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Triune Brain, Triune Mind,

Triune Worldview

W. R. Klemm, Ph.D.

Brighton Publishing LLC

435 N. Harris Drive

Mesa, AZ 85203

Copyright © 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62183-525-7



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher or copyright owner.

Table of Contents



Chapter One: Conflict of Modernity and Religion

Chapter Two: Making Sense of Religion

Chapter Three: Why Brain Function Matters

Chapter Four: Brain Functions Affecting Religiosity

Chapter Five: Neuroscience May Lead to a 21st Century Religion


About the author

End Notes


"An outstanding book! A wonderful tour showing the interaction of the brain and religion. The book has a unique emphasis showing how neuroscience can enrich our understanding of the road map by which we travel on our existential journey of self-examination, personal growth, mental health, and, yes, even religious beliefs. Essential and important reading for anyone interested in the brain/religion relationship."

~Andrew Newberg

Professor of Emergency Medicine, Professor of Radiology, Thomas Jefferson University

Author of Neurotheology: How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality.


“This stimulating, provocative, and enlightening book gives a very positive view of the relation of neuroscienceto religion and the need for a revitalized approach to religious thought.”

~Keith Ward

Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus, Oxford University

Author of Religion in the Modern World


“There is a gap when it comes to good resources on the intersectionality of neuroscience and religion. But there is an even greater chasm of books on the interrelatedness of neuroscience, religion and mental health. Dr. Klemm fills thatgap effectively with his excellent book Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview. By opening up this important conversation, the author challenges the reader to recognize the dynamic interrelationship between our amazing brain, our beliefs and our mentalhealth if we are to live a truly fulfilled and happy life.”

~Kathy Winings, EdD

Professor of Religious Education, Unification Theological Seminary

President, Religious Education Association


Over the years, whenever I read something in magazines or newspapers that stirred my interest, I saved it in a folder. When I checked my folder on matters relating science and religion, I discovered that I have been thinking about writing this book for over 10 years. The proximate trigger to get on with it was the last five semesters of teaching an upper-division college course at Texas A&M University in "Neuroscience and Religion."1 I am indebted to the approximately 100 junior and senior college students who took my course in groups of about 20 in each of the last five years. This course, which had a pre-requisite of a didactic course on “Core Ideas in Neuroscience,” required students to find peer-reviewed scholarly reports, post on-line six essays showing how the two world views can inform each other, and comment on each other's essays on-line and in class discussions. I did no lecturing, but rather tried to conduct Socratic dialog. The students not only uncovered key research literature, but helped teach each other, and me, to think about these worldviews in an integrated fashion that few others have done.

The objective in the course is not to proselytize or promote agreement about religious ideas but rather to show how understanding of the brain and how we think and feel affect our views about religion. We seek spiritual enlightenment and growth. Both students and professor find it.

The students were top-drawer quality, mostly Biomedical Science majors who were going on to medical school, allied health professions, or science graduate school. The students found this experience exhilarating, and in some cases, life changing.

This teaching experience convinces me that college students are starving for a reasoned and mature faith. An indicator of student interest is that in each semester the enrollment cap is reached in both the essay and didactic courses within minutes after pre-registration opens. The classes have included Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and perhaps unidentified agnostics and atheists.


A main purpose of this book is to share what we have learned with a broader audience. Whatever value this book has in prompting new ways to think about existential issues, my students deserve much of the credit.

I also want to thank the adults who made helpful suggestions on early drafts of the book. This includes a group of academics in an adult Sunday school class (David Brooks, Don House, Alan McIntosh, Mike Workman), and Methodist minister, C. J. Stachursky.

Chapter One

Conflict of Modernity and Religion

In the fourth-century A.D., a highly literate young fellow lived the high life of self-indulgence and debauchery. Though raised by a Christian mother, as he matured and thought more for himself, he rejected her faith because it seemed so out of step with his great intellect, learning, and worldly experience. He was too sophisticated for her simple faith. However, because he was so smart and inquisitive, he realized how empty his self-centered life was. He thought life should have more meaning and value than what he was experiencing. He thus sought out the works of the great philosophers of his era, but these were not very satisfying either. He heard about the popular Manichean religious sect founded by an Iranian prophet. He became hooked by this religion. This sect taught in cosmic terms about the perpetual struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Manichaeism was a dominant religious philosophy between the third and seventh centuries.

