Is Our Brain Chemistry the Difference Between Religious Saint and Violent Monster? December 10, 2015

Is Our Brain Chemistry the Difference Between Religious Saint and Violent Monster?

Patrick McNamara, the director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine, has an interesting theory about brain chemistry and religion. It’s dopamine, McNamara says — the neurotransmitter known for exciting the reward center in our brain — that “drives the switch” between an extraordinary religious person becoming either a benevolent saint or a fanatical killer.

In an essay published over at Aeon (hat tip Dan Fincke), McNamara notes that

[B]ountiful dopamine has given rise to gifted leaders and peacemakers (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Catherine of Siena), innovators (Zoroaster), seers (the Buddha), warriors (Napoleon, Joan of Arc), teachers of whole civilizations (Confucius) and visionaries (Laozi). Some of them founded not only enduring religious traditions but also profoundly influenced the cultures and civilisations associated with those traditions.

Molecular image of dopamine

But dopamine-fuelled religion has also unleashed monsters: Jim Jones (the ‘minister’ who persuaded hundreds of his followers to commit suicide) and the cult Aum Shinrikyo, whose leader had his adherents release sarin gas in the subways of Japan. Think of the fanatic terrorists of al Qaeda, who gave their lives to attack New York’s twin towers and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001.

In the course of his research, McNamara found some intriguing answers that, he says, help explain the difference.

[T]he right arrangement of neural circuitry and chemistry could generate astonishingly creative and holy persons on the one hand, or profoundly delusional, even violent, fanatics on the other. To intensify the ‘god effect’ in people already attracted to religious ideas, my studies revealed, all we had to do was boost the activity of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, crucial for balanced emotion and thought, on the right side of the brain. But should dopamine spike too high, murderous impulses like terrorism and jihad could rear up instead. …

[R]eligion can produce both extraordinarily life-giving and generative human beings (holy men and women) and extraordinary monsters. The same mechanism that enhances our creativity — juicing up the right-sided limbic and prefrontal brain regions with dopamine — also opens us up to religious ideas and experience. But if these brain circuits are pushed too far, thinking becomes not merely divergent but outright deviant and psychotic.

It’s food for thought, and interesting to read about, but is it true? And what is the practical takeaway here? I’m a bit bothered by the idea that reducing human behavior to brain chemistry makes us little more than the sum of our physical parts. Rather than being God’s puppets, are we dangling helplessly on the strings of our personal brain biology? What happened to ethics and morality? McNamara’s theory seems to more or less let religious monsters off the hook, circumventing issues of personal responsibility and culpability and agency.

I certainly wouldn’t want to end up in a future where a Catholic child rapist or an Islamic terrorist — or even a run-of-the-mill murderer — can claim that “it was the dopamine that did it” and expect no sentence, or a decreased one.

What’s your take?

(Image via Shutterstock)


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