The “Holy” Viruses of the Brain
(From NINETEEN: God’s Signature in Nature and Scripture; By Edip Yüksel)
“Do you have the same religion as your parents? Score 0 points if you do and have never doubted or questioned its teachings. Score 2 for any other answer. This is an example of dogmatism, the blind acceptance of received ideas. Religion itself is not the issue here; rather, its acceptance without question is the important matter. To adhere unflinchingly to childhood beliefs on any subject, to shut your mind to new ideas, or even to other old ideas, is death to the intellect. Besides, religions should have nothing to hide. They ought to encourage doubts and questions so that they can lay them to rest and reinforce faith.” (Brain Building, Marilyn vos Savant & Leonore Fleischer, Bantam Books, 1990, p. 38.)
“As long as the prerequisites for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.” (Henry Drummond, Inherit the Wind).
Ask the people who are leaving church after the Sunday sermon in a modern neighborhood of San Diego: “Why do you believe that Jesus is God in the flesh and was sacrificed by God for other people’s sins?” As an answer, you might hear, “Because the Bible says so.” If you then subject them to a follow-up question, “Well, how you know that the Bible is the word of God?” you might hear the following answer while witnessing the smile on the face of your audience fading: “The Bible says that it is the word of God.” Should you remind your audience that his/her reasoning is a circular argument; the dialogue is likely to end immediately. If your audience allows you to ask more questions, you might receive the ultimate answer: “Because I believe so; I have faith in the Bible.” You might not be able to hear the reason behind the faith of many believers; moreover, you might never hear the real reason. None of the Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, or Mormons will tell you that they believe as they do because their parents and/or their immediate friends believe that way. This is, unfortunately, the reality for most believers.
If you ask the same questions of a Hindu who has just purified himself in the waters of the Ganges, you will receive similar answers. The answers of a Muslim praying in the Blue Mosque of Istanbul or a Buddhist chanting in a Tokyo temple will not be any different.
If you were born in India, most likely you are a Hindu, in Saudi Arabia a Muslim, in Israel a Jew. Since you are in the USA, you are most likely a Christian. The dominant religion of your family and your country is more likely to be adopted by you. Why? What is the relationship between religion and geography or ethnicity?
Years ago, I did some psychological experiments to explore certain common human behaviors. The most interesting one was on conformity and compliance. I wanted to find out how we, as individuals, behave under strong group pressure. How does a minority of one react against a unanimous majority? The results were incredible.
The Arrow Test
For the experiment, I gathered five persons in a room and had them sit in a line. These participants would be my confederates. I told them that we would perform an experiment on the next person who would enter the room. He would be the last in the line. In the beginning, I would ask them two warm-up questions, and trained them to give me the correct answers. But, when I would ask them the third question (the real one), I trained my confederates to loudly give me the wrong answer one by one.
When the real participant entered the room, I announced that we would have a test–as if I had never discussed the subject with the group before. Then, I asked two warm-up questions. I drew simple figures on the board and asked them one by one the routine question: Which one is similar to this one? After all the five participants gave the correct answer, the real participant also gave the correct answer. They were easy questions.
Then, it came to the real question, the easiest one. I asked the following question: Which figure on the right side is similar to the figure on the left side?
One by one, my confederates gave the wrong answer. The first said “C.” The second also said “C.” The third, fourth and the fifth also followed with “C.” The real participant was in shock. He was amazed at the discrepancy between what he saw and what he heard. After hearing five straight C’s, when his turn came, he agreed with the majority that the “C” was the right answer.
Later, I learned that I was not the first one who conducted this experiment. Between 1951-56, S. E. Asch performed a series of studies on compliance and conformity. Let me summarize the results of his experiments:
Asch made his experiments with different lengths of lines. He asked the participants to match the standard line with the lines on the left. Out of 123 participants, only 29 did not ever conform to the group’s decision. 61 participants went along with their groups on every occasion. However, 33 conformed to their groups numerous times, agreeing on the obviously wrong answer almost every time.
