This is something I’ve talked about before, but in a discussion today, plus reading an excellent article, I realized that there’s really no point in talking about or criticizing religion anymore. There’s no reason to attack Atheism+. There’s no purpose in talking about politics. In the end, the problems are all the same and the common kernel of irrationality is dogma.
Dogma is a general term for beliefs which are held, just because they exist, without evidence, without examination and without reason. Mostly, I’d argue, they are held emotionally, they provide a means of stroking the ego and because people want that release of “happy chemicals” in our brains. There are four of them, Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin and Endorphin. Each of them does a different job but they all share one thing in common, when they are released, they make us feel good. They make us happy. Many people, often unwittingly, get addicted to these “happy chemicals” and go out of their way to generate these happy feelings and can get into a chemical loop, repeating actions and beliefs which cause the brain to make us feel good.
Often, this backfires on us, the body becomes more resistant to the same old causes and this makes people unhappy. Sometimes, it can even cause pseudo-withdrawal symptoms as people, desperate for that emotional high, can’t get it without acting in a more and more extreme manner. The same is true of illicit drugs, it starts to take more of them to get the same reaction.
The brain isn’t fully formed at birth, it’s designed to make new connections as the individual learns. At age two, there really isn’t a well formed neural network, the electrochemical pathways are still being formed. By age 7, things have developed to such a degree that generally, we have a map of what the fully mature brain will be like. It isn’t until the individual is between 18-20 that the pattern is set and very difficult to change. This is exactly why religion wants to get their hooks into a child as early as possible, to make those neural pathways conducive to “happy chemical reactions” with regard to religious ideas.
Dopamine floods the brain when you feel successful. If you meet a goal, dopamine is released. If you make strides toward something important, you get a shot of dopamine. It’s not always a good thing though, it can reinforce some pretty bad habits as well. An alcoholic who sees a bar or a bottle of whiskey will get that jolt of dopamine too. The drug user who finds a new supplier is going to get a hit.
Serotonin gets released when you feel important. It’s an evolutionary advantage because importance promotes survival. Some people will overestimate their own importance in order to get that hit of Serotonin, they’ll become convinced that they are better than they actually are, that others think more of them than they actually do.
Oxytocin makes you feel great when you’re with someone you trust or in a situation that feels safe. It does this because positive social interaction promotes survival. Unfortunately, some people will convince themselves that they really trust people who they shouldn’t trust, and that people trust them that really do not, just to get that dose of happy.
Endorphins give you that brief blast of euphoria that masks physical pain. If you get injured, you’ll get hit with endorphins that allow you to work through the pain. Some people, however, in order to get that high, will purposely injure themselves, sometimes in religious rituals and describe the resulting euphoria as a religious experience. It’s just brain chemistry.
Certainly, religion can cause these chemical highs and are likely responsible for the majority of religious experiences, where people describe feeling happy and content and in an altered state of consciousness. However, atheists sometimes do the exact same thing, there are some that become supremely convinced in their own superiority to the religious just to get a Serotonin jolt. The more superior they feel, the more their brain releases “happy” chemicals. Humanity is not naturally rational, we do not naturally think critically, our brains are really a mish-mash of evolutionary kludges. While we have few natural predators, our brains are still programmed to search for them and the most absurd “dangers” can set us off. Our brains are programmed to seek out patterns that may help us find food and shelter and avoid danger, this is called pareidolia and is the same thing that causes us to see patterns in the clouds, and that causes theists to see Jesus on toast. These things are hard-wired into our brains because our brains developed and grew from very primitive to very advanced. The idea that any supreme being created our brains from nothing is utterly absurd. Any knowledge whatsoever of brain chemistry and composition disproves that entirely.
One thing that we need to recognize is that as we became smart apes, as we moved from a dumb animal to a smart one, we gained the ability to override our primitive instincts. We can decide not to believe the things that our amygdala is telling us, we can understand that the shapes we see in the sky or the sounds we hear in the night aren’t danger, they are something else entirely. That’s why we have to develop our rationality and critical thinking skills because so much of what we have in our heads that was once useful for our survival, now gives us bad information, or at least potentially bad information if we let it. Just as we have to question what happens in the world around us, we have to be aware that the world inside of us, the picture that we get from our senses and modeled inside of our brains, may not give us a perfectly accurate representation. We have to understand it, we have to allow for it and we have to adjust for it. We cannot be a simple slave to our biology any longer, especially if we hope to get a truly accurate picture of our world and our place within it.
Granted, I’m not going to stop pointing out the insanity of religion, politics or other forms of irrationality because if I just talked about dogma, nobody would know what to make of it. I just think it’s important to realize that the craziness in the world really has a collective cause and we all need to recognize how it affects all of these positions. It is imperative that we, as critical thinking, rational and intellectual individuals, be aware of our potential shortcomings and over-ride our feelings if those feelings seem to be giving us an improper view of reality. So many people just go with the flow. That’s why they turn to religion. That’s why they turn to conspiracy theories. That’s why they turn to unhealthy views about the world around them. We need to teach people not only how to think rationally about the world, but how to ensure that they aren’t fooled by millions of years of evolution that just isn’t all that useful anymore.
It’s not just religion. It’s brain chemistry.