This worldview obsessed the protagonist of this story, Augustine of Hippo in North Africa (354–430), for about nine years. Eventually, this simplistic notion of good and evil was not enough for Augustine, and his spiritual yearnings continued. He was becoming hooked on religion. The big problem Augustine had with Manichaeism was that it absolved humans of personal responsibility, claiming that demonic forces beyond our control ruled our behavior. Perhaps this is the origin of later ideas about predestination, which holds that our religiosity is pre-ordained and out of our control. In today's world, many secular scholars promote a secular version of Manichaeism, claiming that humans have no free will, and therefore are not responsible for misdeeds. Thus, "sin" loses meaning. Without sin, any kind of religion may seem irrelevant. Many of these scholars claim to be atheists. Many don't even know about Manichaeism and cannot realize how well it would fit their own worldview.

Augustine’s keen intellect led him to believe that he—and we—had conscious control over our choices and behavior and could will ourselves into a more righteous lifestyle. Augustine certainly did change his life dramatically, becoming a prominent Catholic Bishop and founder of much of that church’s doctrine that has lasted for centuries.

Augustine's story reflects the old adage, "A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” His yearning for the modernity of his time, being “hip” as we might say, initially proved inadequate. Only after years of reading and reflection did Augustine develop a reasoned and mature religion that developed doctrines that have lasted well over a thousand years.

In our era, the life of C. S. Lewis makes a similar point. In his later life, Lewis was a Christian literary icon and professor of English at both Oxford and Cambridge. Around age 15, he had abandoned the Christian faith that he had been hooked by in his childhood when he was in an English boarding school and then entered college two years later to pursue a life of the intellect. His increasing education, personal tragedies, and experiences as a trench soldier in WW I shattered his religious faith. In his youth, he indulged his sexuality and drank heavily. Later, at age 31, Lewis finally realized his learning had blinded him to the realization that he should not interpret Biblical fantasies and myths literally. He now saw a window through which he could see spiritual truths from new perspectives. Or, in his more elegant words, imagination and the Bible stories they spawn are "the organ of meaning," while "reason is the organ of truth." Now, he became hooked on religion. After his conversion, he wrote many famous books defending Christianity, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, which sold over 10 million copies and still sells over 100,000 copies each year.

These stories reflect two principles. One is that a little education, and the pseudo-sophistication that comes with that, can be a dangerous thing. These historical examples illustrate how learning and life as an intellectual can corrode and destroy religious faith. Yet, both biographies indicate that continuing a life of learning and the intellect may restore what was lost. The other point is that one can morph from being hooked by religion to become hooked on religion and become profoundly changed. This has happened to millions of people throughout the centuries. More common is for the hook of religion to sink in as a slow evolving process. Even those who are agnostic or atheist must face the choices involving religion at some point—often at many points—in their lives. Like the old vaudeville hook that dragged performers off the stage as their act floundered, religion grabs us by its hook and drags us off our life stage long enough to make us face its challenges, if only long enough to reject the call. Religion is existential. We must consider it, even if the ultimate choice is disbelief.

My own religious views initially formed by participation in Sunday school as an adolescent. These beliefs accompanied me through college and ever since, but I must admit that the more educated I became the more I doubted certain doctrines of my own Methodist faith and doubted with more certainty some doctrines that I learned were held by other faiths. Frankly, some of the ideas of others seem blatantly wrong to me. As I moved around the country as an adult, I did a lot of unsatisfying “church shopping” among various Protestant groups. People in those unsatisfying churches may think my views are wrong, perhaps even heretical. Well, we can’t all be all wrong or all right. We have the option to seek a more reasoned and mature religion as best we can.