“Some participants in the Asch study claimed to have actually seen the wrong line as a correct match. They privately accepted the belief of the majority opinion. About half of the rest of the conformists claimed that they had seen the lines correctly, but that when they heard the majority choice, became convinced they must have been wrong. They then went along with the group. The remaining conformists said they knew that the answer was not correct but that they had gone along with the group anyway.” (Small Group Discussion: a theoretical approach, Charles Pavitt & Ellen Curtis, Gorsuch Scarisbric, Scottsdale, AZ., 1992, p 160-165)
Conformity, whether in the form of compliance or private acceptance, occurs in every group. If a gang member steals a car the first time, most likely he will continue to do so. After the first criminal activity, the reluctance and moral anguish that he experienced in the first time will decrease and finally disappear with more involvement. He will probably justify his stealing in order to maintain his internal harmony. The same is true for new members of religious groups. The initial hesitation and questions are replaced by justification after participating the first ritual or baptism ceremony.
Marilyn vos Savant, author of the popular American newspaper column Ask Marilyn, asked her readers whether they laugh more when watching movies in theaters rather than their homes. She then went on to evaluate the impact of a group on an individual, stating:
“This is a good example of the human tendency to put aside one’s own thinking and accept the thinking of others. Common to all of us is the pressure to go along with the group, at least to some extent. Also, we feel more comfortable, safer in a group; our opinions aren’t attributable to us, and we don’t stand out. It’s no accident that television sitcoms come complete with laugh tracks; people feel better about laughing out loud if they can hear others laughing too. But sitcoms also come with “gasp” tracks and “awwww” tracks as well; your responses are being subjected to professional manipulation. What we may be timid about doing or saying as individuals, we will do or say in concert with others. However, this type of behavior has a numbing effect upon the intellect. It tends to validate and maintain whatever “groupthink” is current, whether or not it’s accurate or true. Worse, it puts the mind out of the habit of thinking. People who let others direct their thinking eventually stop thinking for themselves entirely.” (Marilyn vos Savant & Leonore Fleischer, Brain Building, Bantam Books, 1990, p. 35.)
The worst place for the brain is not the theaters, since at least there you have certain control over which movie to watch. Further, movies do not control your attitude and decisions regarding issues as crucial as life and death. The worst enemy of the brain, perhaps far ahead of drugs and alcoholic beverages, is unfortunately, those places that are associated with God: churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples of any religion. Usually, those places are picked for you by your parents, and even by your government. When you go there, the “sacred” dogmas and teachings in your brain are reinforced and you are told to close your eyes again in faith and condemn everyone who dares to question them. In time, a large territory of your brain is claimed and operated by religious virtual viruses that manipulate your thought in the interest of clergymen who do so. All in the name of a conventional god. There is no easy cure for this “holy” bug. Jomo Kenyatta, the first prime minister and president of Kenya, once depicted the role of religion in the history of his country as the “opium of masses”:
“When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said: ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Some religious books use an effective psychological trick to gain converts. For instance, The Book of Mormon suggests the following test for skeptics:
“And when you shall receive these things, I would exhort you that you would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if you shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost you may know the truth of all things.” (The Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4-5).
Should it come as a surprise that a good number of people who take this “test” end up experiencing transformation in their lives? The power in this so-called proof of divinity is produced by priming the gullible subject to a self-executing conversion. First, the subject must already have accepted as fact the orthodox dogma regarding the deity of Jesus and all related stories concocted by St. Paul, the Pharisee, Son of Pharisee. Second, the subject must believe that the verses of Moroni will lead him to find the truth about the very verses prescribing how to find the truth. Third, the subject is ready to interpret any usual or unusual event occurring in the next days in favor of these tenets! The primed mind will perhaps witness many miracles and “feel” the Holy Ghost inside his or her mind. Fourth, the Church has won another convert who will fill its treasury with money. and a potential volunteer recruiter who would use the same test to attract others to the church.
Many Sufi leaders also use similar psychological tricks. For example, they ask the candidate to utter certain prayers in certain numbers and fashions while thinking about the Sheik before going to bed. Most of those who follow the instructions end up seeing dreams and interpreting them as expected. They become fanatic followers. Beside their night dreams, they start daydreaming. Their minds along with their pockets are intruded and manipulated by their religious leaders.
It may surprise many that Martin Luther, the founder of Protestan movement who was considered a progressive clergyman compared to the Pope, was a bigot. He invited his followers to give up their reasoning faculties and discard their brains:
“Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” (Martin Luther, Last Sermon in Wittenberg, 17 January 1546.)
If you are the supplier or the client of absurd stories in the name of God, then of course you will have problem with God’s greatest gift to you: your reasoning faculties. Marx hit the nail in the head by rejecting religions with his famous description: “opium of the masses.”
