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Can Neuroscience Cure People of Faith in God? What about Faith in Neuroscience?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Is religious fundamentalism a form of mental illness? That’s what Kathleen Taylor, a researcher at the University of Oxford and author of three books on neuroscience, suggested this week, according to Huffington Post. In the future, Taylor said, brain researchers may learn so much about the neural basis of fundamentalism that they can cure people of it.

“Someone who has for example become radicalized to a cult ideology–we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance,” Taylor explained. “In many ways it could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage.”

What an intriguing idea! The mission of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative should perhaps be expanded to include elimination of evangelical Christianity, especially when coupled with membership in the Tea Party. But why stop with wacky religious and political convictions? There are lots of other irrational beliefs out there that science should try to cure people of. Some examples:

Belief that string theory and multiverses are legitimate scientific propositions and not just science fiction with equations. Belief that snazzy new mathematical models running on ever more powerful computers will help the social sciences become as rigorous as nuclear physics. Belief that evolutionary psychology represents psychology’s final, triumphant paradigm instead of just another fad. Belief that behavioral genetics will soon transcend its embarrassing record of bogus claims—the gay gene, God gene, warrior gene, high-IQ gene, and so on–and become a credible field. Belief that drugs like SSRIs represent a huge advance over psychoanalysis and other “talking cures” for mental illness. Belief that humanity is headed toward a Singularity, when we all turn into software and live happily ever after in cyberspace.

Finally, wouldn’t it be nice if neuroscience could cure people of irrational, excessive faith in neuroscience?

Photo: http://bonosrama.newsvine.com/

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Chryses 4:18 pm 06/1/2013

    “… In the future, Taylor said, brain researchers may learn so much about the neural basis of fundamentalism that they can cure people of it … Finally, wouldn’t it be nice if neuroscience could cure people of irrational, excessive faith in neuroscience?”

    Robert Heinlein wrote about just such a dystopian future in his Future History stories back in the 1950s, I believe.

    Fortunately, it will be a long, long time before neuroscience will be able to “cure” anyone of anything.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Neuro123 5:07 pm 06/1/2013

    John,
    You may be right to criticize the study mentioned in the Huffington Post.
    However, you have a degree in journalism, so you are underqualified to judge the merits of string theory.
    Nor is it fair to ridicule an entire field like behavioral genetics based on a few studies that made the news.

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  3. 3. porovaara 5:51 pm 06/1/2013

    The faith one has in a scientific process is because that process can be reproduced by others and still have the same results. The rest of your piece is just an assortment of logical fallacies and covering them all would be larger than the very content itself! If you are truly a teacher at an institute for technology, I feel very wary for your students, because you do do not know science and our current technological progresses are all based in science.

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  4. 4. gesimsek 6:31 pm 06/1/2013

    Speaking of curing our mentality, someone should start to think about the fact that after living thousands of years with religious beliefs, how come we now talk about the man made collapse of human civilization despite the fact that we got rid of unscientific world view of so-called backward mentality

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  5. 5. IncredibleMouse 6:54 pm 06/1/2013

    I’m not qualified to blather on about this topic, however, being that life is short, I’ll give it a go.

    I can read up on string theory, knowing in advance it’s not a fact or a “Theory”, and in the process I’ll be forced to expand my knowledge in so many different fields of math and science that I would be better for it. I could take it further, and even decide to believe in it’s likelihood of eventual proof. However, I doubt I’ll start rejecting vaccines, become a raging misogynist, or merely pray for cancer to be magically eradicated from my child.

    I can learn and contribute to the studies in evolutionary psychology to help progress the field, and it may even be because I passionately believe it’s a worthy topic. However, I doubt I’ll start buying assault rifles because I worry that Obama is literally the anti-christ, or prevent LGBT marriage because it’s “wrong”, or insist that life-saving condoms are sinful.

    You’re right, there are many crazy ideas, crazy beliefs, and science that eventually proves to be wrong. The big difference is that science has a proven track record of tossing out the trash, recognizing what isn’t working, and bearing productive fruit from what does.

    I tend to notice a massive gap between scientists who strongly “believe” they “might” be right about a yet-proven topic and is willing to bet 10 dollars on it, and the theistic fundamentalist who “knows” purely by faith, and bets the life of his child.

