Religion answers three major questions: where do we come from; where we are going, and what we are supposed to do while we are here. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a brilliant Stanford neuroscientist, says religious people (especially Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus) are schizotypal. Schizotypal Personality Disorder (SPD) is “schizophrenia-light.” Sapolsky says, people with SPD are not dysfunctional or asocial people, but prone to express metamagical thinking concretely and literally. Roman Catholic believing that the communion wine and wafer actually become the body of blood of Jesus Christ, or Evangelicals speaking in tongues, certainly supports this. Theism undeniably requires a metamagical-based thinking similar to that associated with some psychiatric illnesses. You cannot successfully refute that scientifically, which is why religion and science are not #BFF’s.
Humans have always had religions and celebrated religious leaders who, in other contexts, might have met very different social responses. If Joan of Arc showed up on a battlefield today hearing voices, she would be a madwoman, not a saint. Likewise, the God of the Old Testament behaves more like an LA Crip, high on angel dust, than a God on high with angels. This god helped Sampson kill 30 people over clothing-related debt (Judges 14:1-19) and sent bears to murder children (4 Kings 2:23 -24). This pales in comparison to God’s behavior in the Torah: killing Egyptian children, (Exodus 12:29) and slaughtering cats (Numbers 16:41-49) just to name two of many curious deeds. Even as an allegory, it is hard to spin this god’s mentality any other way than, “very, Michael Corleone.”
While Jesus was not as thuggish as the Jewish God was, Christianity is equally concerning, from a psychiatric standpoint. Jesus was born of a virgin and when he was not walking on water, he was turning it into wine. If not that, he was busy healing cripples, or raising the dead, including him self, as a grand finale. Clinically speaking, Jesus Christ and Charles Manson were not that different. Clearly, both men were diagnosable, schizophrenics, with classic symptoms, such as their shared delusional belief that they were messiahs of sort. They were both narcissistic, asocial, rebellious and like Hitler, charismatic enough to stir people to kill in their name. However, Jesus’ cult killed millions, (and continues to kill in his name), whereas the Manson family only killed a few people. If you are not a Christian, the most recognizable difference between Jesus and Manson is time and place. If we switched the two in history, we might get Manson’s birthday off every year and Jesus might be sitting in Folsom with a swastika tattooed on his forehead. More importantly, what causes humans to have these organized, culture-dependent belief systems we call religion?
Evolution and Adaptive Psychiatric Illness
Evolution and Adaptive Psychiatric Illness
Evolution is a process where adaptive traits become more common and maladaptive traits disappear. Often in evolution, a full-blown genetic trait is a lethal liability, whereas, the partial version of the same genetic trait is a life-sustaining asset. Sickle cell anemia: the full-blown manifestation is a fatal blood disease, while the partial version prevents you from contracting malaria. Cystic Fibrosis: fully manifested, it means an early, ugly death, whereas partial manifestation makes you resistant to tuberculosis. Thus, for human evolution, adaptation lies in the numbers game, i.e. there is an economic advantage in throwing a few people under the bus, who experience the full blown genetic manifestation, to preserve many people via the advantages of the partially manifested genetic trait.
Religion and Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a devastating psychiatric disorder. It is not genetically determined but there is a genetic risk for the disease, which is true of most psychiatric illnesses. However, since schizophrenia has a genetic component, one has to ask, where did these genes evolve. According to evolutionary economics, schizophrenia is maladaptive; yet, it appears in two percent of every culture on earth. Thus, there must be an adaptive partial genetic manifestation of schizophrenia. Is Schizotypal Personality Disorder that adaptive partial genetic manifestation?
If so, SPD, expressed in religious people as metamagical thinking, is adaptive in various ways. For example, on the urban streets of troubled Black America, what do find most often: an disproportionate number of crack houses, liquor stores, Fast Food establishments, and churches—many, many churches. This is because drugs, alcohol, fatty foods and religion all provide dopamine, the brain’s happy-dance drug. Dopamine encodes on the anticipation of reward. Thus, heaven is the ultimate carrot to dangle in front of the troubled black brain’s dopamine-starved donkey. This is a poignant example of SPD as an adaptive trait. Religion is a much healthier option than crack, KFC and the boys (Johnny, Jack, Jim and Jose’).
