The religious brain
Muslims are overwhelmingly born to Muslim parents, Hindus to Hindu parents, Catholics to Catholic parents, and so on. Why?
October 28, 2006
Our beliefs and ideas make us human, and their quality determines the kind of human we are. We shield and fiercely defend our beliefs and ideas for good reasons: without their integrity and internal harmony, the mind becomes disorganized and even dysfunctional. While our inborn immune system fights off viruses and bacteria that aim to kill us, another immune system, mental immune system -- MIS -- gradually formed after birth, protects the mind and takes every measure to keep the mind's ideas and beliefs on the same page.
Humans are living information machines, receive input from both external sources as well as the body, process it in some fashion, and produce output. From the moment of birth, parents, siblings, and others play pivotal parts in supplying the input and influencing how it is processed.
The raw material for ideas and beliefs reach us through the senses. The brain takes the massive barrage of input and attempts to organize it and incorporate it in an orderly fashion: a monumental task that is taken for granted until something goes seriously wrong. Relatively minor glitches in the working of the mind such as misunderstanding, misperception, and making poor decisions occur daily and may not present serious problems. Over time, however, even these minor glitches in the mind caused by faulty input, poor processing or both can add up and significantly compromise its integrity.
The MIS is not exclusively exclusionary with the sole task of preventing intrusion of the disruptive or undesirable input. It also actively seeks ideas that are harmonious and confirmatory of the ones already in the mind. Through the active admission of the supporting ideas, the MIS reinforces its defenses and reduces its vulnerability.
Given the tabula rasa -- blank slate -- nature of the mind, early input become of paramount importance in determining its further development. It was in recognition of this reality that the famed Behavioral psychologist, J. B. Watson proclaimed:
"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select: doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years."
What Watson said may not hold perfectly in every case. Yet, the essence of his boast is indeed supported by numerous studies as well as naturalistic observations. Early environmental influences play the cardinal role in programming the mind -- setting it on its course.
In actuality, the brain seems to say: first come, first served. It is for this reason that Muslims are overwhelmingly born to Muslim parents, Hindus to Hindu parents, Catholics to Catholic parents, and so on. This is not to say that changes, even major changes, are not possible after the early years. They are possible and they do happen in some instances. However, in order for major changes to happen, major re-working must take place in the mind. Change is effortful and the law of conservation of energy also applies to the working of the mind and mitigates change unless the incentives to do so overcomes the default mode of inertia.
The parents, other adults and children, as well as the prevailing culture are powerful teachers and trainers of the young mind. In the Islamic world, Islam permeates every aspect of life with overbearing severity. The young mind has virtually little access to competing non-Islamic input. As the child's foundation of belief forms, the MIS works to protect it, further reinforce it, and bar, falsify, or dismiss any ideas that may clash with the mind's already in-place contents.
As humans, we lack pre-programmed software instincts to direct us in life. We, however, are born with pre-dispositions -- rudiments of software programs that will be further elaborated in interaction with life. We are, therefore, importantly dependent on how we and others, and in what fashion, further elaborate the rudimentary software. Somehow, there has been a trade-off. As our brain evolved both in size and power, what little instincts we may have had gave way. In a real sense, we took charge of our own destiny.
Science is learning more and more about the brain/mind, considered by many experts as the most complex and enigmatic entity in the universe. With each passing day, another piece of the brain/mind puzzle falls in place. Just recently psychologist Drew Western and his team at Emory University used MRI -- functional magnetic resonance imaging -- on 15 strong Republicans and 15 staunch Democrats to literally pinpoint the parts of the brain involved in what is called "confirmation bias," the lead faculty of the MIS.
The participants were asked to evaluate statements by George W. Bush and John Kerry where the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. The researchers found that the Republicans were as critical of John Kerry as the Democrat were of George W. Bush, while both fiercely defended their respective political comrade.
The surprising part of the study is that while the confirmation bias was at work, the brain areas ordinarily associated with rational decision-making were inactive. By contrast, an elaborate network of brain structures that process emotion and conflicts were highly activated. In short, confirmation bias has its own brain resources that shunt out the reasoning parts in order to protect the already in-place beliefs and preferences.
The confirmation bias, the mainstay of the MIS protects beliefs values and ideas, be they political, religious, or of any other type; it is also helped in the discharge of its functions by the mind's defense mechanisms such as rationalization (faulty reasoning) and denial (refusing to accept the reality of the irrefutable). Allocation of extensive faculties of the brain to content protection demonstrates the critical importance of safeguarding the mind's contents to its normal functioning.
