. Dependent or liberating they are all part of us in which we need to learn to understand without having a casting of religion embedded in it.
I feel fortunate to have been able to experience the passionate view of life that I had as a child prior to indoctrination. I’m glad that what I felt was only a passion for the beauty in life rather than a dependency plaguing me for a lifetime. It’s a lot easier looking at things the way they are rather than being inflicted with so many archaic dogmas that so clearly go against the flow of human nature. Once we have brought it down to this basic level I think that John Lennon had the right idea in mind when he sang the words, “All you need is love.” Does it really need to be more complicated than that?
• Thagard, Paul. The Emotional Coherence of Religion. Journal of Cognition and Culture 5.1-2, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden 2005.
• Alcorta, Candace S. and Sosis, Richard. Ritual,Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: the Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex. Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, 2005.
• Bocock, Robert. Sigmund Freud,-pg 86. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005.
• Thomson, Jr., MD, J. Anderson and Aukofer, Clare. why we believe in god(s). Forward by Dawkins, Richard, Pitchstone Publishing, 2011.
• Hudson, Janice and Tanner, Meredith. Bunkbed Positions. Toronto: Room Publishing, 2006.
• Holt, Tim. Sigmund Freud: Religion as Wish-Fulfillment. Philosophy of Religion, 2008
• Lawson, Willow. Brain Area Affects Sense of ‘Self’. ABC News. (year not given)