Brain Damage Increases Religious Fundamentalism—Or Scientific Hubris?

Stream: Brain Damage Increases Religious Fundamentalism—Or Scientific Hubris?

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.


  1. Gary in Erko

    People re-make themselves into an image of the god they imagine. It’s a bit like people end up looking like their dogs. Call it the “reciprocal rendition principle”.

    eg. If someone imagines god as a sky fairy, then that’s the limited scope of comprehension they land on themselves. A flitty little thing that hovers around, enjoying the same space as a mosquito.

  2. Sheri

    “Unassailable truths like the scientific method?”
    Blasphemy, I say, blasphemy there Briggs! How dare you mock the deity of the scientific community???

    “Evolutionary psychology explains the appeal of religious fundamentalism in terms of social functional behavior”,
    Generally by some long-winded, completely indefensible “reasoning”. Should you be garish enough to continue questioning, you will be called a “science-denier”, which sounds better than “How dare you question my religion?????”

    On the real science front, the study is not even close to useful until a huge number of participants in a DOUBLE-BLIND study are questioned. No one can know which participant has injuries and which do not. Participants must be both atheist and religious, both before and after. Both atheists and religious people need to write the questions—scientists, especially social ones, are failures at assessing religious beliefs (as if that could be defined in any useful way in the first place—belief in “god” can, but not religion). Call me when we get the results and we can discuss.

    Gary in Erko: Some imagine God as limitless, covering the entire universe, outside of time. Others have no mental picture of God at all. Your use of a fairy is interesting—Freud might have something to say about that.

  3. Gary

    Harry Potter: Professor, is this real or is it all happening inside my head?
    Albus Dumbledore: Of course it’s happening inside your head. How does that make it not real?

  4. Ken

    Pat Roberston explained a related factor:

    “Unassailable truths like the scientific method?”
    – Briggs
    EEeeegads…that’s a “how high is up?” kind of irrationalization — one being perpetuated as a means of refuting (sort of) something found distasteful.

    Proper application of the scientific method to this topic includes evaluating religious experiences vs brain issues, with the various, incompatible, faiths of the participants included.

    When Christians and Hindus, for example, have the same experiences consistent with a particular kind of brain trauma — and those experiences are interpreted in contexts of their irreconcilably different theological constructs, its a pretty strong indication that the probable cause-effect relationship is that the brain trauma accounts for the comparable experiences. Because it would be silly, for example, for a Christian to assert that some fellow-Christian’s experience was a bona-fide interaction with deity [and not due to the brain trauma] while that other pagan’s experience couldn’t possibly have been genuine because their deity doesn’t really exist [so that might be due to the common brain trauma].

    One famous area this is observed is in the case of brain oxygen deprivation — numerous people report basically the same experience of a tunnel & rapturous feelings toward/at the end. And inevitably this is attributed to a near-death experience with a first-hand peek into the “other side.”

    Funny thing, the same thing is experienced by fighter pilots pulling high-G maneuvers that move blood away from the brain and creates oxygen starvation, with the tunnel becoming narrower along the way to unconsciousness and associated feelings of bliss, especially in centrifuges where they are allowed to completely black out to temporary unconsciousness (G Loss of Consciousness – GLOC). Also, some kids will hyperventilate to the point of dizzyness, suddenly hold their breath while someone squeezes their midsection — creating a similar effect that radically boosts brain effects, including temporary (a few seconds) unconsciousness and similar feelings and stories of adventure — though pretty much everybody knows those are induced dreams [and those can include adventures that, to the dreamer who was unconscious for a brief moment, were perceived to last minutes or even hours].

    The entirety of Briggs essay plays a kind of selective game by never really addressing, or even acknowledging, the implications of so many consistently observed patterns such as the above. The presumption that religious experiences is accepted on faith, without evidence … Why, if it looks like a religious experience, it must be! Unlike Pat Roberson’s credulous uneducated who are prone to accept such, its easy to simply shut down one’s critical thinking, however highly educated, to mindlessly accept such flimsy evidence.

    But if such flimsy evidence is to be so uncritically accepted, it must be accepted from those of all faiths … and that creates a conundrum: In one very short step we can argue the pagans were correct all along — all those comparable religious experiences by people holding to so many radically different, irreconcilably incompatible beliefs must demonstrate that all those different deity’s and their associated realms really do exist after all.

