Is Religion Necessary?

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Out of body experiences and the like have always disturbed me, because how could there be an evolutionary advantage to something that occurs at the end of your life, at a time when you will no longer be able to reproduce?  I was watching a documentary about the original research into DMT (the “spirit molecule”) when I had an epiphany.  The key insight came from the researcher’s comment about his discomfort with his experiments, due to the change in beliefs his patients experienced.  They emerged from their experiences with new, life-altering beliefs.  This was not something to be taken lightly.  But how, out of all the hallucinogens known to man (and all the failed brainwashing experiments of the Cold War era!) could this one drug actually change a human mind so essentially and radically?

After locating a number of studies (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071212202008.htmhttp://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120418162304.htmhttp://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120402094322.htm), I had an aha! moment.  As an atheist, I have always though that believers are somehow weak, since they appear to absolve themselves of responsibility for their lives by “turning to [insert spiritual being]” whenever things got tough, etc.  For myself, I am both liberated and weighted by the realization that everything in my life is my own responsibility, and that I have only one short life in which to do and think and feel.  After reviewing a few studies about the function of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, especially with regards to long-term decision making; the effect on both believers’ certainty and atheists’ uncertainty of death-related thoughts and associations; and the nature of high-risk behaviors and correlates with both stress and faith, I believe I have solved the puzzle.

Humans must have evolved the prefrontal cortex when we became able to conceptualize the future, and as a consequence, our own inevitable deaths.  I do not believe it would have been possible for us to be aware of our own deaths without having a mechanism to deal with it.  Studies show that, in fact, those with damaged VMPFC’s cannot make reliable choices about the distant future.  To think about our future, we must have faith that there is a future to think about.  For humans, uncertainty equals stress, and certainty alleviates stress.  I believe that when we are stressed, when we think about the future, and when we think about death, our VMPFC is triggered (hence DMT) and we receive a measure of relief from uncertainty.

I realized that stress correlates highly with risky behavior, and faith (many studies confirm) correlates highly with avoiding risky behavior.  I believe there is an interaction between faith and stress, and cannot avoid the conclusion that for most people, faith is literally very healthy.  I still believe that it can lead to unhealthy societal conditions, but as these are generally mediated by a multitude of other factors, I cannot say with certainty that the negative aspects of faith outweigh its benefits. Yet I also cannot avoid the conclusion that thinking with the certainty part of our brain leads us to make bad decisions.  Is it possible for humans to learn to be rational without giving up their faith?  Or, on the other hand, what would the impact on humans be -depression?  anxiety? nothing? – if all of us were rational?

8 thoughts on “Is Religion Necessary?

  1. Very well written and provocative. I’m an atheist, but I’m not anti-religion. I believe that people do what they have to do and believe what they have to believe in order to make it through the activities of daily living. If religion brings comfort and solace for some, that’s a good thing. Their beliefs are helping them get through life and give them hope for whatever comes next.

    For me, I believe that this life I’m living is all that there is, and that when this life ceases, I’ll be over. I’m not living my life in anticipation of rewards or in fear of penalties after this life is over. I live my life as a moral person who knows the difference between right and wrong because of reason and logic. That works for me, but it may not be enough for others.

  2. A good friend pointed this out, so I thought I would clarify. The studies I mentioned in the last paragraph are generally epidemiological studies which indicate a negative correlation between faith and behaviors considered risky by society, such as drinking, multiple sexual partners, and drugs. It is unclear whether this is a side effect of faith in general or of religion’s power to enforce societal standards.

  3. “Near death” experiences usually happen when the person is not near death at all. We still believe, though it has long been known not to be true, that death occurs when the heartbeat stops. We know that the resulting brain damage is the cause of death, not death itself. So we think people have been dead and come back and that is where all this nonsense comes from. It’s just people dreaming while they’re passed out.

    It’s also worth mentioning that traits are often linked, because a gene is used multiple times for different bodily functions, so as darwin pointed out in Origin Of Species, some breeds of cats would always be deaf or have short tails or whatever when they were born with blue eyes. So, darwin correctly posited, a trait which has no evolutionary advantage or is even harmful in some way can be selected for if the trait that it is tied to is useful enough. This explains, among other things, the persistence of many vestigial traits.

    • You are correct on both points. HOWEVER. 1) People do not normally have “dreams while passed out” of the intensity of Out of Body Experiences. Again – these peoples’ worldview are changed, especially religious belief, just as with DMT. 2) There is, on the contrary, no evidence (yet) of any genetic trait DMT is linked to that would explain it. So I think my theory is still the best explanation. Granted, the evidence so far is merely persuasive, not conclusive. :) Thanks for your input.

      • I think the profundity of the experience comes from believing it is real or not believing it is real. If I had a nightmare that I was abducted out of my bed by aliens and raped up the arse I would wake up and either think it was a bad dream and be glad it was over or believe it really happened in which case I think I would be considerably more traumatized. Btw I have occasionally had very vivid dreams which seemed to me to be more real than real life. This could be true or it could be simply my brain telling me they were, the way I have heard something in a dream and woken up laughing hysterically, but then upon waking realized the thing that was hilarious when I was asleep wasn’t even funny or coherent. But my brain convinced me it was funny, so it was. Similarly my brain may have convinced me those dreams were vivid, it’s not like I have a videotape of them to check.

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