steve davis

Today’s guest post comes to us from Tyler Scherr, Ph.D., who I met when I was a wide-eyed and naive college freshman and he was a wise and learned sophomore. Additionally, Tyler is the technology licensing postdoc at UNeMed, helping shepherd new inventions from physicians and researchers to the market where they can ultimately be used to positively impact human health. He is also the adjunct faculty instructor of biology at Metropolitan Community College, and the co-founder of both Orca Analytics and the UNMC Makers 3D Printing Organization. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from Manhattan Christian College, another bachelor’s in biomedical systems engineering from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a Ph.D. in biomedical research from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

So yeah, he’s a pretty smart guy. Enjoy!


According to a smattering of the latest surveys, here are some things our fellow Americans believe:

<1%: Believe in the Galactic overlord Xenu

10%: Believe the sun revolves around the earth

20%: Believe in Bigfoot

30%: Believe Trump is doing a great job as President

40%: Believe in Ghosts

50%: Believe in Psychics

60%: Believe in the Devil

70%: Believe in Angels

80%: Believe in God

90%: Believe in the existence of the human soul

100%: Believe they are absolutely correct about at least one thing for which they lack sufficient knowledge to make that conclusion.

What do all of these beliefs have in common? At the fundamental level, they are all the products of our neurobiology. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Well, duh!” “Obviously you can’t have beliefs without a brain.” “Why, I’m beginning to believe you, sir, might be a moron.” But please, indulge me for the next few minutes, while we explore some of the truly humbling implications of the science of belief.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “belief” can be defined as “something that is accepted, considered to be true, or held as an opinion.” At the risk of alienating half my audience, I want to draw what should be an innocuous distinction between belief and science. The scientific method allows us to formulate inferences about the nature of reality based on measurable observations. For example, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists can predict simple decisions with incredible accuracy before you are even aware you are going to make them. The results of experiments like these seem to infer the absence of free will (sorry, Rocky). While a belief can certainly be based on measurable evidence, it can also be based on absolutely nothing substantial (e.g. see that list at the top again). Anyways, the purpose of this post isn’t to enter the ongoing debate between the (in)compatibility of science and religious belief. The purpose of this post is to encourage all of us to critically question the validity of our beliefs, religious or otherwise, and to tread a little more lightly in this world for doing so.

To that end, I invite you to entertain the following questions:

1) If the apex of religion is glimpsing the divine, and such peak religious experiences largely feel the same, what’s the difference?

Planet earth is home to a particularly funny species of hominid that appears to run on a belief-forming operating system: homo sapiens (That’s us!). Around 80% of the world’s humans hold some religious belief, and there are thousands of them to choose from. And, while all of these beliefs are fundamentally mutually exclusive, they have at least two things in common. First, they are all pathways to peak experiences. By peak experiences I mean truly “spiritual” experiences that most people rank up there with the birth of a child as among the most meaningful of their entire lives. If such experiences are open to a Tibetan monk in meditation, a fasting Muslim observing Ramadan, an orthodox Jew on the Sabbath, an evangelical Christian at a conference, or an undergrad enjoying a walk through the park on acid (and by all accounts, they are), what does that say about the primacy of any of the “holy scriptures”? At the very least, one is forced to admit that doctrine has nothing to do with optimal religious experience. Or, as Abraham Maslow eloquently said, “The great lesson from the true mystics {is that} the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard.”

Now, one could certainly argue that peak experience in this life is not the purpose of religion; the purpose of religion, some would say, is to secure a favorable position in the afterlife (e.g. heaven). And I get that position, but I respectfully disagree. I’d argue that the feeling of knowing one’s eternal destiny is undeniably comforting and can certainly provide the equivalent of a peak religious experience. Here again, the otherwise vastly different beliefs of the jihadist suicide bomber and the Mormon missionary converge, as both perform their sacred duties with a smile on their faces. I have yet to meet the sincerely pious who believes he is honestly going to his version of hell and yet persists in his piety.

