As a biologist, I’m fascinated by the emerging ideas about how they are constituted in the brian, and the possible evolutionary explanations for them. But as a pragmatist, I think we in the non-religious community haven’t come up with a great way of dealing with them. As Mriana points out, such feelings are potent, and they scream out for meaning, not just neurobiological explanation. If we want people to be free of all the poisonous stuff in religion, we have to give them a structure for incorporating those feelings and "transcendant" moments in their lives into their world view beyond explaining them in scientific terms.
Rituals are theatrical productions that have been refined by time and practice to tap into such feelings, and they have lots of psychological value. Problem is, the traditional ones are all tied into nonsensical supernatural ideologies, and the manufactured ones just don’t have the power (sorry, but Christmas beats Humanlight for me every time, despite my lack of any shred of Christian belief). I suspect, though I couldn’t prove it, that most people need some organized, traditional, communal structure to help organize the significance of such feelings a moments. That’s why I tend to support the subversion and secularisation of religion rather than it’s outright overthrow. Plenty of good holidays in the U .S. with rituals aplenty that have lost most of their ideological trappings (Halloween, and yes I know all about the pagan roots of it; Easter; and arguably Christmas for some of us, since I have no trouble celebrating one almost like that of my childhood, minus going to mass, with hardly a whiff of Jesus anywhere).
I get most of my "religious" moments alone in a natgural environment, after some physical challenge (climbing Mt. Kilimajaro, most recently), or with my wife and daughter. And there are times when I just want to thank [i:bfb00776be]somebody[/i:bfb00776be], or less frequently rail at or plead with [i:bfb00776be]somebody[/i:bfb00776be] even though I know nobody is out there. And Spinozaesque notions of god as the sum of all that is, energy fields ("Use the Force, Luke") or some such are too amorphous for me. Buddhism has given me some neat tricks for dealing with such oments, being fully present in them and yet not overinflating their significance, but I can’t say I have the perfect solution for feelings of transcendance when I don’t think I actually ever transcend anything, since the real world is what is, and the feelings are just a product of my brain. Anyone got any great ideas?
And here is where I have to say I disagree with Harris and Dawkins. If we pulled the rug out from under the religious extremists, we would have more problems not less. They would not know what to do with themselves if that happened. Education is the key, but they are anti-intellectual, which is a problem.
At the same time, we have to find an alternative, as you say mckenzie. If there is no alternative, people will continue to attribute such feelings of extreme transcendence to a supernatural deity. We have to find new words for such feelings other than a god, but it’s hard even for someone who does not believe in the supernatural. These “spiritual” moments that are natural need more natural labels to communicate what we really mean on a non-supernatural level.
At the same time, Christmas is more appealling to most people than Humanlight, BUT I have found that I can put meaning into Humanlight by remembering what it is that makes us human, including the “spiritual” moments that we have due to some external trigger- like nature, birth of a child, or a pet.
While Humanist Celebrants don’t cover many of these issues, they do cover the “rites of passages” with like birth with a Naming Ceremony, Marriage, and at death a Funeral Celebration. However, that does not cover all the human emotional needs. We still need the social events and gatherings that so many churches provide for the emotional need of human contact and churches also provide Coming of Age ceremonies, which also fills a special emotional need for a young adult. This is something Epstein http://www.harvardhumanist.org/?page_id=21 mentioned in his interview with HNN (Humanist News Network) Podcast and added that it is the Humanist Celebrant’s responsibility to help do this. http://www.humaniststudies.org/enews/index.php?id=290&article=0
However, my thing, which maybe slightly different than Epstein’s, is that we should meet these psychological needs on a natural bases in order to replace the supernaturalism so many people are use to having. There is more psychologically than just the emotions. The mental is also involved too, which affects the physical. We cannot separate the body from the brain, anymore than we can separate our emotions from ourselves. As humans, we need more than just rites of passages. We need to be able to gather with like minded people too with a common means of communicating emotions that are natural. If we were to say spiritual, we don’t want to be misunderstood as meaning something of the supernatural, but rather natural.
