Psychology of Faith: The Human Quest for Meaning
First off, let me state for the record that I am not a psychologist, nor am I involved in the mental health profession in any way. However, living in this insane world, there are times when I feel I should seek them out. In fact, one of my favourite quotes is from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: “Everywhere he looked was a nut, and it was all a sensible young gentleman like himself could do to maintain his perspective among so much madness.”
So, why is this non-psychologist writing about the psychology of faith? Because the topic intrigues me, that is why. The subject is also particularly relevant in this age of growing secular humanism, in this age of science and information, as curious and consciously aware humans try to objectively understand the nature of faith. What is it about faith — or more accurately, the human tendency to cling stubbornly and sometimes violently to an ideology — that fuels so much discord and divisiveness in the world? If science can understand the psychology and the brain’s biochemistry as it relates to faith, then maybe, that knowledge might help lessen the negative impacts of the conflicts that arise over opposing beliefs.
Search for meaning
I also find our in-built search for meaning, that age-old quest to discover the meaning of life, to be an interesting phenomenon of the human condition. This is an ancient quest, and one that is common to all societies throughout the history of civilization. In the 1988 PBS documentary, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, this legendary scholar of world mythology discussed this very issue with journalist, Bill Moyers. Episode six, Masks of Eternity, opened with:
Moyers: Is there something in common in every culture that creates this need for God?
Campbell: Well, I think anyone who has an experience of mystery and awe, knows that there is a dimension, let’s say, of the universe that is not that which is available to his senses. . . . And, I think that’s what it is, it’s the realization of wonder. And also, the experience of tremendous power, which people of course, living in the world of nature are experiencing all the time. You know, there is something there that’s much bigger than the human dimension.
Later in the same episode Moyers asked Campbell about the recurrence of similar myths in various cultures around the world. Campbell’s answer defines this trend in terms of the universal human quest for meaning:
There are only two ways to explain it and one is by diffusion, that an influence came from there to here. And the other is by separate development. And when you have the idea of separate development, this speaks for certain powers in the psyche which are common to all mankind.
An archetype is a constant form, a basic fundamental form which appears in the works of that person over there, and this person over here, without connecting them. They are expressions of the structure of the human psyche. . . .
. . . There was a very important anthropologist…Bastian, in Germany….He was a world traveler and recognized very soon that there were certain motifs that appeared in all of the religions and all of the mythologies of the world. Such an idea, for example, as a spiritual power, that’s an archetypal image that appears everywhere. And he called these “elementary ideas.” But they appear in very different forms in different provinces and at different times. . . . [A]nd it is those elementary ideas that Carl Jung then began studying and called “archetypes of the unconscious. ” When you say elementary idea, they seem to come from up here. When you say archetypes of the unconscious, they come from up here, and they appear in our dreams, as well as in the myths.
Jung had been influenced by one of his doctoral advisors, Sigmund Freud, and Freud had some very non-conventional views for his day — if not a harshly scientific assessment — about religious faith. In his book, The Future of an Illusion, he wrote:
The answer emerges if we examine the psychical genesis of religious ideas. Such ideas, which put themselves forward as dogmas, are not deposits from experience or end products of cogitation, they are illusions, fulfilling the oldest, most powerful, most pressing desires of the human race; the secret of their strength is the strength of those desires. . . .
. . . It is thanks to these historical residues, in fact, that our view of religious dogmas as quasi-neurotic relics has arisen, and now we can say that it is probably time, as in the analytic treatment of the neurotic, for the results of repression to be replaced by the outcomes of ratiocination [reasoned thought].
However, we have to wonder, where did these elementary ideas, these archetypes of the unconscious, these deep-seated desires for meaning come from in the first place? Several scholars, including evolutionary psychologists, are of the impression that beliefs in a spiritual power were helpful, adaptive traits in our early ancestors that allowed them to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation. As psychologist Jesse Bering wrote in The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life:
All but a handful of scholars in this area regard religion as an accidental byproduct of our mental evolution. Specifically, religious thought is usually portrayed by scholars as having no particular adaptive biological function in itself, but instead it’s viewed as a leftover of other psychological adaptations. . . .
. . . The private perception of being intelligently designed, monitored, and known about by a God who actively punished and rewarded our intentions and behaviors would have helped stomp out the frequency and intensity of our ancestors’ immoral hiccups and would have been strongly favored by natural selection.