This is the second thing all religious beliefs have in common: they are incredibly self-assuring. But, as it turns out, there may be a biological reason why religious experiences from vastly different traditions feel the same.

Which bring me to my next question…

2) If beliefs look the same at the level of the brain, what’s the difference?

Scientists have been using technology, like the aforementioned fMRI and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), to scan the brains of the praying, chanting, and meditating faithful and, as it turns out, there appears to be significant commonalities. One of the leading researchers in “neurotheology” is Dr. Andrew Newberg, and he has consistently shown religious experience correlates with decreased parietal lobe activity (decreased perception of your position in three-dimensional space) and increased frontal lobe activity (increased concentration). The research of Dr. Newberg and others seems to indicate that there is a “God center” to the human brain, and that common practices across religions can equally activate it. The implications here are somewhat staggering. Although these findings do not refute the existence of a god or divine presence, they provide a biological basis for why peak religious experiences feel the same and a strong evolutionary impetus for preserving these practices.

Scientists at the University of Utah have recently taken these studies one-step further, however. Dr. Jeff Anderson and his team used fMRI (you know, the technology that has dealt a near fatal blow to the notion of free will) to show that religion activates the brain’s reward circuits, triggering the same parts of the brain as sex, drugs, and love. Instead of measuring brain activity during prayer, Mormon participants were asked to reflect on “a savior, being with their families for eternity, and their heavenly rewards.” Again, the results here may seem obvious, but the implications are staggering. Religious convictions, it turns out, are actually a lot like sugar. Or, as Karl Marx put it, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. In all fairness, I should also point out that these findings appear to be true of any firmly held beliefs (e.g. religious, political, moral, your views on reality television, basically anything you attach strong emotion too).

So, if peak human experiences can be had regardless of religious affiliation, and if our understanding of the biology of belief is finally catching up to what we know about the psychology/anthropology of belief, that brings me to my third question…

3) What’s the value of your beliefs if they are not your choice?

Like it or not, you are the product of your genes and your environment; nothing more. And, for better or worse, you didn’t have a choice whatsoever in the former and only marginal choice in the latter until you turned 18 or got emancipated. And, even if you disagree with me and believe there’s some other part of you (e.g. an eternal soul) the fact remains that you didn’t choose that either! But, for the sake of argument, let’s agree to disagree on the existence of free will here, because it’s ultimately inconsequential. The truth is, your belief in everything from gravity to #FakeNews is free to be influenced, manipulated, and outright changed by everything from your family, friends, geography, the media, celebrities, politicians, your physical health, your mental health, the bacterial content of your gastrointestinal tract (did I mention you are literally more a collection of bacterial cells than you are human cells – how does that make you feel?), hypnotists, mentalists, psychiatrists, and even scientists (scientists are just beginning to be able to implant false memories – that’s right people, I’m talking about Inception!).

So, what’s my point? Why am I trying to tear your religious beliefs down?!? You may not believe me, but I’m not. The fact is, I believe religious beliefs have real value. They can be undeniably comforting, providing hope to people who otherwise have none. Despite being often quoted as such, I don’t think Karl Marx was actually being derogatory with his famous “opium of the people” statement – he was empathizing (albeit in a sort of backhanded manner). They can inspire the best in people (e.g. hospitals, missionary work, philanthropy). However, as we all know, beliefs are a double-sided coin. They can also inspire the worst in people (e.g. inquisition, crusades, suicide bombing).

So here’s my point – we all need to exercise our religious beliefs with critical thinking and humility. An understanding that not everyone views the world through our particular prism and an awareness that our prism may not even be the best way to view the world. Because I firmly believe that the future of our species, and possibly our planet, relies on our ability to collectively overcome archaic traditions, see beyond unexamined prejudices, and tear down the walls of tribalism. Or, as Pope Francis recently put it, “How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us.”

Ready for another article?

Rocky Munoz
Jesus-follower, husband, daddy, amateur theologian, former youth pastor, nerd, and coffee snob. Feel free to email me at almostheresy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter (@rockstarmunoz)


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