You didn’t hear it coming. You didn’t even feel it. Yet there you were on Hamburger Hill, 12 May 1969, praying you’d come through the battle, when a piece of shrapnel dug into your skull.
It’s still there today. Doctors couldn’t, didn’t dare, take it out. Maybe it doesn’t hurt; the doctors said it shouldn’t. But you swear you can feel it in there.
Suppose this permanently wounded Vietnam veteran was you, dear reader. Now I ask you the obvious questions: How does this make you feel? Would this injury—just perhaps—incline you to deepen your religious faith?
If you answered that question—no matter how you answered it—you’re one up on the scientific researchers Wanting Zhong, Irene Cristofori, and three others who studied the religious commitment of Vietnam vets with brain injuries. These scientists thought brain injuries caused vets to become more religious, not because of the introspection harrowing life-threatening experiences like that imbue, but because the scientists thought the injuries themselves caused the vet’s brains to, in effect, misfire and induce these unfortunate men to become more fundamental in their religious beliefs.
Don’t scoff. This was peer-reviewed research in the journal Neuropsychologia, published in the article “Biological and cognitive underpinnings of religious fundamentalism“.
What’s this about religion? The authors say “Religious beliefs are socially transmitted mental representations that may include supernatural or supernormal episodes that are assumed to be real.” That they might even be real did not enter the authors’ minds as a possibility. Never mind. The real object is religious fundamentalism, which they say “embodies adherence to a set of firm religious beliefs advocating unassailable truths about human existence”. Unassailable truths like the scientific method?
“Fundamentalism requires a departure from ordinary empirical inquiry: it reflects a rigid cognitive strategy that fixes beliefs and amplifies within-group commitment and out-group bias”. If that’s not bad enough, “Recent studies have linked religious fundamentalism to violence [and] denial of scientific progress”.
To these authors, that the brain is responsible for religious fundamentalism is a given. “Evolutionary psychology explains the appeal of religious fundamentalism in terms of social functional behavior”, they say. Yet the “neurological systems that enable such inflexible, non-disastrous beliefs [such as fundamentalism] remain poorly understood.” So they studied it.
But if evolution made the brain cause religious belief, did evolution cause the authors’ brains to believe religion can be explained by the brain? What part of the brain is responsible for bad science?
It is an old observation, but a good one, that if the brain is causing our thoughts, then it cannot be trusted, because what guarantee is there that if it misleads us in one area it is not misleading us in another? There is none. If the brain is causing spurious religious beliefs, it could also cause spurious science beliefs. And there is no way to tell the difference.
If you’re not brain damaged, go there to read the rest.
Since this critique appeared at Stream and not here, I went light on the details. If there is interest, and if I have time, I can expand criticisms here. There’s not much need, though, since we have seen this kind of paper come and go hundreds of times.