Regrettably, when I was studying to become a Catholic priest, I learned too much about Christianity and the bible to ever believe the story of Jesus Christ, whose divinity I started questioning shortly after learning about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. As far a God, well, I would have to pepper spray the Old Testament God if we ever met. However, I love the pomp, pageantry, toys and scandalous history of the Catholic Church. Naturally, I love confession, I am a drama queen, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” clutch the pearls, and pound the chest. I love praying the Rosary because any repetitive behavior has neurochemical rewards that reduce anxiety (and the drag queen in me loves beads). I wrestled with this conflict for years. I finally realized that I could not make myself believe something I do not believe. In addition, my policy is anything that I enjoy that is not: illegal, immoral, or fattening, stays, everything else, hit the road, toad.
Yes, Dr. Sapolsky, you are among my heroes, and I believe you are correct. However, I also say, so what if the big religions are merchants of make-believe. Is neuroscience and psychiatry’s obsession with diagnosing and judgment any less curious than what religious people do? To the religious, I say, so what if your God is real and your belief system is correct. How are faith-based initiatives, such as: al-Queda and evangelical Christian extremists’ war on women and Gays, anything, but unholy? How is the need of one group to impose their belief system on the lives of other members of a social species any thing other than truly evil?
Humans must satisfy basic neurochemical needs to promote the sense of control over the sense of threat in life; for some this is religion, for others science, others self-reliance, or all of the above. Having that mechanism and strategy is what is key in overcoming compulsive overeating, and all other maladaptive behaviors, not the mechanism itself. The Ukraine recently demanded that Jews register as Jews. This terrifies me much more than the existence or non-existence of any given god. Likewise, the complex social art of human living is more important than the basic sciences of human life. Hippity Hoppity… Remain fabulous and phenomenal.
The Duay-Rheims Roman Catholic Bible
Schizophr Bull. 2000;26(3):603-18.Three-factor model of schizotypal personality: invariance across culture, gender, religious affiliation, family adversity, and psychopathology. (Reynolds et al)
Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2006;2:291-326. Schizotypal personality: neurodevelopmental and psychosocial trajectories. (Raine, A)
Br J Clin Psychol. 1997 Nov;36 ( Pt 4):635-8. Schizotypal traits and dimensions of religiosity. (Diduca, D, Josesh S)
Psychol Rep. 1989 Oct;65(2):587-93. Religiosity, schizotypal thinking, and schizophrenia. (Feldman J, Rust J)
Br J Clin Psychol. 1999 Mar;38 ( Pt 1):83-96. Delusional ideation in religious and psychotic populations. (Peters E, et al)
J Neurosci. 2014 Apr 2;34(14):5012-22. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3707-13.2014. Binge-like consumption of a palatable food accelerates habitual control of behavior and is dependent on activation of the dorsolateral striatum. (Furlong TM et al)
J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2010 Mar;16(2):252-61. doi: 10.1017/S1355617709991202. Epub 2009 Dec 4. Deficits in the automatic activation of religious concepts in patients with Parkinson's disease. (Butler PM et al)
Eur J Neurosci. 2013 Aug;38(3):2399-407. doi: 10.1111/ejn.12234. Epub 2013 Apr 26.Reward sensitivity modulates connectivity among reward brain areas during processing of anticipatory reward cues. (Costumero V et al)
Schizophr Res. 2014 Mar;153(1-3):214-9. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2014.01.008. Epub 2014 Jan Population impact of familial and environmental risk factors for schizophrenia: A nationwide study.(Sorensens HJ et al)
Perspect Biol Med. 2013 Spring;56(2):167-83. doi: 10.1353/pbm.2013.0012. Evolution and medicine. (Perlman RL)