Seeking a Neurological Explanation Of Religious Fundamentalism

May 31st, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Articles, Neuroscience

Why some human beings react violently when their beliefs regarding deeply personal philosophical views are challenged, is a question that needs serious probing. Should it be considered merely an pathological form of behaviour neurologically speaking, or does it represent a social disorder on the lines of ‘culture bound syndromes’ ? Especially because such violent reactions like death threats or bodily harm, actually carried out or intended, is not known regarding beliefs in many other arenas of human thought.

Central to a neurological understanding of fundamentalism is is the concept of divergent thinking. Scientist and anthropology writer Jared Diamond, for instance, has written that diverging thinking is characteristic of early hominid species–the natural willingness to learn, adapt and innovate given their dissatisfaction with their current state. The same pattern of behaviour can be extended to adoption of worldviews and beliefs as new facts present themselves : humans commonly exhibiting diverging thinking leading to progressively updated worldviews. As Frank Zappa said : “Without deviation from the norm, ‘progress’ is not possible.”

I’m not altogether certain that a fundamentalism of necessity has to argue that it is the only reading of the human experience in order to stay alive.

Chaim Potok

For nearly 50 years it has been well known that patients the and experimental animals with frontal lobe injury demonstrate an odd incapacity–the inability to let go of things and ideas, called ‘adherence’. Professor Oliver Zangwill of Cambridge University provided clear evidence that damage to the frontal lobe produced defects in divergent reasoning. Can this finding be extended to adherents to religious dogma and the refusal to adapt one’s worldview in the face of reason? Perhaps orthodoxy and fundamentalism rely more on the older phylogenetic parts of the brain that are less suited for diverging thinking compared to our frontal lobes. The steadfast refusal to accept any alternative form of explanation for one’s worldview and the refusal to be tolerant of others almost certainly demonstrate adherent thinking.

This extends far beyond simply under-utilising one’s frontal lobe faculties of creativity and problem solving. In response to remaining a faithful to the patterns deeply ingrained in the phylogenetic lower parts of the brain, mechanisms like anger and hostility are soon triggered off in the defence of one’s psychological territory. On the brighter side, recent neurological evidence however does not suggest that adults cannot adapt and breakout from their habituated patterns and deeply ingrained thinking. There is mounting evidence that neural plasticity, the faculty of our brains to adapt to newer patterns of thinking and associations persists well into old age.

Does it mean however that convergent thinking has no use whatsoever? Far from it, it forms the basis of learned behaviours . it is beneficial in performing routine tasks that require adhering to protocols and and standards. The problem arises when convergent thinking tools are misapplied to the areas that require creativity. Most of today’s problems are complex, and and need for creative solutions and insights are crucial for the success of individual as well as groups. The application of ingrained, unquestioned facts and logic derived from outdated worldviews that were perhaps formulated centuries ago defines a lot of today’s fundamentalist mindsets.

There is evidence that children who are raised in environments which punish divergent thinking of in favour of strict adherence are likely to grow up to become adults who rigidly adhere to fundamentalist dogma and often outdated, irrational ideology. They become defenders of faith, often using brute force and threats, and rather than logic and reasoning. Almost certainly this is a form of a culturally induced neurological damage or perhaps the lack of development of frontal lobe functions that allow divergent creative thinking. The solution, although painfully obvious, is often difficult to implement in practice even through enforcing divergent curricula in our educational institutions. The a lot of this neurological conditioning happens in the earliest part of our lives, before we start school, and even afterwards through peer networks and other organisations.

It would however be naive to assume that such convergent mindsets leading to fundamentalism are limited to orthodox interpretations of religious traditions : in fact it also has been used in totalitarian states using universal programs popularly referred to as brainwashing.

Reference :

Donda, Russell S. and Heilman, Kenneth M. 2007. Neuroscience and Fundamentalism. Tikkun 22(5): 54.

Correspondence :

The Editor
Metta-Physics Magazine
Suite 34
67-68 Hatton Garden
London EC1N 8JY
United Kingdom

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3 Comments to “Seeking a Neurological Explanation Of Religious Fundamentalism”

  1. pkiler says:

    I have MANY Comments:

    Why do you visually associate Christianity as the Nutcases of Fundamentalism as discussed in this article.
    Isn’t there some other severely violent and prominent religious fundamentalists blowing themselves up and the public too in expression of their fundamentalism, that Christians aren’t?

    I object to the assumption of Evolution as the theory of Origin.

    If you are going to quote Chaim Potok, at least spell his name right.

    It does not seem that your reasoning in this matter considers the facts of the effects of Sin and the deception of Satan.

    • Editors says:

      Reply to pkiler :

      Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, christian or non-christian. The graphic is more relevant to the UK, the country of publication which has seen sectarian violence in the previous decades mainly related to Christianity. Of course fundamentalism is seen in nearly all forms of organized religion.

      Evolution is not a theory, it is a fact, based on every form of evidence known to mankind, and it is heartening to note that even the Vatican has declared evolution to be ‘compatible’ with Christian creationism.

      There are definitely huge gaps in our understanding of the origin of life applying evolution, but there is not a single shred of evidence that life did not evolve in mechanisms that are at least in part compatible with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. To confuse evolution with theories to account for evolution (e.g. natural selection) displays a lack of interest in understanding of commonly observable facts e.g. fossils and DNA homology etc.

      If you come up with a better theory than natural selection that explains evolution based on evidence , please let us know.

      Sin and Satan are theological concepts limited to the Judeo-Christian worldview, and have no place in a secular and universal spiritual landscape. To force it upon others who do not ‘believe’ in these concepts is fundamentalism. In an ideal world, people should be free to decide for themselves what to believe or not, based on evidence alone.

      Thanks for correcting the typo on Chaim Potok. We have amended it.


  2. Ron Scheurer says:

    Seeking a neurological reason for fundamentalism could be related to memory and how the brain stores, combines old and new information, updates those, and then is faced with retrieving a combined sensory image which is verbally expressed. Recall is akin to building a holographic picture based on all manner of sensory input, both vicarious and actual experience. Vicarious input tends to be the least reliable; in particular religious myths where the plausibility of literally interpreted stories is subject to doubt. The stories of science tend to be more plausible and less doubtful about a consensus reality.

    The problem then is how to dredge up buried misconceptions picked up and stored during the most formative years of brain development. Actual later experience coupled with some street level education might work for some but for the religious convert or fundamentalist, any story, plausible or not, about what happens after death may not jar them from irrational modes of thinking to a more rational line.

    A traumatic update may as likely shift an individual into an irrational mode as do the reverse. Bi-polar shifts of personality associated with short circuited recall, for instance. Inability to recall completely updated memory ‘holographs.’

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