Brain Damage Increases Religious Fundamentalism — Or Scientific Arrogance?

It could either way

By William M Briggs Published on May 17, 2017

You didn’t hear it coming. You didn’t even feel it. Yet there you were on Hamburger Hill, May 12, 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 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 — lead you to deepen your religious faith?

If you answered that question — no matter how you answered it — you’re one up on five scientists. Wanting Zhong, Irene Cristofori, and three others studied the religious views of Vietnam vets with brain injuries, and published the results in a peer-reviewed journal. These scientists thought brain injuries caused vets to become more religious. Not, they surmised, because life-threatening experiences might lead some folks to become more religious. No, the scientists thought the injuries themselves caused the vet’s brains to, in effect, misfire and induce these men to become more “fundamentalist” in their religious beliefs.

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 be real did not enter the authors’ minds. 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.”

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?

These authors assume that the brain causes religious fundamentalism. “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 the Brain Can’t Be Trusted …

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 argument, but a good one: If the brain causes our thoughts, then it cannot be trusted. For what guarantee is there that if it misleads us in one area it’s not misleading us in another? There is none. If the brain causes false religious beliefs, it could also cause false science beliefs. And there’s no way to tell the difference.

Now to assess “fundamentalism” our authors asked a few questions to an even smaller group of men. Some of these men had brain injuries and some not. The main concern was with 24 men with ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) injuries and about the same number of men with two other injury types. These were compared against 30 other men with no brain injuries.

Bad Theology

One of the questions was agreement with this claim: “The basic cause of evil in this world is Satan, who is still constantly and ferociously fighting against God.” This, like the other questions, makes little theological sense. You can imagine a devout Christian, who knows that human beings cause of a lot of evil, trying to answer it. The authors of the paper seem to think “the devil made me do it” is the basic way Christians explain their sins.

Still, analyzing the answers led the authors to say that they “found that participants with vmPFC lesions reported greater fundamentalism” than controls.

Bad Stats

But this just is not so. By their own data, the person with the lowest “fundamentalism” had a vmPFC lesion. And a goodly fraction of those with lesions had lower “fundamentalism” scores than did those in the healthy control group. Only two of the 24 veterans with lesions had higher scores than did the highest healthy controls. The variability of scores is high. That’s why the differences in “fundamentalism” scores claimed were small.

As it happens, the vets with injuries “consisted of 2.5% Mormons, 38.8% Protestant, 16.3% Roman Catholic, 10% other affiliations.” 32.5% did not respond. The healthy vets “consisted of 35.3% Protestant, 23.5% Roman Catholic” with 41.2% not responding.

Since there is a lot of variety in views among these groups, the imbalances in group membership are enough to explain the observed differences in “fundamentalism.” It’s odd the authors did not analyze “fundamentalism” by self-reported denomination to answer this obvious criticism.

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.

Still, one of the authors was bold enough to insist that “the variation in the nature of religious beliefs are governed by specific brain areas in the anterior parts of the human brain and those brain areas are among the most recently evolved areas of the human brain.”

Which part of the brain caused this man’s over-confidence?

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