I just become confusing, thus the reason we need to either redefine words or come up with new words that don’t imply anything supernatural to communicate more clearly what we mean. The word transcendence may work for some, but it doesn’t work for others. I can say I’m a Spiritual Humanist, but not everyone understands that “spiritual” in this case does not mean supernatural, but rather being in touch with the emotional needs of the human without the supernatural, which includes feelings of transcendence or what have you. If I say god, people confuse it with the supernatural deity God, which is not at all what I’m referring to, yet how do you convey that something that is nothing, yet had a trigger (like the awesomeness of nature) for the brain chemicals that cause that feeling? The feeling of oneness with the world and alike? It is not some supernatural deity, yet it hard to put into words exactly what it does mean when we feel at one with the universe.
So you say “religous” moment and I say “spiritual” moment, but neither of us mean what the Religious mean when we say it. There lies the problem to the question you asked, which I have yet any great answer to solve the problem. :( I know the sources of the feelings and alike, what our bodies and minds do with those feelings, the problems communication of them, and the needs for alternative expressions or means to fulfil the needs and alike, but not the answers.
Oh BTW, if it is any consolation, I love Easter, but like you, it is not the religious stuff. Rather it is the excitement in nature like birds singing and animals happily playing, the new life in nature, and the beautiful colours of spring. All of that gives me a wonderfully awesome feeling and then add to that all the chocolate that comes with it and it’s heaven on earth. :D
I have read that there is a part of the brain which is concerned with religiosity. If so I must have a very small one.
I think it has to do with the way we attribute meaning or significance to our emotions.
My wife has epilepsy and epileptics can have religious like experiences which are brought on by their condition.
At one point of my life when I was deeply depressed I had strange experiences of some deep meaning or significance over ordinary everyday events like opening a door and stepping into another room. At one point I could will them to happen but as my depression faded so did these events. Pity because I enjoyed them.
Maybe it depends on whether you have an internal or external locus towards such feelings.
I was born with the umbilical cord around my neck and purple. The doctor did his version of CPR to revive me. According to my reading children born that way often have brain damage. So, I figure, like Doubter, that the religious center of my brain must have been destroyed.
Years ago I went on a nine day, cross-country backpack trip with seven other men. At one point the person leading headed in one direction. I called a halt, got out the compass and geodetic survey map to show they were going in the wrong direction. The vote was seven to one and they took off in their original direction. I muttered some expletive and did something very foolish. I struck out on my own. I went at my own pace, enjoying everything around me. It was the most uplifting, wonderful day of my life. I was in awe of the splendor and solitude of the deep forest, overjoyed while quietly sitting and having lunch to have a deer and her fawn walk twenty feet from me, watch ducklings swimming in a stream, and figure out how to cross a small steep canyon by myself.
However, as overwhelmed as I was by my experiences, no religious or spiritual thought even occurred to me. When I reached camp and learned that they had to double back and had pushed themselves very hard to get there at the same time I did, I felt sort of godlike, myself.
Back to the subject: I seriously doubt that there’s any “religious” area of the brain. Rather, I believe we have a drive to recognize patterns, even when they don’t exist. And most of us are taught very young the importance of relying on authority for answers and to protect us. We transfer that reliance from our parents to some “super parent” and we are stuck with that mythology for the rest of our lives, especially in emotional times, positive or negative. That’s why there are probably fewer atheists in foxholes than there are in daily life.
I think we have a vanishingly small chance of success at getting rid of this kind of “thinking” in adults. The best we can do is guide them away from authoritarian parenting so their small children don’t get the same kind of offal stuck in their skulls.
Once this happens, the kids who are raised using this enlightened parenting won’t need any replacement for “religious thought.” In fact, they probably won’t understand what other people are talking about when they relate their “spiritual” experiences.
See, I think some of the problem is how we label the feelings. I suspect what I feel climbing a mountain is qualitatively much like what you felt hiking that day. I think of such feelings as “spiritual,” but of course that’s because when I look around the language for a word with the right flavor, that’s what I come up with. You even use the word “awe,” which certainly lots of religious people would argue is a big part of the feelings they associate with god. I think most people have such responses to certain circumstances (nature, personal peril, powerful relationships with others), and as you suggest our aculturation and overactive pattern generators lead us to attach supernatural significance to them. I’m just wondering how we can accomodate such experiences into a strictly secular ideology-recognizing their value and significance but not letting them lead us away from the real world. I personally use a lot of the language associated with religion (spiritual, awe, sacred, etc) deliberately, because it already comes with the affective content I’m looking for and the poetic history, all it needs is to be co-opted away from religion and into the service of good honest human feelings generated by those wonderful chemicals in our brains, which doesn’t make them any less meaningful.
