SISODIYA: The Origin of Our Religious Systems
Mental Musings

Regardless of one’s political and social views, it is safe to say that religion still plays a large role in today’s world. With numerous religious student organizations, chaplains and the Office of Campus Ministry, religious and spiritual life at Georgetown is certainly thriving.

What is particularly interesting about religion is its often irrevocable connection to the human condition, perhaps because it attempts to explain where we came from and what our purpose in life ought to be. Unfortunately, in the midst of all these interesting philosophical questions, another thought-provoking issue is often ignored: Where did religion come from?

Evolutionary scientists have found this question deeply compelling. Some believe the rise of early religions stems from environmental interactions. Others attribute it to the theory of mind, which assumes that as early humans speculated what others may do to them — such as whether a fellow caveman was planning to kill or befriend them — our ancestors began to assign agency to the unexplained.

This may have been a source of animistic religions, where phenomena such as rain, winters and floods would be assigned to supernatural beings with specific good or bad intentions. It is not surprising to see remnants of these beliefs in our culture today, including our annual festivals celebrating the seasons or lunar cycles.

These theories may serve as a good starting point. However, researchers tend to attribute the advent of religion as a result of group adaptation. As societies advanced both technologically and economically, simple religious concepts generally evolved with more structure and hierarchical organization. Religions acted as organizers of society and, as New York University professor of ethical leadership Jonathan Haidt’s research indicates, groups with religions tend to be better off and more structurally organized.

But what explains the intense religious experiences that many across the ages have experienced, whether they be miracles or divine wisdom? University of California at Los Angeles professor Vilayanur Ramachandran has done extensive research on the brain and has discovered that seizures in the left temporal lobe often lead to deeply spiritual experiences among patients. Temporal lobe epilepsy results in seizures that entail irregular bursts of neural activity in the areas that integrates sensory information among various modalities, including spatial sense and navigation.

One of Ramachandran’s subjects, John Sharon, who has been an atheist his entire life, was hit by such seizures and reported feeling as though a divine presence visited him. He described: “I can actually get people to follow me. I am so right in my head, I know I can get people out there to follow me … it’s a gift from the gods.” The fact that such experiences occur in the brain just due to the stimulation of the appropriate sensory areas and amygdala, the center of emotional activity, challenges a huge body of religious doctrine by suggesting that our spiritual lives are internally derived rather than the direct result of an external force.

To think that all the historical events that occurred due to religion may have occurred due to an distant evolutionary or behavioral change is hard to imagine. It is quite thought-provoking to wonder whether these specific religions arose out of adaptations of the mind or survived because they eventually served pragmatic purposes to society. Such questions, however, can only be solved with a further examination of our own evolution and our dynamic adaptations of behavior over the eons of history.

Sudhanshu Sisodiya is a freshman in the College. Mental Musings appears every other Tuesday.

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  1. That was an excellent critique of leading theory of religion proposals, especially in such a short space. Particularly insightful was the complete lack of a theory that accounts for the clear-cut brain changes that happen during religious experience and an evolutionary reason to go with it. For exactly such an explanation, take a look at ​
    You will know within 10 paragraphs or so where it’s going and if it leans on a scientific basis.

  2. A couple of days ago I left a comment that had a kind of solicitation in it so was appropriately rejected, but my purpose was not to have the comment posted as much as to alert the author of this essay to be aware of an important idea that directly addresses his musings. I hope he was alerted to my website so he can decide for himself as to the applicability of my ideas to his question of the origin of religion.

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