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Religion Rots Your Brain, And We Must Say So

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Sam Harris has delivered a one-two punch of brilliant essays criticizing President Obama’s nomination of Francis Collins to be the new director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The first was an editorial in the New York Times, the second posted over at The Reason Project. Harris is always cogent and cool-headed and I rarely disagree with him. His latest commentary is no exception. Because his critiques are so devastating to the bastions of religious privilege, he has been repeatedly accused of bigotry, extremism, fundamentalism, and worse.

Before I discuss the issue at hand, let me say that from a political standpoint, I think Obama made a wise choice. The President will placate religious conservatives by nominating a “person of faith,” and scientists can’t help but give respect to someone who helped decode the human genome. But that’s where the good news ends.

Since the publication of the first round of books from “The Four Horsemen” of new atheism, there’s been a backlash from theologians and accommodationists alike. Most readers of this site will be woefully familiar with the bad arguments, straw-men, contradictions and outright intellectual dishonesty seen in their books, articles, and debates. I’m referring to people like Alistair McGrath, Dinesh D’Souza, Chris Mooney, Terry Eagleton, Eric Reitan, Chris Hedges, and John Haught. I picked these names at random–there are many others.

What seems to offend them most is the utter lack of evidence for any of what religious people believe, and atheists’ lack of restraint in pointing that out. That’s it. If the apologists and accommodationists held a consistent or coherent position, it would be refreshing. But, no. It’s as if they were running a rhetorical tap-dancing school. As their false premises and straw-men go down, it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. New ones keep popping up in a loosely descending order of utter intellectual cowardice:

  1. “There is a God. We are obliged to worship Him. All religions offer differing paths to the summit of truth.” If that can’t be proven, then…
  2. “Religion co-evolved with humans and is useful for social cohesion.” If it’s still baseless, then…
  3. “Religion is necessary for morality.” If game theory shows otherwise, then…
  4. “How do you explain goodness in the world in the reductive context of naturalism?” If evolution has supported both ruthless competition and altruism, then…
  5. “Religion is dealing with the problem of evil in a different context.” If secular countries have less crime and violence than religions ones, then…
  6. “A whole lot of people get their morals from religion. Are you going to take that away from them?” If their religious morality is less than stellar, then…
  7. “No one’s perfect, but at least people are trying.” If the evidence shows it’s not working, then…
  8. “It would be utter chaos if people thought there was no divine punishment.” If it cheapens morality to rely on a system of intimidation and bullying, then…
  9. “It’s impolite to say so, because you’re messing with things that are really important to people.” OR…
  10. “It’s bad strategy to say so. It will turn people off if they think science requires an amoral atheism.” OR…
  11. “Atheism takes faith, Science is a belief system like any other.” OR…
  12. “There’s a rich and complex tradition of theology of which you’re ignorant.” If that tradition is based on misconceptions or outdated texts then…
  13. “People really don’t believe in the kind of nonsense you’re describing. No religious person I know takes scripture that literally.” If many people do, then…
  14. “People need to believe in something–to have hope for something more than this life.” If the hopes are false, then…
  15. “No one really knows what happens when you die. You’re arrogant for claiming to know.” If theologians can’t produce better evidence than science, then…
  16. “Science is not the arbiter of all truth. There are other ways of knowing, and other worlds than the physical.” If religion offers no testable knowledge of those worlds and science can’t explore them either, then…
  17. “Everyone has a right to interpret their personal experiences in the way they see fit.” If those claims cloud their judgment and interfere with their ability to do science, then…
  18. “Collins is a brilliant scientist, and didn’t inject his beliefs into science. Rather he injected science into his beliefs.” If Collins has professed God has a hand in every aspect of human evolution, then…
  19. “There have been many religious scientists, such as (insert favorite name here).” If in order to be effective in the laboratory, they had to check their religion at the door in favor of the scientific method, then…
  20. “You still can’t say that a religious person can’t do science.” If most scientists have rejected religion, and religion has tried to control and corrupt science, then…
  21. “People have the right of free speech, even public officials. You’re trying to muzzle public discourse.” If someone is about to be put in charge of a $30 billion science budget which includes religiously controversial decisions about stem-cell research, robotics and AI which might redefine our view of what it means to be human, then…

It’s a real problem.

