The Biological Underpinnings of Religiosity a 1h 22m lecture by Robert Sapolsky for his 2002 Human Behavioral Biology course.

Sapolsky's profound conclusion is a question: If biological "abnormalities" are responsible for many of the significant developments in religious history, what does that say about being human?

What is the adaptive value of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia? Creativity may be enhanced in manic depression. But Sapolsky claims that there is no adaptive benefit to schizophrenia, it is maladaptive.

This lecture builds on a previous one on schizophrenia. My notes for that lecture from the 2010 edition of "Human Behavioral Biology" are at (Note: the 2010 edition does not include a lecture on religiosity, fortunately this 2002 lecture is available).

Review of a basic medical genetics concept: "some of the time a genetic trait which is god-awful in one setting may have some advantages elsewhere." The gene for sickle cell anemia is awful in one setting, but can protect from malaria in another setting. "There is no such thing as a bad gene, there is only a bad gene-environment interaction."

In full-blown Tay–Sachs disease (predominately found in Ashkenazi Jews) there is complete cortical failure resulting in death by around age 4; in a partial expression of the gene there is resistance to tuberculosis. This genetic trait may explain the belief that Jews were safe from tuberculosis and poisoning the Christian wells resulting in numerous pogroms in the medieval period.

Cystic fibrosis is the most common genetic disorder that is life threatening: the lungs fill with fluid often resulting in death by age 20. But in the partial expression version, the exact mechanism of fluid in the lungs protects you from dehydration from cholera.

The point pertinent to evolutionary theory is that if there are enough people with the partial expression protecting them, it can be evolutionarily advantageous to have the occasional full-blown pathological case in a cousin.

My notes on Seymour Kety's adoption studies in Denmark from previous Sapolsky lectures:

Kety and his team of psychiatrists in their decade of research in Denmark interviewed families of adoptees looking for schizophrenics. From their extensive data about the family members of schizophrenics, they were able to conclude that schizoptypal personality occurs at a higher than expected rate in the family members of schizophrenics. Schizotypalism is a mild genetic version of schizophrenia. Modern studies suggest that the genetics of schizotypalism are associated with mild tendencies toward the dopamine role in schizophrenia. Of course, there is a range of degrees of schizophrenia and schizotypalism: they live on a broad continuum. Schizotypalism appears to entail the same biology as schizophrenia but in a much milder form.

Schizotypalism is characterized by having somewhat loose associations (not nearly so severe as in schizophrenia), social withdrawal / detachment (may gravitate to solitary occupations such as lighthouse keeper, fire tower watcher, movie projectionist, etc.), metamagical thinking (believing in strange things like science fiction and fantasy or getting really involved in some new age ideas or beliefs in mental telepathy or UFOs) with a concrete level of interpretation (tending to extremely fundamentalist concrete interpretations of religious events).

In the 1930s (or 40s) anthropologist Paul Radin observed that in traditional human societies there is a category of people who are "half crazy" and are more commonly known as shamans, witch doctors, or medicine men and women. Radin emphasized the metamagical thinking of these important members of traditional human societies. They converse with the dead, speak in tongues, their role in the society is to be an important religious leader with their metamagical thinking.

Erwin Ackerknecht referred to shamans as being "heeled madmen" in the 1940s.

Alfred Kroeber, who started the Anthro department at Berkeley, wrote "The shaman displays his possession by a spirit by publically reenacting his specific personal experience: that of a man suffering from a particular mental affliction, his projections, his hallucinations, his journey through space and time thus became a dramatic ritual and served as the prototype for all future concepts of the religious road of perfection." Kroeber emphasized that they are not schizophrenics: they are hearing voices at the right time.

Shamanism is a very controlled, socially contextual version of metamagical schizotypalism. Shamans, unlike schizophrenics, are not peripheralized, they are some of the most powerful members of their societies. Most of them are not celibate (though they are in some societies) and as respected members of their society are often able to pass on their genes. That is, shamanism appears to be an adaptive trait. Shamanism is sanctioned in these societies (Kroeber's word) which is related to the word sanctuary. When sanctioned these metamagical traits are revered. But the exact same traits would be psychologically suspect in today's American culture.

Kroeber was told by an informant of the Winnebago (Hocąk) Indians (did Sapolsky mispeak? Wikipedia suggests that Radin studied the Winnebago not Kroeber) that although it is great that they have this fantastic shaman speaking in tongues and all that it is good that we don't have two of them. So there's a recognition that the metamagical schizotypal personality trait needs to be rare in human societies. All human societies tend to have a few metamagical schizotypal people around, but not too many. So it could be that human societies need a few schizotypals and they can accept having a few second cousins with maladaptive schizophrenia. That may explain the 1-2% occurrence of schizophrenia in every culture studied.

Paul Devereux referred to "primitive" religion as organized schizophrenia (1940s).

