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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  • Gary

    Billions of people are religious. Most of them have had no brain injury. For evolutionists, there is no basis for concluding that religion is abnormal, or that it indicates any kind of insanity. If evolution is true, being religious is just another variation of the evolution of the species.

  • Timothy Horton

    LOL! Good old Briggsie. You can always count on him to lie about science he doesn’t understand and can’t explain. Let’s look at one of the big fat lies by Briggsie:

    What’s most disturbing is that they took the result of this tiny group and extrapolated to the whole human race. In other words, they used a rude statistical analysis with not even a hint that their results are far, far from certain

    Did the researchers claim that? Heck no, they said the exact opposite, that the results can’t be generalized to other groups.

    “Grafman 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”

    Gotta love those Liars For Jesus. 🙂

    • Bryan

      All males in the US is a pretty large group, 150 million give or take. Even if you limit it to military veterans, you still have a group much larger (and more diverse) than the, roughly, 50 individuals who participated in the test. Mr. Briggs may be guilty of hyperbole.
      However, the idea that “they said the exact opposite” about the results is as much of a hyperbole as Mr. Briggs’ statement. Per the piece you quoted, it could be construed that the results could apply to Western males in Christian or formerly Christian nations. Again, it’s probably hyperbole to apply the results to the entire human race but it’s equally negligent to apply the results of this study beyond the participants of the study.

      • Timothy Horton

        Mr. Briggs may be guilty of hyperbole.

        Do you guys knee-jerk defend every lie told by a Liar For Jesus? Briggs flat out lied. It wasn’t hyperbole, it wasn’t misunderstanding. Briggs flat out lied. The researcher specifically delineated the results to male American combat veterans of which set they had a representative sample.

        • Bryan

          To your accusation, no, but sometimes I find pleasure in poking a bear.
          To poke further, they did say the group was male American combat veterans but they only limited the application as stated in the piece you quoted. Any further limitation is technically an inferrance on your part. Also, based on the description of the groups, do those 50 individuals really seem to you to be a “representative sample”? Just based on the disparities between the groups and variance, it seems to be somewhat suspect to me. I admit its been a long time since my college statistics class though.

        • samton909

          No, he did not lie. Ypu are just an idiot.

          • Timothy Horton

            Apparently you’re too stupid to realize when one of your conservative talking heads is blatantly lying to you. That happens a lot with religious conservatives I notice.

      • Wayne Cook

        Horton plays an idiot on TV. Unfortunately, it’s not an act.

        • Timothy Horton

          You must be a bigger idiot because you have no rebuttals to anything I’ve presented.

    • LgVt

      Briggs, a professional statistician (and thus far more qualified to criticize this study than you are to defend it, Mr. Self-Proclaimed Ecological Scientist) was talking about the paper itself. In his own words: (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)

      Your attempt at a rebuttal consists of a quote from an article about the paper, rather than the paper itself, and there are several problems with it:

      1) The quote treats said disclaimer as a bigger deal than it actually is in the paper.

      2) The quote goes on to talk about how what needs to be studied further are the manifestations of other beliefs in the brain–in other words, expansions of the original study’s deeply flawed conclusions. (Briggs ripped apart the study’s methodology, questions, and statistical analysis of the results in his article. I somehow don’t think it’s a coincidence that you chose to attack his claims of a broad extrapolation instead.)

      3) As the description of needed future study indicates, the quote has a very loud implicit “YET” attached to it–it’s a pro forma CYA disclaimer that the speaker himself doesn’t really believe.

      • Timothy Horton

        LOL! Hey look, it’s the idiot who thinks sex between virgin gays causes STDs. Do lecture us more with your amazing scientific knowledge.

  • john appleseed

    Hostility to Jesus-followers is a fad, & just like other fads (such as LGBTABCDEF), so-called scientists look at everything through their PC lenses, distorting & coloring their “facts.”
    Hey, scientist fundamentalist, how could the DNA code originate? It’s a complex language system with letters & words. What other coding system has ever existed without an intelligent designer?
    And where are the expected hundreds of millions of transitional fossils? Darwin admitted this problem, but he was confident that years of paleontology would uncover them. But Darwin’s dilemma persists. Evolutionary “family trees” are based on imagination, not evidence. Darwinist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould: “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology”.
    And why is Darwinism taught in science classes? It is a fundamentally religious, dogmatic belief system that defies the evidence. Famous philosopher of science Karl Popper: “Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program….” Evolutionary science philosopher Michael Ruse: “Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.” Darwinists insist, “You can’t teach religion in science classes”, yet they not only demand that Darwin’s religion be taught, & not only do they forbid any competing ideas, they also have banished the presentation of any evidence that Darwin might have been wrong.