    That, or, those common experiences are due to common brain biochemical influences.

    Which seems more plausible when ALL the evidence is considered?

  5. Ken

    Consider the following two statements, the first from the article (link provided in Briggs’ essay), and, the second from Briggs published in his Stream article.

    Briggs says the authors “implicitly extrapolated” their study to “the whole human race.” How does Briggs’ assertion hold up to the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” standard:

    From the article cited:

    “Grafman [one of the study authors] cautioned that the results of the study were limited. “For this study, we recruited Vietnam Veterans with and without brain injuries,” he told PsyPost. “They were all male American combat veterans. This limits the generalization to other groups of people including women, people from other countries, and people who come from cultures with different primary religious beliefs.”

    – In other words, the study’s applicability is limited to Vietnam vets with a particular brain trauma.

    Regardless, Briggs says otherwise: “What’s most disturbing is that they took the result of this tiny group and implicitly extrapolated it to the whole human race (at the end they do admit “larger…samples…are necessary to confirm that our conclusions are applicable to healthy individuals”, but they wave these doubts away throughout the paper and speak of religious beliefs in general). In other words, they used a rude statistical analysis with not even a hint that their results are far, far from certain.”

    Even Briggs’ remark is self-contradictory — He cites their published self-critique that their study results need further corroboration before they can be applied to healthy individuals while asserting the absence of even a hint that their results are “far, far from certain.”

    Consider how a number of press media are reporting the findings of this study:

    “Neurologists have identified brain lesions that COULD be linked to …”
    “Brain damage MAY spur extreme religious fundamentalism, study finds …”
    “Suffering a brain injury CAN make you more religious, scientists say …”
    “A LINK Between Brain Damage & Religious Fundamentalism …”
    “Damage To Specific Site In The Brain MAY Be Linked To Religious …”
    “Brain damage, religious fundamentalism MAY be linked –study …”

    Note those qualifying [aka “weasel”] words nearly every press outlet uses:

    “Could be” — encompasses “…but might not be”
    “May spur” — encompasses “…but might not”
    “Can make you” — encompasses “…but doesn’t necessarily make you”
    ‘Link’ & ‘Linked — the correlation IS noted, but the Cause-Effect relationship is NOT asserted

    In other words, time after time numerous press outlets comprehended that the study shows something intriguing, but not necessarily determinate.

    The Press “gets” that the study is very preliminary … but Briggs presents it as far more than it is — to engage an[other] ad hominem style attack.


    Because Briggs is concerned that that study and others like it are correct.

    Great example of cognitive dissonance. Scott Adams Blog has loads about that subject.

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    Few ever seem to get that human beings are synalons and therefore a psychic experience is also necessarily a somatic experience as well. If one has a “religious” experience, why would it not have an effect on the brain? And why would a matching brain effect simulate a religious “experience.” For a less-charged example: If I want to pick up this apple, I will extend my arm. However, if you were to take hold of my arm and extend it in the same manner, you will not necessarily cause me to want to pick up the apple, even if the neuro-muscular feelings are exactly the same.

    So it is no more a surprise if some people mistake a particular feeling for a religious experience than that they mistake a reflection of sunlight in the window for the face of the BVM. But neither is it a surprise if others mistake the face of the BVM for a reflection of sunlight in a window or a religious experience for a release of chemicals in the brain.

    It might in fact be both.

  7. germancartoon

    KEN we already know that you are an atheist edgy, and it is ironic that you say that BRIGTH does ad hominens, when you do the same, when BRIGHT complained about titles like “this injury causes religious fundentalism” and curiously that you did not address in your two comments,
    You give vague and naturalistic explanations of religious experiences such as “every culture sees what it wants to see” which is not always true, “the experiences in oxygen deprivation and the soldiers’ allusions to centrifugal force are the same as religious people. and therefore they are false ”
    which the latter is not true either, and experiences have their differences on average.
    and you say “the news headlines are not tabloid because they say things like it could or could be”, when it was never denied that possibly some strong hits etc, generate allusions or dreams, what is denied is that it is always the case or relate it to “religious fundentalism “is that it is criticized.
    And finally, from Pat Robertson that there are almost no miracles in the US, it is false, I investigate paranormal and miraculous phenomena, and paranormal things happen with the same frequency as in other countries. for that there is more information in the pages that I put.

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