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  6. 6. macwriter 8:42 pm 06/1/2013

    I’m having trouble sorting what’s sarcasm and what’s straight opinion in this story… so I’ll add to the confusion with a few lines from Brad Paisley’s new song… “Crazy Christians” (gotta hear the whole song to truly appreciate but this does get at the heart of it)…

    Those crazy Christians, go and jump on some airplane
    And fly to Africa or Haiti,
    risk their lives in Jesus’ name
    No, they ain’t the late night party kind
    They curse the devil’s whiskey
    while they drink the Savior’s wine

    They look to heaven their whole life
    And I think what if they’re wrong
    but what if they’re right
    You know it’s funny, much as I’m baffled by it all
    If I ever really needed help,
    well you know who I’d call
    Is those crazy Christians

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  7. 7. Vanamali 8:47 pm 06/1/2013

    Yes I would concur that people are definitely brainwashed. People who have never begged for anything, always paid for everything they took, earned every penny in their lives, now are ready to beg & grovel down on thier knees to gain admittance to the easy life?
    People who insist that when one makes a mistake, should stand tall, hold their heads high, accept the error, apologize & go make things right are now happy to beg & grovel their way out the back door? Not one thought about the victim?
    People clapping & praising the dear leader who in the next door is torturing, raping, sodomizing innocent people because they did not believe in him? Where are we? In North Korea? In Iraq under Saddam?
    People who live in a democracy, talk about freedom of religion belong to a religion that has never in its entire history respected any other religion, has killed & abused millions in its quest to gain more converts?
    In the 21st century, with all our education & intelligence, cave man religions rule the day – yes definitely brainwashed – have to hand it to religions though, what a job that they have done!

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  8. 8. paintbrush22 9:01 pm 06/1/2013

    This is a funny article. I agree with the author’s satirical sense of humor, and his fundamental perspective on such a ridiculous proposition. What a sad world we live in; just live and let live, and stop trying to intellectualize faith! I love science, but this is just too much.

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  9. 9. DuFarle 9:23 pm 06/1/2013

    There was a discussion among psychiatrists of wither to administer a drug that would make patients completely forget their PTSD. Psychiatrists decided against it. If I may relate the story of Ste. Bernadette who went to St. John the Iron and told him she had experienced something but she didn’t know what it was. She saw blue. St John told her it was miracle. Bernadette went on to found an order of nuns. I investigated further and found that besides seeing blue, she reported peripheral neuropathy and burning in her belly. Dollars to doughnuts it was ergot poisoning — LSD. It was not the event but the outcome. Our greatest humorists, clowns and comics have had horrid lives. There have been, historically, as many if not more, horrors in the name of science as that of faith. e.g. Darwin was the “reason” for eugenics and adopted by the Nazi Party. But faith as a mental illness is limiting of the wonders and beauty of humanity. Science and religion are both processes not mechanical classifications. As was said “The Blblos Vulgarum is a guide to heaven not how heaven works.”

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  10. 10. refreshinglylogical 9:25 pm 06/1/2013

    Having a religion is not a mental illness if the person has not had access to the current knowledge base. Yes, we now have overwhelming reproducible proof that there is no God, but not everyone has access to the data or the equipment to redo the experiments or the documentation form actual sites. For instance, if someone lived in the time before Magellan circled the earth, it would not be a mental illness to believe the earth is flat. Before we had lenses that allowed us to see germs, someone would not be mentally ill to think that a sick person should be hung upside down with his finger tips cuts, to allow the blood and evil spirits to flow out. The only way someone today would be mentally ill is to have access to current information but not allow himself to accept that he could have been so easily fooled all his life into thinking that fairy tales made up to explain wind and seasonal fruit, were real.

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  11. 11. avanterware 9:56 pm 06/1/2013

    First of all: what is the faith?
    We cannot combat what we don’t know.
    Eg: that my mother loves me, is just by faith. Do you know the theoreme of this?
    So, if you build a drug to cure this illness, you will open the Pandora box.
    May be you can know the drugs that the brain produces when we love, when we prey, but no what starts the process.
    There is a theory that says that the brain is just like a computer, and the spirit the user. So, if you cut a driver, a port, … The user cannot do all what he wants, but he will keep his wish of doing.
    English is not my first language, Sorry.

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  12. 12. DickBird 10:07 pm 06/1/2013

    I sense sarcasm

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  13. 13. macwriter 10:11 pm 06/1/2013

    When neuroscience can even begin to make even half a dent in pride, selfishness and greed, then maybe, just maybe it would be .005% as effective as Christianity in reforming the individual.

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  14. 14. milski 10:26 pm 06/1/2013

    Believing in Science(they contradicting each other, they can’t be both right), Believing in God(they contradicting each other too) Protecting your property (intellectual or physical), not a mental illness.

    Killing somebody for it or blowing yourself up, mental illness. Not all people will kill for faith or science, but some of them do. Some doctor test dangerous new drugs on human. People blow themselves up for faith, you have seen in it news. Those people need help.

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  15. 15. caseymills 10:31 pm 06/1/2013

    They propose, Curing some one who believes in God like its an illness?? –
    Yet its not ok to cure someone of being Homosexual.
    Sounds Double Standard to me, wouldn’t both fall under Belief(Even tho I dont Condone Homosexuality) How can Society wish to Cure one and not the Other, and in attempting to do so, what else will they deem needs Curing… Our Thoughts, which is what this kinda boils down to.