It is important to keep in mind that rationality is not the master faculty of the brain. Emotions also play major parts in even tasks that are ordinarily thought to be in purview of rationality, particularly when one's beliefs, values, and ideas are at stake. Much of the work of the MIS is done without the person himself being fully aware of it. The confirmation bias seems to be almost automatic and autonomous -- a first line of defense against unwelcome intruders and a means of summoning other resource of the mind to defeat the unwelcome invaders.
The MIS is not strictly static and defensive. As it protects what is in-place, it also actively seeks to expand the prowess of the mind by incorporating new knowledge -- preferring the kind of knowledge that does not conflict with the body of information already at hand. This necessary openness feature of the MIS makes it susceptible to invasion by some disharmonious input that creates conflicts in the mind and presents the risk of paralyzing or seriously compromising its functioning. "Beliefs" can be thought of as the main framework of the mind while "ideas" are the minor components that connect the grid-work together.
Total or major replacement of beliefs, particularly as one gets older, becomes less likely, yet it happens occasionally. Paul's sudden transformation from a rabid Christian-persecutor to a devote believer of the faith of Christ is a familiar instance of such a drastic change. Ideas, on the other hand, are much more amenable to change, replacement or discard as long as they do not substantially undermine the integrity of the main framework -- the belief.
Lacking pre-programs to negotiate life, makes the person his own boss and compass. Being one's own boss is a mixed blessing. The boss has to make decisions, many with serious implications, and accept responsibility for all outcomes. That's what the mind has to do at all time.
Faced with difficult decisions, conflicting ideas and demands they are not equipped to address, people may resort to a variety of alternatives such as "regression" (acting child-like) to absolve themselves of the responsibility of deciding and acting on their own. People, therefore, are often willing to let someone else do the thinking, deciding and acting for them. In the case of regression caused by the stress of the inability to cope, the person reverts to the time that the parents handled those chores.
It is in this vein that some people wish to go back, figuratively, to the primordial time -- the time that perhaps our life was steered primarily by reflexes and instincts and the conscious volitional brain played only minor roles. For this reason, there is a great deal of appeal to surrender the brain to another -- a substitute for the instincts we lack. By so doing, we would be largely freed from the often daunting task of having to make critical decisions ourselves. That external brain can present itself as a leader, a prophet of God, or a charlatan.
We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. Yet, our rational nature is only one part of the brain/mind enigma. We are also emotional beings. We tend to favor our rational side, because it is generally fact-based, orderly and leaves little room for uncertainty -- all importantly operative components of our emotional nature.
Religious belief is primarily emotionally based. There is no way of rationally proving or disproving religious faith. Faith and reasons are not the same. "Fore the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites man with God," a religious luminary has proclaimed.
There is nothing inherently wrong with religion. Religion can be a tremendous force for the good. However, when religion, this feeling-based belief, is filled with superstition, intolerance and hatred, then the beholder of that religion embodies those qualities and becomes a veritable menace to himself and to others. Feelings energize actions. Destructive feelings energize destructive actions.
Muslims are victims of their religious brains: their religious brains are indoctrinated, from the moment of birth, by an extensive ruthless in-power cadre of self-serving mullahs and imams who are intent at maintaining their stranglehold on the rank and file of the faithful -- their very source of support and livelihood.
The mullahs and imams, as well as parents and others envelope the receptive mind, feed it their dogma, and shield it from information that may undermine or falsify their version of belief.
For as long as there are bigoted, self-serving clergy and their collaborators with first exclusive access to the blank slate, the problem of supplying wave after wave of Islamofascists will persist. It is the brain/mind that assesses things, makes decisions, and orders actions. To the extent that the in-place software of the religious brain is exclusionary in nature, hateful in orientation, and violent in tendency, to that extent the individual is both the perpetrator and the victim of barbaric acts.
The surest way of dealing with Muslims, Islam, and Islamofascism is through effective inculcation of a religious software that promotes tolerance of diversity, freedom of faith and conscious, goodwill to all, as well as purging of all the vile and discriminatory dogma that permeates the out-dated primitive belief of some 1400 years ago barbarians. The best place to start is clearly the home, then schools, and mosques where the deeply-entrenched mullahs and imams of vested interest must be compelled by law to refrain from preaching messages of hate and violence against the unbelievers.
Perhaps free societies should constitute a diverse panel of citizens to scrutinize all religious teachings and screen the software programs for destructive viruses. Once these viruses are introduced into the mind, clearing them, as we said before, becomes difficult if not impossible.
A religious brain programmed by the message of justice, love and respect for all is bliss, while the discriminatory, hateful, and violent religious brain is curse. Comment
Amil Imani is an Iranian-born American citizen and pro-democracy activist residing in the United States of America. Imani is a columnist, literary translator, novelist and an essayist who has been writing and speaking out for the struggling people of his native land, Iran. He maintains a website at AmilImani.com.