Boy, don’t think I didn’t search long and hard to find a word I could use to replace spiritual so there wasn’t any theistic hint. :D
I even checked it in the dictionary, and as long at least one of the definitions didn’t have to do with “reverence”. “sacred” or “spiritual” I was happy to use it. But, I alway make sure to disclaim any of these religious meanings when I do.
No, there is no religious part of the brain. It is a combination of the frontal lobes, amygdala, and other parts of the brain that react to various stimuli.
There is a catch to the religious extremists services, which I’m not sure they comprehend, but they use it to snare people. Music, chanting, etc are good ways to stimulate these parts of the brain. Many of us have been to a concert of some sort and been taken with the music in one form or the other. Artwork is another one that stimulates the chemicals in these areas too. The list goes on and on as to what triggers the brain chemistry, but there is no deity involved as the very religious would like to believe or state they believe.
Dr. Valerie Tarico says it very well in her book “The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth”:
Evolutionary biologists argue that our perception of something out there in the dark, our high sensitivity to noises and shadows, our conviction that there are beings just beyond the reach of our senses, was a necessary mechanism for survival when predators lurked in the shadows. If you believe something is out there when it is not, nothing is lost except, maybe, a little sleep. On the other hand, if you err by not believing when a saber-tooth tiger lies in wait for you and your children, you may get devoured. Survivors and their decendants are programmed to err on the side of belief rather than on the side of skepticism. And this programming is mediated by a powerful, primal motivational system: our emotions.
This was a light bulb to me and explained why my great uncle, a hellfire and damnation FM preacher, scared the hell out of me and caused me to want to run the other direction when he went into one of his dreadful alter calls, during our occassional visits. He seemed like a bad person, someone to fear greatly, out to do harm when I was a child. It was a primal urge to run from a threat.
She continues to say that even non-believers may be moved to tears by the spirit of Beethoven (the music I was referring to) or feel religious exaltation in the field of glaciers, etc. It’s all brain chemistry.
Her whole book is basically the psychology behind all of this, but there are some people who want to believe Pascal’s Wager, so to speak. They are so scared not believe that they believe in order to not deal with the unreal threat of hell, when in reality, it is other humans scaring them into this belief with the uses of common stimuli to reinforce that belief. It goes back to the primal survival theory.
However, as you can see, it’s not a religious part of the brain, but rather primal instincts, which it would seem that with modern knowledge, some of us have learned to redirect this into other things that are non-religious or are outside of religion situations- such as nature, music concerts, art museums, and alike.
Technically, Occam, you and Doubter’s “religious section” of your brains have not been destroyed, because that section does not really exist. It’s just chemical reactions in the brain to various stimuli. When you said you were in awe of the splendor and solitude of the deep forest, overjoyed while quietly sitting and having lunch to have a deer and her fawn walk twenty feet from you, watching ducklings swimming in a stream, and figuring out how to cross a small steep canyon by yourself, these same chemicals were stimulated, but may have not been strong enough or in an extreme amount to cause you to feel at one with nature. You are a normal human being, its just that your brain might not produce enough of these chemicals to cause such a feeling or you have yet to find what triggers a significant amount of these chemicals to give you these feelings in extremely strong manner.
By George, I think he’s got it! Just teasing George, but you are right on target with what you said. Now take Bach out of church (CD and a walkman will do) to a beautiful place in nature- like a nature trail or something like that (use head phones so you don’t scare the animals.) Sit down in a clearing, relax with the music, and see if you don’t have a similar experience.
I wasn’t talking about the gyms either. There is an Episcopal church that was erected before the civil war. Sundays, it has a lot of people in it. Just up the street is a Full Gospel church (not a mega church) and it’s full. The list goes on and on of churches with full parking lots around here, but the one I know for sure has a lot of people in it is the Episcopal one.