The following question was posed at the (inaptly named) magazine Scientific American, “Is there a difference between the brain of an atheist and the brain of a religious person?” It was asked of one Andrew Newberg, “director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia.”
Newberg said yes.
But he admitted that the “the neural picture is not yet complete.”
Several studies have revealed that people who practice meditation or have prayed for many years exhibit increased activity and have more brain tissue in their frontal lobes, regions associated with attention and reward, as compared with people who do not meditate or pray. A more recent study revealed that people who have had “born again” experiences have a smaller hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in emotions and memory, than atheists do. These findings, however, are difficult to interpret because they do not clarify whether having larger frontal lobes or a smaller hippocampus causes a person to become more religious or whether being pious triggers changes in these brain regions.
Newberg left out the most important point of this “recent study”: it does not confirm that people who have been “born again” have a smaller hippocampi than do atheists. Newberg’s understanding of statistical evidence is poor. Three points about studies of this kind (for more, look at this critique of another Newberg study):
- The sample sizes can usually be counted on the fingers of one or two researchers, making the possibility of over-certainty high;
- The kind of people chosen to study came from an extremely narrow demographic, in time, place, age, socio-economic, and genetic background. It is a stretch past the snapping point to suggest, as Newberg does, that these few folks represent all humanity;
- In this study (and all similar) it is not the case that all theists had smaller hippocampi than atheists. What happened was that a few more theists than atheists had smaller hippocampi; it is even so that some theists had larger hippocampi than some atheists.
It is also the case that nobody knows whether smaller or larger hippocampi are better or worse (for their possessors) in any tangible sense. It makes a pleasing sound, of course, to suggest that larger is better, but this supposition is unwarranted—at best: at worst it is foolish.
Various experiments have also tried to elucidate whether believing in God causes similar brain changes as believing in something else. The results, so far, show that thinking about God may activate the same parts of the brain as thinking about an airplane, a friend or a lamppost. For instance, one study showed that when religious people prayed to God, they used some of the same areas of the brain as when they talked to an average Joe. In other words, in the religious person’s brain, God is just as real as any object or person.
One begins to wonder if Newberg can remember what he says from one moment to the next, for this second set of “evidence” is not consonant with the first. If God is as real as “any” object or person—and just what exactly, measurably, unambiguously does “any object or person” mean? any?—then the only thing that is different between the brains of theists and atheists must be so minuscule that we have little hope of finding it.
If the brain acts that the same way for God as it does for pencil erasers, pebbles, grains of sand, air, water, aspirins, electrons, Uncle Mike, and on and on forever, then all that can be different is one small “belief switch”, turned “on” for theists and “off” for atheists.
But even this is nonsense. Talk of “areas of the brain” is ridiculously loose, and is a bad, unshakable habit of people like Newberg (see this egregious study of Sam Harris).
Research also suggests that a Âreligious brain exhibits higher levels of dopamine, a hormone associated with increased attention and motivation. A study showed that believers were much more likely than skeptics to see words and faces on a screen when there were none, whereas skeptics often did not see words and faces that were actually there. Yet when skeptics were given the drug L-dopa, which increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, they were just as likely to interpret scrambled patterns as words and faces as were the religious individuals.
The “research” that “suggests” these findings is subject to the identical criticism given above. E.g. it is not the case in this wee sample that every theist had more dopamine than every theist, etc.
Notice how Newberg exposes his bias. Let it be so that theists “tend” to see patterns in patternless data more than do atheists. Sounds bad, almost as if the atheists have not evolved into a higher state. But if theists are quicker to see patterns, then they ought to be better scientists, more acute detectives, quicker to find true signals hidden in the noise. We do find, do we not?, among those of lasting genius (Newton, Galileo, Bach, Shakespeare, etc.) vastly more theists than atheists.
This means the mutation that leads to atheism is harmful. Good thing, then, that we find that atheists breed less than theists. Their faulty, harmful-to-intelligence genes have a good chance of passing out of the population.
Article originally linked on Hot Air.