Theory of mind
This psychological perspective is driven by a concept known as the “theory of mind,” which is our uniquely human capacity to speculate about what others might be thinking. This evolved capacity to reason about another person’s state of mind was very useful for survival, as it helped our ancestors to cooperate as a group for mutual benefit at the dawn of civilization. However, our earlier animal instincts and baser natures were still part of our genetic disposition and started to pose a problem in an orderly, evolving society. Dr. Bering stated, “Patience, restraint, modesty, humility — these are all desirable, biblically endorsed features of humanity not because they are heavenly virtues, but because they’re pragmatic. . . . For us, inhibition is very often the key to our survival.”
Thus, keeping these primal urges in check became an evolutionary quality that allowed primitive humans to maintain tribal harmony, and successfully adaptive members were allowed to stay within the group to procreate. Those that were unable to subdue their antisocial tendencies would be exiled from a community that provided shelter, protection and food; or worse, executed — which has a decidedly unhealthy effect on genetic transmission.
The poet, W. H. Auden, wrote: “The image of myself which I try to create in my own mind in order that I may love myself is very different from the image which I try to create in the minds of others in order that they may love me.” So, projecting a well-behaved image was essential to theory of mind, especially with the dawn of verbal communication. Dr. Bering goes on to hypothesize that language, in conjunction with the rise of a theory of mind, posed a new threat of “information dissemination” to the tribe. This new situation fundamentally changed the dynamic of human interactions and that, in turn, fostered evolutionary benefits in impulse control. Dr. Bering states:
In other words, the illusion of a punitive God assisted their genetic well-being whenever they underestimated the risk of actual social detection by other people. This fact alone, this emotional short-circuiting of ancient drives in which immediate interests were traded for long-term genetic gains, which have rendered God and His ilk a strong target of natural selection in human evolution.
Along with the evolutionary advantages imparted by our theory of mind, came the cognitive bias to seek meaning. Therefore, it is not unexpected that humans tend to see signs and omens in nature. Attributing spiritual characteristics to seemingly random tragedies allowed our primitive minds to make sense of natural disasters, to formulate reasons for the inexplicably unfair capriciousness of life. We see God when there are no explanations, when there is no sense or meaning to random events.
The senselessness of death and our insatiable quest for meaning also gave rise to beliefs in an afterlife. Faith in an afterlife provides meaning to lives filled with uncertainty, the disappointments that arise from the existential realities of living, and the cognitive dissonance that is fueled by the knowledge of our inevitable deaths and consignment to oblivion. Believing in an afterlife allowed our brains to project its theory of mind beyond the grave, in order that we might stave off our irrational feelings of that eternal mental void.
I think we’re the only species that really can anticipate our own death, which, leads to anxiety. . . . So there is something about, I think, losing your consciousness, your awareness…if my consciousness isn’t there for eternity that’s quite frightening to people.
Neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin, StarTalk S05E15
Summing up Dr. Bering’s perspective in The Belief Instinct is this extremely thought-provoking sentiment:
What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.
However, Dr. Bering is not oblivious to the problems that this concept creates in the minds of the faithful. “This notion of God as an illusion is a radical and, some would say, even dangerous idea because it raises important questions about whether God is an autonomous, independent agent that lives outside human brain cells.” In the notes section of the book, Bering further expands on this: “Evidence suggests, for example, that the personality variable of religiosity (basically, how much passion someone tends to feel about religious topics, wherever she falls on the belief scale) is largely determined by genes.”
Bering is referring to the study by geneticist, Dr. Dean Hamer, which was published in his book, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into our Genes. Like Bering, Hamer hypothesizes that having genetically programmed spiritual beliefs conveyed evolutionary advantages, such as those discussed above regarding optimism in the face of the inevitability of death. Without going into the scientific details or the controversies surrounding Hamer and his work, the general results that emerged in the study showed that 106 pairs out of 1,001 siblings had a variation in their VMAT2 genotype. In layman’s terms, these variations are in the locations of the A, C, G and T’s that makes up the genetic coding in our DNA. Hamer’s study found that “there was a clear association between the VMAT2 polymorphism and self-transcendence.” While one sibling with lower spirituality had an A in the target position, alternately:
Individuals with a C in their DNA — on either one chromosome or both — scored significantly higher than those with an A. The effect was greatest on the overall self-transcendence scale and was also significant for the self-forgetfulness subscale. With transpersonal identification and mysticism, the effect was in the same direction but just short of statistical significance.
Given the psychology of our evolved cognitive biases and a genetic predisposition to faith in a higher power, what then is going on inside our brains? This is the focus of a relatively new field of study known as neurotheology. Neurotheology uses brain imaging techniques to study the activation states of religious and spiritual practices using positron emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
One of the leading researchers in this field is neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Newberg. In his book, Principles of Neurotheology, Dr. Newberg discusses the various parts of the brain active when having religious experiences, the so-called God-spots.
