Monday, 28 March 2011

Sapolsky on Religion

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 numbers.

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 issues.

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

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