Monday, December 12, 2016

Hardwired for religion?

I want to share two competing arguments about the influence that religious aspirations impose upon our neural networks. These do not prove the existence of religion or divinity. But they assert in overlapping analogies the human craving to find explanations in patterns, dreams, visions, yearnings.

In Quartz, Olivia Goldhill admits the shortcomings of a recent report on tests conducted on 19 people, but she finds the neuro-theological research encouraging. "The Neuroscience Argument that Religion Shaped the Very Structure of our Brains" cites Jonah Grafman: Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. 'As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,' he adds." Intriguingly, as religious activity takes up so many portions of activity in society, so in the brain. It's diffused, so no particular part generates this locus.

Anthropology is needed to expand this field, and Goldhill warns that it's too facile to generate brain scans as some solution to a very intricate underpinning of our ancient mindset. The manufacturing of empathy, however, appears to overlap with where we think about God, Grafman and colleagues aver.

Last night, reading far afield as a newcomer I explore the topic of the folkish vs. universalist inclusion in heathen and pagan European-centered fellowships, this metaphor intrigued me, speaking of wiring. I leave aside the medium and focus on the message. (From a controversial source. I choose not to have any pingback spark or interference occlude my discussion here.) This practitioner asserts, in my paraphrase, that the "European" native, pre-Christian path is the correct software. If "partly compatible" software is installed, it's akin to Buddhism. If it's "malicious," as with a "virus," it's liable to crash the internal drive, akin to Christian or Islamic teachings. Reboots may delay failure. But unless the system runs with the proper program, the computer will keep failing. "Desert" religions possess within this inherent flaw, as they originated within other cultures. Inevitably, there's one fix.

I've been mulling this over lately, as previous blog entries have shown. My sittings with others revolve around another model, that the dharma liberates all, as a therapeutic program rather than any revelation as if a supernatural imposition into human affairs. Part of me, personally if paradoxically, wonders why the desire among countercultural pagans and heathens requires a faith-based direction. One large stumbling-block is that these very terms are defined by the Christian opposition, those outside the permitted expression of belief and ritual labeled in late antiquity "hicks" in the "sticks."

As the egghead, I ask why, if we have evolved past slavery, cannibalism, the divine right of kings, and trepanation, some insist that the solution to our woes is a rejection of the secular humanist tradition that has tried to overcome our nastier and brutish tendencies. Unlike Saul, I reckon few of us turn Paul on some Damascene road, falling off a horse thanks to a call from on high. Or Luther's fear.

Is the more persistent if more low-key call for a return to the heart's pulse and the earth's embrace sufficient to heal our post-modern, consumer-driven, and market-based mentalities? Can we find solace in any old ways? Isn't the aspiration of no gods, no rulers a truer, anarchist expression of the potential within us to conquer the demons within? Or, is this trust in human perfection itself an ideologically suspect campaign? My wife isn't wired for religious quests as I am, for instance. She suspects what I sustain, if irrationally. I'll continue this investigation next post, adding perspective.

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