The frontal lobes are involved in our willful behaviors. The frontal lobes are also important for what is referred to as the executive self that mediates our social behaviors, plans future events, and provides a sense of conscience and compassion. The limbic system attaches emotions to our sense of self. The temporal lobes provide a memory stream for our self and also enables us to think in abstract ways about that self. Finally, the parietal lobe helps to provide a sense of space and orientation of the self. Data supports that each of these structures appears to play a role in religious and spiritual practices and experiences. But the full relationship is not known.
Clearly, a single lobe — or gene polymorphism — is not responsible for the activation of spiritual feelings in the brain, as the experience needs to be considered as a function of the whole. A religious experience is a complex interaction involving the activation of different regions simultaneously, and includes the flow of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, or endorphins. For example, the limbic system — which includes the hippocampus and amygdala, controlling emotions and memory, and a significant player in religious experience — is part of the temporal lobe. Activation of the limbic system helps to bring a conscious awareness of what is happening in the temporal lobes.
Further, the frontal lobes are involved with movement and verbal expression, and studies indicate that these regions play a key role in ritual, such as dancing and praying. The parietal lobe — which provides orientation, language and abstract ideas — comes into play, for instance, when a devotee focuses on an object sacred importance.
Newberg: And if you look at the orientation area, it goes dramatically down in its activity during the meditation practice. It is mostly yellow and just a little bit of red, compared to what you see in the normal waking state. So this area of the brain becomes much less active. We think this is part of what is associated with somebody losing that sense of self. They feel at one with God, at one with their spiritual mantra, whatever it is they are looking at. This was a group of Tibetan Buddhist meditators.
Newberg: We also looked Franciscan nuns in prayer. We saw some interesting similarities and differences. The nuns were doing a prayer called centering prayer, which is kind of meditation. They were focusing on a particular phrase or prayer. It is much more verbally based, I guess, than the meditation of the Tibetans. Again, one of the similarities we saw was a fair amount of increase in this red activity in the frontal lobes. So they activated their frontal lobes as they were focusing on this particular prayer or phrase from the Bible.
However, all the studies aside, Dr. Newberg points out that “simply because a neurophysiological change is observed in connection with some type of religious or spiritual phenomenon, this does not necessarily explain the causal basis of the phenomenon.” In May 2008, at the Pew Forum’s conference, How Our Brains are Wired for Belief, Dr. Newberg made some of the following observations:
. . . My ultimate conclusion that it’s not the brain that’s creating the experience. That may be the case. But it also may be the case that this is the way God interacts with us. . . .
. . . All we’re saying is that if you pray or if you have a belief in God or whatever, this is what happens inside of you. . . .
. . . What it does create for the person — whenever they’re having that experience — is experiences of a fundamentally different nature than any other kinds of experiences we have. So it may go beyond purely the biology of what those experiences are.
Dr. Newberg goes on to speculate that using our spiritual muscles is like any other ability or talent, in that the more you use it the stronger it grows; or, as he phased it: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Therefore, people who attend church regularly will reinforce those neural connections related to spiritual experiences. This might explain why Rick Santorum has an issue with religiously indoctrinated teens going off to university, where they break with regular church attendance, get their heads filled with real facts . . . and then come home as free-thinking secularists.
Ultimately, however, it is this compelling drive to find meaning in life that is at the root of the psychology of faith. When the Buddha achieved enlightenment, what dawned on him was that life is empty and meaningless. The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that all life is suffering. Life is an inescapable struggle, an unavoidable reality of our existence. Once we realize this existential reality, we can attempt to move past it and to live a life of peace in harmony with that basic fact of life. Life has no purpose in and of itself, but we humans are meaning-making machines, and it is we that add meaning to life. But, too many of us get lost in our cognitive illusions, unaware of the reality. We seek, in vain, meaning where there is none. This reality is summed up by a very wise Hindu Proverb which states, “The three great mysteries of life: air to a bird, water to a fish, and mankind to himself.”
To become consciously aware of this great, cosmic joke — that there is no meaning to life, the universe and everything — is fundamentally liberating. Psychologically, our primitive minds seek out this meaning, but our evolved minds can grasp the truth once it is discovered — if one is prepared and willing to accept it. In the end, one only needs faith — or more accurately, the lack of it — that there is no need for meaning. To quote Joseph Campbell again, “This is it; this moment now is the heavenly moment.” The transcendent is within, not without. Stop looking and get on with living your life, as we will never answer the question of causality: is God activating our brains in order to communicate with us, or are our brains creating the illusions? However, I am pretty sure of one thing, and that is . . . there is no spoon.