Ackerknecht wrote an article emphasizing that "modern" religions are equally irrational as the so called "primitive" ones. Ackerknecht observed that "our culture is unique in outlawing the irrational". But a Gallup poll reveals that 25% of Americans believe in ghosts, 36% believe in mental telepathy, 47% believe in UFOs, more than 50% believe that the devil influences daily activity. Sapolsky: "We live in a world that is highly irrational." Schizotypalism runs through all religious contexts including our own. We also value those who invent the appropriate irrationalities at the center of our religious cultures. Sapolsky observes that it is normally considered worrying to hear voices coming out of burning bushes or that you had a conversation with someone who is dead and has risen from the grave.

"Schizotypalism runs through all of human history."

Those who invent religious traditions tend to have a thread of metamagical thinking that falls into the domain of schizotypalism. But the context is very important. When it isn't done "right" it can lead to abortive cults and the like (e.g., David Koresh in Waco, TX, Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana, Charles Manson may have been metamagical thinkers who didn't get it "right").

What distinguishes metamagical thinking that forms the basis of religions from the model thinking that characterizes science? Think about the theory of electricity and magnetism and the theory of gravity. Wouldn't the creative act of conceptualizing such "action at a distance" theories require the basic imaginative power that Sapolsky calls metamagical thinking? Does that suggest that science like religion is built on metamagical thinking?

The basic religious tenets are the structural steel of religion (which is associated with this metamagical thinking). Another component of religion (the modern secular view) is the social community it brings you, encouragement for doing good works, counseling the troubled, helping newlyweds understand what they are getting into, comforting the bereaved, etc. But throughout most of history, religion has always also been about ritual: ritualism is one of the backbones of religion. Religion as the daily practice of ritual.

Sapolsky gives the quote "Religion is daily bread not cake for special occasions (or not just cake for Sundays)" which he attributes to Henry Ward Beecher, but I could not corroborate that with an Internet search. Moreover, Henry was Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother not her father. Maybe the quote is from her father Lyman Beecher who was also a famous preacher? I cannot find any attribution for the quote.

What is the biology of ritual? We all fall into little obsessive rituals during times of anxiety. Intrusive unhelpful thoughts such as Teletubbies jingles get into our heads and ruin our productivity at times. Obsessive rituals and intrusive thoughts tend to happen more often during periods of anxiety.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is when the obsessive and intrusive thoughts become so predominant in our lives that it paralyzes our ability to function. The most common form is an obsessive focus on hygiene such as washing one's hands for six hours a day. OCD is an anxiety disorder: a pathological attempt to impose order and structure, predictability and control in a world where everything provokes a sense of dis-ease. It is a fixed action pattern (ethology term discussed in these notes: of compulsive thoughts. People suffering OCD do not fall into learned helplessness (depression) because they are motivated to fix their lives through their rituals. In the right context, the behaviors of OCD are also exactly the ones we need to study hard to get into elite universities like Stanford. OCD occurs in between 1 and 10 percent of the population.

Religious leaders are often the most fervent in the carrying out of rituals. In orthodox Hinduism, a Brahmin will spend six hours per day in cleansing rituals as well as numerous other ritual practices. In orthodox Judaism, Kosher laws, magic numbers, and others provide more examples of the prevalence of rituals. In the middle ages the view developed that there are 365 prohibitions and 248 (representing the number of bones in the body according medieval medicine) obligations for a total of 613 rituals. But no one ever listed them: the numerology was more important than the details. Orthodox Islam also has numerous ritual obligations (magic numbers: 7, 10, 70 and 100). In Christianity, there are rosaries, the number 3, and many rules for prayer, etc.

Religious rituals tend to involve cleansing of the body, food preparation, entering and leaving significant places, and numerology which is the exact same list we find with OCD. About 100 years ago Freud described OCD as "an individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional compulsion."

Religious leaders have also reached this conclusion. Saint Ignatius of Loyola defined scrupulosity "as someone going through religious ritual for its own sake, someone who is not thinking of the content but was just doing the ritual". Ignatius warned about the dangers of those who are not paying attention to the content. In the Talmud, there is also an injunction to think about the words, the content, and to not read it in a rote way. Mohammad in Islam argued that if you say prayers without thinking of the content, then they don't count. For millennia, religious leaders have been warning that the power of ritual can potentially become more important than the thought behind it.

The exact same behaviors which in a secular context can earn a diagnosis of OCD, in the right religious content, the behavior may be honored and rewarded. By sharing the dread of the ritual behavior with a community, we share the anxiety of the compulsive behavior.

Franz Kafka's "The Hunger Artist" was about someone performing starving (yikes!). Historical records document this practice in the Middle Ages (double yikes!).

Religious leaders are people who are excellent in performing rituals. Gayatri mantra (19 second clip: is sometimes performed for pay. In Judaism, there are Rabbis who make a living by sitting around slaughterhouses making sure that rituals for food preparation are properly followed. Convocation ceremonies for community events provide a living for religious leaders to perform these ceremonies.

