This video talk on blip.tv is 80 minutes long, but fascinating all
the way through. (a disorder that makes you wash your hands was a
survival trait before the discovery of hygiene!)
Prof. Robert Sapolsky Bio 150/250, Spring 2002 Human Behavioral Biology
The Biology of Religion
I. Some opening caveats, disclaimers and fine print
II. Religion and belief
1. A return to the final question of the schizophrenia lecture
2. Genes and the advantages of intermediate penetrance: sickle cell
anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis....and schizophrenia?
3. The Kety schizophrenia adoption studies: their second discovery, and the continuum of traits.
4. Schizotypal personality disorder: social withdrawal, odd perceptual
experiences, a tendency towards concreteness, metamagical belief.
5. Who are the traditional schizotypals?
a. Paul Radin, Erwin Ackerknecht and Paul Devereux: hearing voices at the right time
b. Alfred Kroeber’s elaboration: “Psychosis or Social Sanction.” The common roots of ‘sanction’ and ‘sanctuary.’
c. Western cultures and schizotypalism
III. Religion and ritualistic practices
1. Obsessive compulsive disorder
a. Obsessive thoughts: intrusions, blasphemies, and so on.
b. Compulsive rituals: self-cleansing, food preparation, leaving and entering, numerology and symmetry
c. Genetic, neuroanatomical and neurochemical hints
2. Ritualism of the religious orthodoxy
3. Hindu Brahmans: hours of daily purification rituals involving
cleansing, cyclical nostril breathing, defecation, ratios of handfuls of
food from the left versus right hand, rules for entering temples....
4. Orthodox Jewry and the magical combination of 365 prohibitions and
248 requirements: cleansing, food preparation, and the importance of
numerology over content.
5. Orthodox Islam: rules for numbers of mouthfuls of water, for entering
and leaving a lavatory, for handwashing, and, of course, magical
6. The rituals of Orthodox Christianity: the magical number 3, the
multiplicities of Hail Marys and rosary use down to Lutheran organists
advised about dotted rhythms in the Lutheran hymnal
7. Freud: “obsessional neurosis as individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis.”
8. Ignatius Loyola and the 15th century concept of “scrupulosity.”
9. The underlying adaptive value of anxiety reduction
10. Making a living as an obsessive compulsive
a. An example in a 16th century monk named Luder: “The more you cleanse yourself, the dirtier you get.”
11. Why should OCD and religious rituals have such similar patterns?
a. An ecological explanation
b. A historical explanation
IV. Religion and the attribution of causality
1. Superstitious conditioning in animals
2. Hippocampal damage and increased vulnerability to superstitious conditioning.
V. Philosophical religiosity
1. Temporal lobe epilepsy: humorlessness; perseveration; neophobia and a
"sticky" or "viscous" personality; hypergraphia; concern with religious
Some concluding thoughts: What am I not saying
1. You gotta be crazy to be religious
2. That most people’s religiousness is biologically suspect
3. That faith is any more biologically accessible or interesting than is loss of faith
Some further readings:
Mark Saltzman, Lying Awake (a superb novel about the religious implications of temporal lobe epilepsy).
David S Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral. 2002 Univ. Chicago Press. Religious groups as units of selection.
Sapolsky. “Circling the blanket for God.” In: The Trouble With
Testosterone’ and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament.
Originally posted by Ian Woolf