Harris points out that James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA and Collins’ predecessor as head of the Human Genome project, saw his career ruined over a much less controversial statement than what Collins has made.

If you have the patience, check out the thread over at Eric Reitan’s “When Atheists Cry Heresy.”  I spent several hours over the past several days going toe-to-toe with believers, accommodationists and apologists. It really does come down to the exact bad arguments I’ve listed above, although in fairness I may have forgotten a few. All these have been refuted ad nauseam. Yet believers still use them. Because they have nothing else to offer, and it’s too painful for them to let go.

My premise is this: Maintaining a belief system that is contrary to your physical sense perceptions takes a lot of extra cognitive resources. A believer is essentially running a secondary simulation of an imaginary world on top of the consensus reality they perceive. They view everything through that filter, which requires a lot of added processing power. But it’s worse than that: Perceived information that conflicts with the supernatural simulation is downgraded by the brain to a lesser status. Information that supports the supernatural simulation is favored. So in computational terms, we have two outcomes: Reduced CPU cycles for doing the science at hand, and a counter-factual program injecting desire-based error signals between the sensory systems and the critical cognitive engine.

Not being a neuroscientist, I can’t put the right names on those functions. But I’m sure Sam Harris could. I just call it “brain rot.”


Comments (20 comments)

Pedro Timóteo / August 7th, 2009, 2:13 am / #1

Maintaining a belief system that is contrary to your physical sense perceptions takes a lot of extra cognitive resources.

I think that, in addition to that, it's a case of the sunk cost fallacy. To believe in that alternate "reality" takes effort, and if it doesn't exist, then all that effort was wasted. That would be bad — therefore, it must exist!

BlackSun / August 7th, 2009, 9:45 am / #2

No question sunk costs play a role. That's why people are so immune to argument, they just flop around from one position to the next. Anything to avoid admitting the obvious. It's something to behold as any frequently debating atheist knows. And it's not just religion, it's any emotional inducement that gets you to abandon critical thought.

Picazzo / August 7th, 2009, 3:29 pm / #3

I´m no neuroscientist either, but from what I´ve read i think it may be quite the opposite. Running that "supernatural simulation" is the default condition. While getting rid of it and using pure reason may involve the use of more brain power. The brain "CPU" has to work hard to override our natural instinct to believe in the supernatural.

Chris / August 7th, 2009, 6:40 pm / #4

I see what you're saying.
We're born with an incomplete understanding of the world beyond the immediate responses to our basic senses. And it is natural to want answers. What does it all mean, Basil?! Its much easier to explain away using our incomplete knowledge and whatever little unconnected dots that we've conveniently digested growing up, than to actually spend the time and energy it takes to research, study, and learn why things ARE, instead of what is fun to believe.
BUT. Probably around adolescence, we start noticing inconsistencies with our textbooks and home-books. There are really only two things that can happen at this point: Decide to investigate further and come to our own educated conclusions and understandings, or start pretending we don't really remember that chapter and, well… it probably wasn't important anyway.. and all these intelligent people with their good points must be misguided or something… or maybe compromised by the dark one himself! AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!
Enter Filter. At this point you have to not only completely Ignore parts of reality, but also superimpose your new fun happy adventure land reality on top of it. The two are constantly battling and their shapes morphing and stretching… That's gotta be takin up some serious RAM man.

So apparently people are seeing Jesus in toilets now. I wont even say it haha

Chris / August 7th, 2009, 6:40 pm / #5

I see what you're saying.
We're born with an incomplete understanding of the world beyond the immediate responses to our basic senses. And it is natural to want answers. What does it all mean, Basil?! Its much easier to explain away using our incomplete knowledge and whatever little unconnected dots that we've conveniently digested growing up, than to actually spend the time and energy it takes to research, study, and learn why things ARE, instead of what is fun to believe.
BUT. Probably around adolescence, we start noticing inconsistencies with our textbooks and home-books. There are really only two things that can happen at this point: Decide to investigate further and come to our own educated conclusions and understandings, or start pretending we don't really remember that chapter and, well… it probably wasn't important anyway.. and all these intelligent people with their good points must be misguided or something… or maybe compromised by the dark one himself! AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!
Enter Filter. At this point you have to not only completely Ignore parts of reality, but also superimpose your new fun happy adventure land reality on top of it. The two are constantly battling and their shapes morphing and stretching… That's gotta be takin up some serious RAM man.