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  16. 16. adc50 11:11 pm 06/1/2013

    I’m waiting for someone to invent a pill to cure American literalism. That would cure all faiths, scientific and otherwise . . .

    If it was tailored for readers of Scientific American blog postings, even better . . .

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  17. 17. Percival 11:25 pm 06/1/2013

    I have to admit being somewhat puzzled about the point of this article. First, is there any other kind of faith than “irrational”?

    As to your list, the main difference between it and fundamentalism is that all the listed items are (or will be as soon as they produce testable predictions) subject to the scientific method, specifically the bit about falsifiability.

    Fundamentalism of any kind is by definition not falsifiable.

    Look, the “faithful” have no faith in science for one simple reason; science is constantly discovering, and publishing, where it went wrong. Science is a work in progress but faiths are finished products that admit if no possibility of error.

    By a strange asymmetry, the different sciences have more faith in each others results than do different faiths have in each other.

    If nothing else, that teaches me to have more faith in science than in faith.

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  18. 18. amaradosvazlaumeisus 12:03 am 06/2/2013

    For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He catches the wise in their own craftiness ; and again, The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile. Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to comeall are yours. And you are Christs, and Christ is Gods. 1 Corinthians 3,19

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  19. 19. Dawn737 12:21 am 06/2/2013

    This is probably one of the most entertaining articles I’ve read online, partially because I appreciate the author’s sense of humor and sarcastic (not to mention spot on) assessment of junk science. Yes, the difference between science and religion is that science can be tested and proven, and we hope that inaccurate theories will eventually be thrown out, but the real question is whether the “professionals” in certain “scientific” fields will ever allow their theories to be disproven. When so-called scientists aim more to force data to fit their pre-existing notions, rather than designing unbiased studies to discover what nature truly holds, then their science becomes no better than another religion.

    As for a possible cure for fundamentalism, psychologists already struggle with the difficulties inherent in treating people who don’t believe they have a mental illness. Also, there is a great deal of difference between a belief based on hallucinations and one based on a lack of education. However, some research has indicated that conservatives have larger amygdalas than liberals, which implies that an anti-anxiety medication might relax their political positions. If this is the case, it might also relax their tendency towards religious fundamentalism. Because some countries have many religious fundamentalists and other countries have few, it seems that environmental conditions probably influence this state of mind more than physiological ones. Most fundamentalists seem to share a social disease rather than a mental illness – the society that nurtures it is more ill than the individual who suffers as a result.

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  20. 20. carjack55 2:44 am 06/2/2013

    Most xlnt blog…short and pointless.

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  21. 21. Dignified Gangster 6:33 am 06/2/2013

    While I’m with Mr. Horgan in opposing Kathleen Taylor’s proposal as it’s presented in the article, the rest of the article seems to be the product a deep lack of understanding as to what science and faith are and how they differ, as well as a failure to distinguish among what science claims, what individual scientists claim, and what the media claims science says.

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  22. 22. kwdayboise 2:48 pm 06/2/2013

    I’d be happy if we could just find the switch that makes us compulsively want to alter or destroy everyone unlike us, whether they be fundamentalists or PhDs with to much time on their hands.

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  23. 23. tuned 3:16 pm 06/2/2013

    The most needful “cure” is from the HIGH RISK lifestyle of the LGBT and the “hook-up” straights which began to emulate them starting in the ’60s.
    The conflagration of AIDS/HIV, hepatitis, meningitis, TB, STDs, etc. has killed tens of millions. Killed millions of children with agonizing diseases for no more reason than groin worship.
    1 heroic generation of abstainers (until in a long term monogamous relationship) can eliminate most of such diseases with NO medical cost.
    That is pure logical scientific truth.

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  24. 24. emts12 6:46 pm 06/2/2013

    I could not agree more with Neuro123′s comments.

    why do you bother to write for Scientific American in the first place?

    I understand other scientists questioning various theories — but this isn’t ‘conspiracy forum’ and neither are some of the ideas you ridicule.

    I don’t believe everything I read and certainly I take theories proposed but not proven with a grain of salt. Maybe you should calm down and do the same.

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  25. 25. N49th 8:23 pm 06/2/2013

    Cure? I thought scientificamerican was about busting through theories. Instead, I see old arguments getting reinforced. Bloody hell.

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  26. 26. syzygy 12:03 am 06/3/2013

    Folks, if you read this blogger, the joke is on you.

    Link to this
  27. 27. rshoff 12:28 pm 06/3/2013

    Lol… “Faith in Science” is an oxymoron. You have ‘faith’ in something that is not provable. i.e., God. Science is the study of, well, reality. Ugh!