History is filled with tragedies created by those who gave up thinking or questioning those in power, be it of religious leaders or political heroes. No wonder millions of people accept absurd claims on faith and feel self-righteous about promoting nonsense. For instance, millions passionately reject the theory of evolution without even studying it. In the following excerpt from Inherit the Wind, Henry Drummond, the defence lawyer, makes a powerful point about the importance of critical thinking:
Matthew Harrison Brady: We must not abandon faith! Faith is the most important thing!
Henry Drummond: Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one thing that sets above the other animals? What other merit have we? The elephant is larger, the horse stronger and swifter, the butterfly more beautiful, the mosquito more prolific, even the sponge is more durable. Or does a sponge think?
Matthew Harrison Brady: I don’t know. I’m a man, not a sponge!
Henry Drummond: Do you think a sponge thinks?
Matthew Harrison Brady: If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks!
Henry Drummond: Does a man have the same privilege as a sponge?
Matthew Harrison Brady: Of course!
Henry Drummond: [Gesturing towards the defendant, Bertram Cates] Then this man wishes to have the same privilege of a sponge, he wishes to think!
Ironically, those who have reduced their critical thinking abilities to the level of sponge show the audacity to peddle and even impose their silly stories as the ultimate truth. The audacity of arrogant believers led the fictional character Henry Drummond to utter one of the most memorable statements on this point:
“As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.”
Before putting anything in our mouths we observe the color, sniff its smell, then we check its taste. If a harmful bit fools all those examinations, our stomach come to rescue and throws them up. There are many other organs that function as stations for testing, examination, and modification of imported material into our bodies. They ultimately meet our smart and vigilant nano-guards: white cells. Then, it is a mystery how we put information and assertions, especially the most bizarre ones, into our brains without subjecting them to rigorous test of critical thinking. We should not turn our brains into trash cans of false ideas, holy viruses, unexamined dogmas and superstitions! We should be wise!
Carol Tavris, the author of influential books such as The Mismeasure of Woman and Invitation to Psychology, pulls our attention to the psychological aspect of religious beliefs:
“One of the problems with the skeptical movement is that it attempts to take important beliefs away from people without replacing them. People believe that skeptics and scientists are forever telling them their ideas are wrong, stupid, and naïve—”No, you cannot talk to Uncle Henry from beyond the grave; that medium is a fraud” or “No, crushed aardvark bones can’t cure your cancer.” One problem with the critical thinking movement, which came from philosophy, was that it missed the psychological and emotional reasons that people don’t think critically and don’t want to think critically. Until you understand the forces that make people want to believe something, you can’t just expect people to listen rationally to a set of arguments that will skewer their deepest, most cherished ideas.” (Michael Shermer, The Measure of a Woman: An Interview With Social Scientist Carol Tavris, Skeptic, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1999. p. 71.)
Considering the prevalence of this psychological factor for most religious people, my skeptical approach to religions is not likely to appeal to many. It is very likely that devout members of organized religions will never be able to study the presentation of empirical and rational evidences demonstrating the authenticity of Quran’s claim objectively, since their choice of religion is not based on their intellect, but on their emotional reaction to social pressure.
Religion: the best nest for conformists
Organized religions may give a myriad of different answers for a single question. Dogmas attract the highest rate of conformists. Conformity, eventually, causes the private acceptance or justification of the dogma. Some people become fanatics, dedicating themselves to the dogma. The old conformists cause the newcomers to conform. This chain attraction goes on.
Why is the percentage of religious conformists and their private acceptance so high? There are many reasons. Here is my kaleidoscopic and, doubtless, incomplete list:
- We are exposed to dogmas from childhood. It is called “boiled frog syndrome.” If one puts a frog in a container and pours hot water over its body, the frog will jump to save its life. But if the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will not notice the heat and will boil to death. Well, we all experience the so-called “boiled frog syndrome” in many aspects of our daily lives. One of the worst examples of this syndrome is very common among religious people. Our early exposure to religion has a great impact on us. For a Hindu, thousands of human gods, the caste system, and holy cows make more sense than anything else does. For a Christian, a God with three personalities sacrificing his innocent son to criminals provides the only answer for the purpose of life. And for a Sunni Muslim, living a life according to medieval Arab culture, and glorifying Muhammad’s name is the only password to heaven.
