Robert Sapolsky Explains the Biological Basis of Religiosity, and What It Shares in Common with OCD, Schizophrenia & Epilepsy

Since the 19th century, thinkers like Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud have theorized religion as a strictly psychological and anthropological phenomenon born of the tendency of the human mind to project its contents out into the heavens. The Darwinian revolution provided another framework—one grounded in experimental science—to explain religion. Social scientists like Pascal Boyer have integrated these paradigms in comprehensive accounts of the origins of religious belief, and in theories like E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, evolutionary biology provides an explanation for all social phenomena, of which religion is but one among many human adaptations. Advances in neurobiology have furthered scientists’ understanding of religion as a product not only of human consciousness, but also of the physical structure of the brain. In experiments like the “God helmet,” for example, scientists can induce religious experiences by prodding certain areas of subjects’ brains.

It is in this context of psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary and neurobiology that we need to situate the lecture above from Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky. Where many critics of religion explicitly reject religious authority and belief, Sapolsky, though himself “stridently atheistic,” has no such agenda. As an article in the Colorado Springs Independent puts it, “he’s no Christopher Hitchens.” Sapolsky freely admits, as do many scientists—religious and non—that religion has many benefits: “It makes you feel better. It tends to decrease anxiety, and it gets you a community.” However, he claims, these positives are the result of evolutionary adaptations, not proofs of any supernatural realm. In fact, religiosity, Professor Sapolsky argues above, is biologically based and related to seemingly much less adaptive traits like obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and epilepsy.

Part of a lecture course on “Human Behavioral Biology” at Stanford, the religion lecture is one Sapolsky admits he is “most nervous for, simply because this one people wind up having strong opinions about.” As he moves ahead, he presents his case (with occasional interruptions from his students) for religiosity as a result of natural selection, connecting belief to the selection of genes for diseases like Tay-Sachs, the existence of which can help to explain dispiriting historical cases like the European Pogroms against the Jews in the Middle Ages. Throughout his lecture, Sapolsky makes connections between religiosity and biology, theorizing, for example, that St. Paul had temporal-lobe epilepsy.

At the end of his lecture, around the 1:19:30 mark, Sapolsky issues a disclaimer about what he’s “not saying”: “I’m not saying ‘you gotta be crazy to be religious.’ That would be nonsense. Nor am I saying, even, that most people who are, are psychiatrically suspect.” What he is saying, he continues, is that “the same exact traits which in a secular context are life-destroying” and “separate you from the community” are, “at the core of what is protected, what is sanctioned, what is rewarded, what is valued in religious settings.” What fascinates Sapolsky is the “underlying biology” of these traits. Sapolsky even confesses that he “most regrets” his own break with the Orthodox religion of his upbringing, but that his atheism is something he “appears to be unable to change.” The questions Sapolsky asks broadly cover the physical determinism of gaining faith, and of losing it, which he says, is “just as biological.” What we are to make of all this is a question he leaves open.

You can watch Sapolsky’s full series of lectures on Behavioral Biology here, and for a fully annotated summary of his religiosity lecture above, see this site.

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Do Yourself a Favor and Watch Stress: Portrait of a Killer (with Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky)

Dopamine Jackpot! Robert Sapolsky on the Science of Pleasure

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Hanoch says:

    The religion from which Sapolsky estranged himself is based on an intergenerational transmission of historical events, bearing some similarities to the way we know about the hostility between Sparta and Athens, or Caesar’s expeditions in Gaul. According to Jewish history, several million people were witness to the Exodus and the giving of the Torah. Sapolsky must assume, therefore, that the historical events are false to begin positing an alternative basis (e.g., biology) for the existence of Western religion. I believe the scientific term for this is called “putting the cart before the horse”.

  • Astronasty says:

    So glad you did a story on this too :) Thanks, Josh, for the tip of the hat and the link to my article at the end there. Much respect to you guys!

  • Josh Jones says:

    You’re welcome, thanks for reading!

  • Thad. T says:

    Hilarious! If a christian scholar taught a course that claimed that atheism arose from evolution and was akin to “OCD, Schizophrenia & Epilepsy” would it be reasonable for me to be incredulous? But if you turn it around that’s OK, because he claims he’s objective about religion? Sorry, I don’t see how this is objective, it seems rather biased. The best part is that it is a claim that cannot be disproved, we can’t rewind history and tinker with evolution or watch history rewound to show how or why religion arose, so this isn’t actually a scientific hypothesis, it is simply faith based, but for atheism, or anti-deism, or whatever this 18th century belief system is called.

  • Brian B says:

    Thad T,,,
    He does not claim that atheism arises from evolution because he has no evidence to so claim. Whereas his god/schizophrenia etc. is evidence based. New evidence may arise and new paradigms proposed but based on the existing evidence Sapolsky is being entirely critical and rational

  • bill horrocks says:

    And, of course, our understanding of ‘What’s going on’ is, of necessity, grounded in our own cultural context and can only be mediated using the vocabulary, mythology and gathering spaces afforded to us in that context. Fascinating to consider how an individual 2000 years ago dedicated to discovering ‘what’s going on’ in the context of a superstitious and rituals bound culture, subjected to ruthless imperial subjugation, with no history of biology and neuroscience (and no lecture theaters or access to the internet) might address whoever he could get to listen to him, what fate might befall him, what influence he might have on the future development of the potential of the species and what kind of write ups he might get

  • nigel hamadryad says:

    Voila. You give yourself away with “historical events”. Jewish ‘religion’ is not theology, it’s game rules for a tribe. Neolithic ‘religion’ is animistic, and localized, mostly directed to fecundity and cyclic agricultural and human cycles. Bronze age starts the warrior gods. And until Buddhism, it’s clan against clan – or between BigClan citystates. And that continues uninterrupted with a few neoplatonist interludes. “Personal theology” and metaphysical theology is mostly modern, fueled by cultural angst, and the luxury of inventing moral codes between wars. (also, no reason to make with the ‘millions’: “Archaeological excavations and surveys, however, have enabled the population of Judah before the Babylonian destruction to be calculated with a high degree of confidence to have been approximately 75,000. Taking the different biblical numbers of exiles at their highest, 20,000, this would mean that at most 25pc of the population had been deported to Babylon, with the remaining 75pc staying in Judah”) see Finkelstein, Israel; Silberman, Neil Asher (2001). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. Simon and Schuster

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