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  28. 28. rshoff 12:32 pm 06/3/2013

    sysygy, well, you’ve got a point. But I think the blogger is usually making a point in a way to jolt us out of our mundane thinking. Maybe to energize the conversation. Maybe just for entertainment. So the joke is on us, but the dialog flows… In that dialog perhaps there are hidden gems.

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  29. 29. gnagy 6:35 pm 06/3/2013

    Kathleen Taylor is the one with a “mental sickness.”

    What utter nonsense demeaning belief of others.

    Read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything” to discover the chicanery, lies, theft—even murder in the so-called “sciences.”

    You need more faith in science than in idolatry.

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  30. 30. gnagy 8:30 pm 06/3/2013

    BTW Psychiatry has just bowed out of being called a science and joined anthropology as a non-science.

    Other “sciences” will be joining them soon.

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  31. 31. syzygy 9:28 pm 06/3/2013

    rshoff,

    You have a positive attitude.

    Always look on the bright side of life.

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  32. 32. ErinneTheAuthor 6:11 am 06/4/2013

    “[Religion] allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.”

    Delusional thinking is just that, delusional. Because it’s wrapped in a “Holy Book” doesn’t make it less so.

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  33. 33. ErinneTheAuthor 6:12 am 06/4/2013

    Sorry, forgot to add the original author of the quote and didn’t see any way to edit it. It’s from Sam Harris.

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  34. 34. syzygy 11:07 am 06/4/2013

    Erinne,

    Anthropophagy doesn’t seem that appealing in either case, not even with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

    Link to this
  35. 35. gmperkins 4:05 pm 06/5/2013

    Your string and multi-verse examples are exceptionally poignant, ‘theories’ that are, in fact, extremely tenuous hypothesis, yet thrown about as if they have already been proven.

    Great point and as otehrs have said, have already been ‘forewarned’ by many a sci-fi story. Makes me think of a good quote “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t. Watson, Lyall” Supported by Goedel’s proof that it takes a meta-system to understand a system.

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  36. 36. jgrosay 2:43 pm 06/6/2013

    I’d say there’s something misleading just from the title of this article, I won’t enter the subject that ‘being cured of faith’ is insultant for many people that give Religion the value it has, but ‘faith’ at least in the first Christian texts, is not endorsing as true a fact that others would consider false or won’t consider at all, but ‘Faith’ is knowing mankind are created beings, that we are absolutely inferior to the Creator, and that we must adjust to the concept ‘Thy will be done’; this is different from considering a thing as true, and the NT says: ‘devils also believe -they know the truth- but it serves them just to start trembling’. ‘Faith’ means submission or obedience, and of course, it can’t be nothing different from a free choice.

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  37. 37. wordmuse 3:41 pm 06/6/2013

    The idea that religion is a mental illness is itself one born of mental illness, or at least bone-headedness. Substitute the word cosmology for religion and you now put everyone under the same terminology. We all have cosmologies – ideas about gods, origins, creation, etc. All of these comprise stories that we either believe or don’t believe for whatever reasons we may have. In America, at least, one presumably has the First Amendment right to speak as one wishes. But to do this, we must be FREE TO THINK as we wish.

    What might make me feel better about this proposal would be if the good neuroscientist would put up $1million in an escrow account, payable to something like the Red Cross or Wounded Warriors. The condition of payment would be that she perform a pilot study on say 10,000 – mmm – “volunteers”, and that she “cure” them of their cosmology and gives them a new one. If, 10 years later, they are statistically more successful, (yet to be defined) happier (yet to be defined), less violent, and more creative/innovative (yet to be defined), she gets to keep her money. If not, she forfeits it.

    Put some skin in the game and maybe you can make a case; otherwise, you’ve got nothing.

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  38. 38. bucketofsquid 5:51 pm 06/21/2013

    @refreshinglylogical – Since deity is non-falsifiable your assumption that we have proof he doesn’t exist is nothing more than an idle postulate and not even a real hypothesis. You seem to be one of the atheist religious fanatics. Your religion is no better than mine and has no more real proof than mine.

    While I don’t view God as “an old man that lives in the sky”, I have yet to see anything that proves any more than that we don’t really know where existence came from or why it is. Even the supposed “natural laws” of physics don’t actually work to explain much beyond high level observation. Quantum physicists are frustrated by the Higgs Bosun not behaving as expected.

    By the way, for everyone – fundamentalism simply means “primarily concerned with the basics”. Grade school teachers are fundamentalists as are quantum physicists and the people who pour footings for buildings.
    A much better term to use in regards to religious fanatics would be “religious fanatics”.

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  39. 39. postfuture 2:05 pm 06/23/2013

    @Chryses – in soviet union they put many religious people in mental hospital and jail. in 30s they were send to gulag and executed. here recently amish was put to jail for 15 years for hair cutting – look on google for more info. so ‘such a dystopian future’ can arrive any time. justification can be different but result the same.

    Link to this

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