"Xenocide" by Orson Scott Card involves a virus which causes OCD to paralyze a culture which were feared to be "too" smart and so might produce revolutionaries who could overthrow the empire. The infected people became a priestly class and the rest of the population had no time to foment revolution because of the time and effort needed to feed their religious leaders. A paralysis of culture effectuated by OCD behaviors expressed as religiosity.

Martin Luther, a 16th century Augustinian monk in Germany, left extensive records of evidence of his OCD behavior: fear of performing priestly rituals incorrectly and needing to stop and start over, five hours a day in confession. Quote: "the more I wash, the dirtier I get." He became the founder of Protestantism. Sapolsky summarizes: "Talk about somebody who takes his personal affliction and turns it into perhaps the most influential event of the last thousand years in Western European history."

If you are OCD, religion can provide a sanctuary. If you are OCD in the right setting, you can make a living by being religiously ritualistic. OCD people probably invented most of religion's rituals.

The most common manifestations of OCD and religious ritual are 1) cleansing of the body, 2) food preparation, 3) entering or leaving significant religious places, and 4) numerology. Why should that be? It may be evolutionary convergence: selection for health via cleansing and safe food preparation. Sapolsky suggests that some of it may be that in the right place and time, people with OCD may offer their obsessions as rituals to help people at a major religious transition point (he claims this small speculation is the only part of this lecture that is his own contribution to our understanding of religiosity).

Is what people do with diligence and attention to detail distinguishable from OCD behavior? What distinguishes a psychological affliction from strength of character?

Parallelism of schizotypalism and the metamagical backbone of theology, OCD and the ritualism of mainstream orthodox religion.

Key point: The exact same behaviors that in one context destroys your life and peripheralizes you, when performed in the right context can be honored and rewarded.

One of the healthiest things you can do for your life is to be religious. Religiosity is a very strong protector against major depression. Religious belief extends your life expectancy after you control for risk factors like excessive drinking. No one knows if personal religiosity or a community religiosity offer the same health benefits or not. It is straightforward to see how religiosity increases one's ability to avoid depression by providing elements of control, predictability, explanation, and outlet.

If so much evidence supports the value of religiosity, how can scientists like Sapolsky claim to be rational as atheists? Is this an example of scientific-minded atheists engaging in metamagical thinking where despite all the evidence they continue to dogmatically attend to their atheism?

In behavioral experiments, such as B.F. Skinner's pigeons, one can get animals to engage in all sorts of ritualistic behavior to try to make the reward appear again. Sapolsky suggests that if random rewards are provided, each pigeon will develop its own superstitious rituals to maximize their reward. This "enforcement of superstitious belief" raises the question: how tight a connection between cause and effect is needed before one can believe that the effect has a cause? In religious practice one can "explain" unanswered prayers by doubting the effectiveness of one's concentration and fervency to identify causal links that may not be there.

Rats with hippocampal damage have more difficulty making causal connections: "they are more vulnerable to superstitious conditioning". We all differ in the number of hippocampal neurons, variations in enzymes, degree of myelination, etc., so individual differences can affect our susceptibility to superstitious belief.

Geschwind syndrome (named after Norman Geschwind probably the most influential neurologist of the 20th century) is a pattern of behavior affecting some people with epileptic seizures in the temporal lobe where the hippocampus, the amygdala, and related limbic structures live.

Sapolsky calls it Temporal Lobe Personality. It is a cluster of personality traits that are far more common in people with frontal lobe epilepsy. It involves being extremely serious and humorless, neophobia (averse to new things, small circle of friends, always do the same sorts of things), hypergraphia (obsessive writing), obsessive interest in religious and philosophical subjects (not necessarily becoming religious, just an interest in these topics). Saint Paul may have had frontal lobe epilepsy. What does it mean that a burst of action potentials for 30 seconds in the temporal lobe once every six months means that one somewhat deterministically gets more interested in religious subjects?

Sapolsky describes the fascinating novel "Lying Awake" by Mark Salzman where a dispirited nun starts having religious visions which makes her an honored and respected member of the convent. The cause was a temporal lobe tumor but raises wrenching questions about what it means that the visions were "caused" by a disease? Should we want such a disease cured?

Sapolsky clarifies a few points: He is not saying that you gotta be crazy to be religious; He is not saying that most religious people are psychiatrically suspect. He is saying that "it is absolutely fascinating that the same exact traits which in a secular context are life destroying, separate you from the community, and in the right setting are at the very core of what is protected, what is sanctioned, what is rewarded, what is valued in a religious setting; so often there could be an underlying biology to all of this. And what do we do with this?"

He confesses that he broke with his extremely orthodox upbringing at age 14 and has no spirituality and is utterly atheist but that that is one of his biggest regrets, yet he seems completely unable to change his atheism.

What do we make of the fact that each of our decisions to be religious or irreligious is one of the most defining decisions of our lives yet it may be due to a neurotransmitter hiccup or genetic influence. It is just as interesting to ask biologically why do some of us lose faith whereas others find faith?

What are we to make of who we are if even one defining moment of history is due to some biological abnormality?

What does it mean that biology appears to be the cause of each of our individual differences?