    • john appleseed

      If evolution changed microbes into microbiologists over supposed hundreds of millions of years, how do ‘living fossils’ remain unchanged during the same time frame? Darwinist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould: “The maintenance of stability within species must be considered as a major evolutionary problem.”
      And how did sex first arrive? How could blind chemistry & physics invent the cooperative organs in separate organisms needed at the same time, since non-intelligent processes can’t plan for any future coordination of the male & female organs? And by the way, asexual reproduction gives up to twice as much reproductive success for the same resources as sexual reproduction. How could the latter ever gain enough advantage to be selected?
      And since creatures look like they were designed, how do Darwinists know that they were not designed? Richard Dawkins: “Biology is the study of complicated things that have the appearance of having been designed with a purpose.” Francis Crick: “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” Darwinists, your problem is that creatures feature too much design. When an archaeologist says pottery points to human design, who criticizes him? But if someone attributes the design apparent in life to a designer, that assertion is laughed at. Why do anti-theists insist that science be restricted to naturalistic causes rather than logical causes?

  • Autrey Windle

    These ‘scientists’ obviously missed the claims that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’. The next thing I would like to know is who hired them and who paid them. This ‘study’ wreaks of a commissioned outcome to serve somebody’s purpose, usually tied to getting money from idiots who believe this rubbish. This is such a shallow attempt to call a fabricated result a ‘study’ that it strains credulity of even a 6 year old. BALDERDASH!

  • Thankful Catholic

    What a pathetic excuse for a study!… and then they had the gall to publish their results in a peer reviewed journal. What a joke! Their study is an embarrassment to science as well as to academia.
    Then, so as not to have to stand up any normal scientific scrutiny, they cautioned that the results of the study were limited! Limited is an understatement, for sure.
    I hope our tax dollars didn’t go for this study. The veterans should be the ones receiving help from the American public, not these bogus scientinst’s undertakings propped up to look like some official scientific studies.

    • Timothy Horton

      Did you actually read the paper? What specifically did the researcher get wrong in testing their hypothesis?

  • davidrev17

    Aaaahhhhh yes…a veritable sermon on evolutionary-premised, reductionist “neuro-theology” at its finest – or the “neuralisation” of the infinite Creator God of the Judeo-Christian Bible – from the unique perspective of those inanimate, mindless, purposeless processes of neurochemistry (and physics) taking place at the sub-microscopic level – “in chaotic billiard ball motion” at that! Wow! “But is it Science?”

    However, what about those pesky, ever-present (in scientific experiments) rational/moral “conscious observers,” a.k.a. the “neurobiological interpreters”? Just how can their collective, or even personal neurochemistry – and derived from a strictly scientific analysis mind you – possibly transcend the “subjective” experiential neurochemistry of others, in order to arrive at such an “objective,” so-called scientific truth, in order to impose this “neurotwaddle” upon the rest of mankind??

    ☆ ☆ ☆

    “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

    — Charles Darwin, letter to William Graham, 3 July 1881.

    “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.… This hypothesis is so alien tothe ideas of most people alive today that itcan truly be called astonishing.”

    — the late militant atheist, and Nobel laureate, Dr. Francis Crick, “The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul,” (1994).

    (BTW: Just how did Dr. Crick come to KNOW the above…scientifically??)

    ☆ ☆ ☆

    But of course: these evolutionary-premised neurochemical ruminations, making-the-rounds in the reductionist, deterministic pseudo-scientific peer-review literature of current neuroscience (like the stuff mentioned in Mr Briggs’ article) must, of absolute necessity, be legit; simply because they approach, or “bring-to-the-scientific-table” a priori – the wholly faith-based assumption of “nature did it,” aka Methodological Naturalism.

    And in this context, PLEASE read the highly illuminating, and thought provocative article, “In Search of the G [God] Spot,” the Journal ‘New Humanist,’ [Jan., 27, 2010], by the now-retired, world-renowned atheist [polymath] clinical neuroscientist, Dr. Raymond Tallis. Or read anything else he’s written AGAINST this pseudo-scientific “neurotrash,” for so many years now, like his very powerful book, “Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity,” [2011], or even another article, “Raymond Tallis Takes out the Neurotrash,” 2011.)

  • MikeW

    I agree that the study authors were rude in their use of statistics, but did Briggs mean to say “they used a crude statistical analysis”?

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