When I was growing up as a kid, smoking was an important badge of adulthood. When one of my peers lit up a cigarette and stood, posed, exhaling an elegant stream of smoke, looking so mature and sophisticated, it was a siren song. Smoking was cool. When I started college, one of the first parties I was invited to was a “smoker,” sponsored, I guess, by tobacco companies. They handed out free packages of smokes, and everybody lit up.
I was fortunate, I suppose, because every time I inhaled, I went into a paroxysm of coughing. Smoking literally made me sick. Growing up in a household with a father who was a heavy smoker may have influenced me too. I was the fourth of five children, and none of us smoked. Dad was happy with that, claiming that he “set a good negative example” for us. He knew the harm it was doing to him. His doctors warned him that his heart was damaged by his smoking and urged him to quit. He did, but too late. He died at 72 of a heart attack.
Many of my friends were not as fortunate as I. They ended up hooked. As teenagers, they begged, borrowed, and occasionally stole smokes until they could get a job that would support their habit. Later in life, as their health deteriorated, they tried to quit. Some succeeded, but most, after repeated attempts, and short periods of abstention, went back to their habit. One of my closest friends died at 50 of a heart attack, at least partially caused by his smoking.
What has all this to do with religious belief? Read on, and you will see. In a recent comment thread here, a hard over fanatical Catholic was accused of having a “closed mind” in refusing to question the validity of his faith. He responded by giving us a little story of his life. He was raised as a strict Catholic, but when he was a teenager, he lost interest in religion. Later, he became, he says, an atheist. But then something happened, and he decided to try evangelicalism…Protestant, I suppose, although he doesn’t say. He eventually abandoned that too, and returned to Catholicism, and became fanatical, calling Martin Luther’s reformation “heretical.” He rejects evolution completely, and accepts all the other Catholic doctrine opposing contraception and abortion. He presented all this as evidence of his “open mind,” willing to accept new ideas. But his return to the religion of his youth suggests that he never overcame his youthful “addiction.” Like a smoker, he couldn’t kick his habit, and eventually returned to it.
So, is religious belief merely an addiction? Well, it is probably a lot more complicated than that. Others have offered a better explanation. In his book titled “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins asserted that religious belief is a delusion, a kind of mental illness. For this, he was roundly criticized by both secularists and religionists. It was not politically correct, to say the least.More recently Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendicrinologist and a professor at Stanford University, gave a lecture that seems to support Dawkins’ assertion. Sapolsky has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship genius grant in 1987, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and the Klingenstein Fellowship in Neuroscience. He was also awarded the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award and the Young Investigator of the Year Awards from the Society for Neuroscience, the International Society for Psychoneuroendocrinology, and the Biological Psychiatry Society. The criticisms of Dawkins for his lack of expertise in the field of mental health clearly do not apply to Sapolsky. He is eminently qualified to speak on this subject.
Sapolsky freely admits, as do many scientists, both religious and nonreligious, that religious belief can have many benefits: “It makes you feel better. It tends to decrease anxiety, and it gets you a community.” However, he claims, these positives are the result of evolutionary adaptations, not proofs of any supernatural realm. He says religiosity is biologically based and related to seemingly much less adaptive traits like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, and epilepsy. He makes it clear that he is not claiming that anyone who is religious is crazy, but he notes that “the same exact traits which in a secular context are life-destroying” and “separate you from the community” are, “at the core of what is protected, what is sanctioned, what is rewarded, what is valued in religious settings.”
Wow, that is quite a statement! I could try to explain how Professor Sapolsky comes to these conclusions, but I will let you hear it directly from him. Be warned. This lecture lasts almost an hour-and-a-half. If you watch the whole thing, your time will be well spent, and you will know a lot more about how religious belief originated, and why some people are more receptive to it than others.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.