So apparently people are seeing Jesus in toilets now. I wont even say it haha

BlackSun / August 7th, 2009, 7:07 pm / #6

I guess that's an empirical question we'll be able to study someday. I'm interested to know how it works. It can't be trivial maintaining all that cognitive dissonance. Seems like a lot to go through. Maybe it is the default condition, but we clear up additional resources when we become more rational.

I think the cognitive strains of supernaturalism may be similar to habitual lying. Lying to oneself in this case. You've heard the old saying "tell the truth, there's less to remember."

truthsetsusfree / August 9th, 2009, 1:07 pm / #7

You just walked around the elephant. We need to talk about the emotions of sexualiity as well as the instincts behind the "need to breed." My father's entire discussion of relationships came down to "When you go to college, you may have sex – and if you get pregnant, we will provide an abortion in Puerto Rico." That was 1968. In 1994, he told me that scientists would be able to remove "unnecessary emotions" in the next 30 years, which would create a much more harmonious society – all that would be needed, he said, were fight or flight responses to imminent danger. His escape from his feelings is now pretty much complete – at age 92, he tends to the bird feeders at his nursing home, and is also conveniently deaf and incapable of discussing his own behavior. [continued in next comment]

BlackSun / August 9th, 2009, 7:47 pm / #8

There are two very important books you should read to understand about human nature. The first is "The Blank Slate" by Stephen Pinker, the second is "The Red Queen" by Matt Ridley.

I agree that "nurture" and socialization have something to do with a person's behavior. But instinct is much more powerful. Your idea of violence breeding violence relies on the misconception of the "noble savage" which Pinker debunks in his book. We are actually living in a time of the lowest level of violence per capita in human history. And that's even including all the wars of the 20th century and the current conflicts and genocides.

http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myt

The Red Queen is all about the evolution of human sexuality. You can't understand it without understanding how we got where we are.

truthsetsusfree / August 9th, 2009, 1:09 pm / #9

Our fear of emotions is so intense that we beat them out of our children, who according to christianity are "born sinners" who must be taught to be good. And the source of that poison? Centuries of abusive, punishing parents, who were themselves punished by their parents, and who cannot bear to reject their abusers – and become emotional orphans. Alice Miller explains this theory using Hitler's Hitler's abusive childhood as an example. By not expressing his rage at his father's abusive behavior, he was forced to vent that rage outward – and the death of millions of humans was the result. Voilence toward others is misdirected rage toward the original abusers – usually or own abused and therefore abusive parents. No matter how old we are, confronting our abusers is too frightening, and our rage spews outward toward substitute culprits – abortion doctors, immigrants, jews, and our own children, who's evil behavior must be eliminated. [part 2 of 3 – see next comment]

BlackSun / August 9th, 2009, 8:07 pm / #10

I don't think you can attribute Hitler's actions solely to his upbringing. Plenty of people have that kind of abuse and don't do what he did. It was an extraordinary episode in human history. It had a lot to do with Nazis being the first mass political movement to take advantage of communications technology and propaganda. Since there was no historical example of that kind of demagoguery in the recent past, people were powerfully swayed to follow him.

truthsetsusfree / August 9th, 2009, 1:09 pm / #11

Children of religious fanatics experience this abuse in its most frightening form. In your Rots Your Brain article, you state "A believer is essentially running a secondary simulation of an imaginary world on top of the consensu7s reality they perceive. " The perversions required to adhere to the rules of the fantasy world require constant perversion of natural instincts. I stopped a teenage father in the act of belt-whipping his toddler for walking too slowly in the mall – "He needs it" was this brainwashed boy's reason. Beaten children producing beaten children.

