When Religion Gets Into Your System

by Dish Staff

Michael Schulson is rather amused by a recent paper in the journal Biology Direct that “suggests that the impulse behind some religious rituals could be driven by mind-altering parasites.” His quick summary of the authors’ argument:

Essentially, [researcher Alexander] Panchin et al. have noticed that some rituals spread germs. (They’ve mostly ignored the many, many cleansing rituals that seem to do the opposite). So, they ask, what if germs, looking to spread, drive people to perform rituals? This isn’t quite as outlandish as it sounds. Many germs really do alter their hosts’ behaviors in ways that help the germ spread (think of rabies, which spreads by biting, and which alters the brains of infected mammals to make them feel very, very aggressive; or consider Toxoplasmosis, a protist associated with cats, that seems to cause infected rats to feel less fear of felines).

Of course, the urge to bite your fellow mammals is, perhaps, a shade less nuanced than all the possible reasons that might motivate a person to take communion, or kiss an icon, or travel to Mecca and mingle with strangers.

He sees such a notion as part of a long history of reducing faith to a kind of mental illness, a comparison he finds wanting:

[T]hinking of religion as an illness of the mind gives an enormous amount of power to abstract ideas, and very little credit to individual people. Unlike, say, the experience of having a virus, we can usually exercise some choice over our religious lives. When we can’t exercise that choice, the constraints are as likely to be sociological as they are the result of some multi-tentacled idea that has become lodged in our brain (or in our gut). And, unlike a virus or a gene, we can take the religious practices given to us and consciously shape them, change them, deploy them in new ways, and use them for practical ends.

One feels, reading the Panchin paper and its viral ilk, not that they’ve plumbed the psychology of the religious impulse, but that, unwittingly, they’ve revealed their own total bafflement at why someone might actually want to do something spiritual. Fortunately, there’s a cure for that bafflement. It’s called interacting with human beings who are different from you.

Though not about bacteria, Patrick McNamara details his work on the neurological basis of belief, especially dopamine’s place in our spiritual lives. The origins of why he started digging into this topic:

I had a lucky break during routine office hours at the VA (Veterans Administration) Boston Healthcare System, where I regularly treat US veterans. I was doing a routine neuropsychological examination of a tall, distinguished elderly man with Parkinson’s Disease. This man was a decorated Second World War veteran and obviously intelligent. He had made his living as a consulting engineer but had slowly withdrawn from the working world as his symptoms progressed. His withdrawal was selective: he did not quit everything, his wife explained. ‘Just social parts of his work, some physical stuff and unfortunately his private religious devotions.’

When I asked what she meant by ‘devotions’ she replied that he used to pray and read his Bible all the time, but since the onset of the disease he had done so less and less. When I asked the patient himself about his religious interests, he replied that they seemed to have vanished. What was so striking was that he said he was quite unhappy about that fact. What appeared to be keeping him from his ‘devotions’ was that he found them ‘hard to fathom’. He had not stopped wanting to believe and practise his religion but simply found it more difficult to do so.