- Recent studies using Implicit Association Test, or IAT show that our unconscious attitudes create strong biases. Those who do not engage in self-examination, critical thinking, and deliberate and constant struggle to be open-minded fall victim of this stealthy diabolic mental infection.
- Religious answers are not simple. On the contrary, they are mostly complex and vague. One can interpret any dogma and make it acceptable to him. The way is wide open for justification through endless speculations.
- Many answers do not have objective validity or a verifiable/falsifiable thesis. Since we cannot verify them, we can easily accept them.
- Professional priesthood survives on particular dogmas, so there will always be some well-trained holy “sales people” around. They are the most effective pitchmen ever seen in this world, and they are adept at adapting to new ways.
- The common religious norms such as “Have faith without reason” or “Don’t question” can close all the circuits for any possible intellectual light. As long as a person has swallowed the Trojan horse of “faith without reason,” with its head and tail, even the most absurd religious teachings will have access through a back door to the brain of the victim.
- Religions do not nakedly expose their false dogmas and myths. They exploit the truth and craftily amalgamate it with myths. Phraseology like “Good moral values,” attracts many. For the sake of some truth, we may accept the mixture as the whole truth.
- Religious peer pressure is very strong. Because of this, the social and psychological punishment for not complying with the religion of our family and friends usually has a deterrent effect. Therefore, we may employ an intellectual censorship to avoid a possible confrontation.
- Our enigmatic brains can reinforce our private acceptance by playing odd games. Selective cognition and logical fallacies can create spiritual experiences.
- The socio-economic benefits of a religion or cult may force us to rationalize and justify their dogmas.
- The so-called third world countries that suffer from chronic economic and political problems are governed by an elite minority who exploit the resources through authoritarian repression and all that come with it; bribery, nepotism, monopoly, and usury. In those countries, the majority of the population is condemned to struggle with unemployment, poverty, and ignorance. In such an environment of corruption and injustice, a religion or a sect that provides the oppressed and deprived with an identity and radical opposition may attract masses. In this context, the popular religion or sect is a political tool, a courage pill, and a symbol of rebellion. The suppressed hate and rage erupts with slogans colored with the name of God and religious heroes. In such an environment, religion and religious orders do not represent reason and reality, but the complex emotions caused by social and economic frustration.
- Religion, combined with Nationalistic hormones, is used with great success throughout history to send the children of the poor to wars declared by the wealthy elite who enjoy more power and obscene profits during wars. The resources of other countries are plundered in the background of holy hymns and patriotic songs. No wonder clergymen of all religions usually have been the accomplices of corrupt and oppressive kings, slave owners, the colonialists, the imperialists, the invaders, the oppressors, and the greedy.
- Religion may provide the ultimate feeling of superiority for those who suffer from an inferiority complex.
- Religions promise hope to the poor and sick for eternal bliss after their miserable lives on this earth. In Karl Marx’s words, “religion is the opium of masses.” Ironically, to some lesser extent, the same concern becomes essential for the rich when they realize that they are aging and cannot control their rapid decline towards the grave, which will separate them from all their luxury and power. A church, a mosque or a temple of any religion may offer them all they want: a clergyman’s voice declaring their salvation and entitlement to go to heaven. Now, the poor and sick can bear their pain, and the rich can continue throwing parties and collecting luxury cars in their mansions.
- We might fall in love with the faith that we adhere. This love affair produces hormones in our brain. Losing an established faith is scary since it threatens the current chemical structure and neurological connections of the brain. A fanatic believer may demonstrate a much stronger obsession or addiction than that of a cigarette smoker (Surely, this is valid for fanatic disbelievers too.).
Unfortunately, most believers are ignorant of or disinterested with the intellectual and philosophical aspect and implication of religions. How many religious people do you know who changed his/her religion because of his/her intellectual inquiry? How many so-called Muslims do you know who subject their faith to a rational and empirical test, as recommended by their holy book?
“You shall not accept any information, unless you verify it for yourself. The hearing, the eyesight, and the mind are responsible for it.” (17:36).
“Most of them follow nothing but conjecture, and conjecture is no substitute for the truth. GOD is fully aware of everything they do.” (10:36).
Indeed, in the Quranic terminology, the words “believer” (more accurately, “acknowledging person”) and “gullible” denote mutually exclusive characteristics. Unfortunately, in today’s world they are synonymous.