BlackSun / August 9th, 2009, 8:01 pm / #12

Bad behavior on the part of that young father. At the same time, having raised three little boys when I was only in my early 20's, I did spank them. Sometimes it was justified, sometimes it was my own frustration. But parents don't get an owners' manual when they have kids. We should encourage more dialog and training about parenting. It should be part of the high-school curriculum. But the religious fanatics would hate it, because they would say "you're encouraging them to have sex and become parents and that's inappropriate."

ClintJCL / August 17th, 2009, 9:01 pm / #13

Excess CPU cycles require more powerful cooling fans too. So we can call them hot heads while we're at it :)

Claude Armstrong / December 10th, 2009, 10:52 pm / #14

Lots of persons claim to 'know.' But what sets all apart from knowledge is the nearly complete lack thereof in Humanity. Would any religious person or atheist ever claim total knowing, no, I did not say "total knowledge," but "knowing." With that stated, then anyone with a minute sense of self-worth would state the honest fact, "I do no know, and therefore "understand" all things." In fact, that honest person would also state that the Cosmos is about the least understood part of Human Being Existence, and therefore it is silly to even consider that the Human Being, as an entire race, can "Know."

Claude Armstrong / December 10th, 2009, 10:53 pm / #15

To fill his need to have a sense of existence control, the Human Being reverts to making himself believe controverted theories, and with widening acceptance of those controverted theories, mankind then jumps to the untenable decree that such reasoned, and widely-accepted theory is indeed, fact. Religions spring up to further enhance these controverted "facts," and those who support them mount vast pools of argumentive support to further bolster their position, based not on absolute understanding, but instead upon the breadth of Human acceptance of their position, however flawed it may be in future discoveries.

Claude Armstrong / December 10th, 2009, 10:54 pm / #16

Thus, evolution and all its religious offsets are born, including the Organized Church, which has never been an authority of Truth, but an obscene institution of Human dis-knowledge, heresy, and all manner of moral decay directed upon Mankind. As opposed to the church, a body where those in it simply know and understand with no humanly-visable connective reasoning, nor any known Human intervention in its function. This body can be likened, in small part, to the "Borg," of Sci-Fi fame, and the connection discovered between the personnel of Starship enterprise, and a colony of Borg, via dreams, whereby a sound connection that resulted in emancipation for the enslaved Borg captives, using that church body universal.

Claqude Armstrong / December 10th, 2009, 10:55 pm / #17

Reason is defied by this church. Wisdom defies detection by Human Reason, as that reason is based upon Humananity's near-total lack of understanding of Existence. That church is helmed by none other than the Being Who stated, "Of Myself, I Exist." It is humanly impossible to utter that statement without undeterred refutation, for every Human Being, conceived with Human Genetic activation.

Claude Armstrong / December 10th, 2009, 10:55 pm / #18

Both those who claim to be a-theist, and those who claim to be theist, will observe their mortality at some point. Therefore, those who deny the existence of One with Existence of Himself via His Own Power, cannot in Truth defy His Being, no matter how much power they use to attempt to make such a statement become fact. Even the entire population of Humankind, from the moment it became existant, has no authority to back up such a claim. It is simpy too small, even in its relatively immeasurable mass, to make such a claim Truth.

claude Armstrong / December 10th, 2009, 10:56 pm / #19

Humanism, in both religious and in a-religion form, has not the least bit of authority over its own existence. Were every tongue in all Human existence to speak as one, that multitude could not in the very least make the I Am a whit less than He reveals in every place Man seeks to find eternal Truth. When one looks for power, is it not reasonable to seek out the unrefutable? Where is there found any power that defies all human wisdom, when it is sought among other human beings?

Black Sun Journal » Brain Damage Increases ‘Spirituality’ / February 11th, 2010, 12:51 pm / #20

[…] that religion and spirituality are inversely correlated with high-functioning intelligence.  (previous article, Religion Rots Your Brain And We Must Say So) There are plenty of notable exceptions such as […]

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