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.

Related Content:

Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky Demystifies Depression

Biology That Makes Us Tick: Free Stanford Course by Robert Sapolsky

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

  • Robert Callow says:

    Before a man can reason correctly he must first be made fully aware of the primary cause of why he is naturally prone to lie and deceive (even when there is plenty to go round) and not only deceive others but himself also whenever it suits him. Only then can he hope to fully understand the cure for his foolish behaviour.

    Darwinian evolutionary theory, as with so many other beliefs that have been contrived and believed in by sick and foolish minds, does absolutely nothing to rid the human race of the cause of lying and living by lies and delusion, but does much to encourage it, and for as long as people refuse to see and acknowledge the fundamental cause of why they can’t help lying and deceiving themselves, deceiving others and being deceived by others they will never see and believe in the cure. Instead, they shall continue to live by lies and remain incapable of halting their insane journey on their road into chaos and despair and endless destruction:

    We don’t need to look far now to see a pathetic human race deceiving and being deceived, lying and living by lies, killing and being killed, whilst at the same time remaining unable to halt the increasing destruction of the environment in which it needs to exist; and so I ask again, was there ever a more convincing sign of the lying self-deceiving self-destructive insanity ruling over the human race?

    Has there ever been more convincing evidence of the terror waiting to engulf us?

    If lost souls would only open their eyes and look for themselves they might see and believe in the cure for their deluded state before it’s too late.

  • James M Apperson says:

    Re “Christians have been given the Spirit of Truth. We understand that “alignment” with the logos does not come from a deeper, more reasonable understanding of the natural world; rather, righteousness comes from a relationship with God through Christ, the true Logos.”

    (All literal-reading-based versions of) That religious system (which just happens to be most versions of “Christianity” (and other Abrahamic religions) in existence)
    demand that all contrary views and values are wrong, proven-wrong, and evil.

    Facts, logic, and ethics
    do not really support their narratives.

    But every single one
    of their:
    tens of thousands
    ~mutually exclusive~ rival sects
    “certain” of it anyways.

    the people who created all versions of it,
    the people who promote those
    have usually been careful to phrase their rhetoric in such a way, so that it’s not too obvious that they’re automatically demonizing all contrary views and values.

    That means:
    promoting it
    is against the rules of this group (and most other similar groups).

    But it covertly slides under the radar; so that it gets a ~free pass~ to speak divisively about all contrary views, values, and everyone whom holds to those contrary views and values.

    More deeply,
    they’ll even go-so-far as to denigrate us all
    unworthy to even exist.

    Some even go further; teaching that we (me, my kids, you, your kids, etc)(everyone who isn’t a devout and doctrinally-adequate believer) deserve eternal torture; unless we join their “totally not a religion” before it’s too late.

    Upon examining that cleverly schemed ~free pass~. …

    There’s no rational reason why such a deeply, inherently abusive and destructive system should be sheltered from public scrutiny and accountability,
    while equally abusive systems are not given that same free pass.

    More easily recognizable forms of Mafia Racketeering schemes,
    other ideologies which (also; same as Christianity):
    foster-and-shelter domestic abuse,
    child abuse.
    emotional violence,
    willful and widespread, systematic infiltration and hijacking of entire political systems, and
    which pose a blatant threat to the continuation of our species, …

    are not given the same free pass.

    Social taboos and formal rules against ~calling it out for what it is~
    are part of the problem;
    – helping to perpetuate so many significant dysfunctions; which undermine every facet of human personal, familial, and societal health.

    As Sapolsky puts is:
    “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.””

    Human biology
    and what counts as health vs disease
    doesn’t change inside of a church or faith-based setting.
    It’s the same, no matter where we go, why we’re there, or what songs we sing.

    So we really are talking about a societally-sanctioned and protected
    massive network of clustered, grossly dysfunctional cells;

    disguised so that our social and political systems don’t recognize these as a threat;
    a threat which,
    in the ever-increasing light of discovery,
    has proven to be ravaging to the body of humanity.

    STOICISM can help the consequences of their religion
    become more bearable.
    But it can’t cure the disease.
    We have no hope of doing that;
    until we start giving each other permission
    to openly and honestly talk about it.

  • James M Apperson says:

    I tried to go back and edit, or delete and repost my comment.

    I can’t see where the buttons for that are located.

    But I meant to include this:

    “This was posted in a “Stoicism” discussion group.”
    and then
    “My reply to that was this:”.

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