Today’s “enlightened” secular culture presents us all with a dilemma more stark than what Augustine and Lewis faced. The advances of modern civilization continually marginalize religion. Education and literacy are widespread, and they sometimes seem to be the enemy of religious faith. The world’s knowledge can corrode and destroy religious faith. The point is more relevant today, in an age when so many young people go to a secular college and encounter the cognitive dissonance between the faith of their childhood and their new world of great learning. The college-age group has the lowest levels of church attendance (17%).2

These days, we have more and more educated people, and they seem more likely to run away from religion than to search for a more reasoned and mature faith. Secular humanism is displacing religion as the arbiter of truth and values. Yet we live in especially dire times. College students, for example, report higher levels of stress and anxiety than ever before. The average mental health state of college students is equivalent to the anxiety level of the average psychiatric patient in the fifties.3 Now may be the propitious time to seek a more reasoned and mature way to think about God and religious faith.4 A faith that does not nurture our mental health is not serving us well. Aye, there’s the rub. Some clerics hold that the purpose of faith is to serve God, not serve ourselves. Just how much help does an almighty God need for himself? God needs us to help others, and to do that well, we ourselves need to be mentally and spiritually whole.

Existential Questions

Everyone, at some point in life, has to ask certain existential questions. The answers are not obvious for such questions as

  • "Who am I?"

  • "Why am I here?

  • "What kind of person should I be?"

  • "What should I do with my life?"

  • “How can I be happy and fulfilled?”

  • “What happens when I die?”

Scientific materialism is the order of the day, and scientists are the high priests of nature. Little room exists for the non-material realities like the soul that religion assumes to exist. Even, it seems, there is little room among scientists for thinking there might be material realities that are hidden from us because our limited tools of research can’t detect them. The absence of evidence of hidden realities leads many to conclude they must not exist. Such close-mindedness not only impoverishes the way we think about ourselves but also how we think about science and religion.

It is hard, especially for scientists, to realize the existence of realities that they cannot see or measure. This was impressed on me when I recently visited a planetarium in which the audience and I viewed a map of the universe created by the Hubble space camera. The camera had taken many successive snapshots of the sky as it moved along its orbit, saving each adjacent shot side by side. The overall result, projected on the curved ceiling of the presentation hall, looks like a bow tie. If we did not know any better, we would think that the universe actually has this structure, with nothing outside the three-dimensional bow tie. The confusion arises if we don’t realize that the camera is located in the center of its horizon view. The camera’s horizon is constrained by its orbit. To get a better mapping, it would have to create maps from all points in all theoretical orbits around the earth.

The same principle applies to humans. Each of us is the center of the universe that our instruments or we are able to detect from whatever our current position is. We are wrong to think that there can be nothing outside of what we, or our instruments, can detect. This is not unlike the way people think metaphysically. Each of us is the center of our cognitive horizon. Our horizons are quite limited indeed.

Trying to deal with our limited capabilities can rapidly engender a headache. One objective should be to pursue what is achievable, that is, to nurture oneself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—helping others to do likewise. Whatever the answers to existential questions, they should come from a reasoned and mature approach. This issue is addressed by the statement of the apostle Paul, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child; I thought like a child; I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Paul thought religion should promote this approach. Apparently, this was not the case then, nor perhaps today.

Most of us think about religion at key points in life, as when we get married, have a child, witness or experience traumatic events, or face severe sickness and death. However, is that all religion is good for? It reminds me of the story of the ship captain in a storm so bad that the ship was in danger of sinking. All the sailors were praying desperately for God to save them from the raging storm. But not the Captain, who remained at the helm. One of his sailors asked him, "Why aren't you praying for us to be saved." The Captain said, "I pray when the sun shines, and the sea is calm. Now that I am needed, my job is to try to save this ship."

How can the rest of us be like that Captain? He integrated spiritual faith into his everyday life. I don’t mean to suggest that we should be obsessed with religious ideas and rituals. The goal is to let religious faith enrich our life in the here and now.

This leads to what I call a Triune Worldview, one in which three world views overlap and mutually inform each other (Figure 1.1). The worldview of neuroscience is my profession. This is the worldview of brain structure and function. Neuroscience is a relatively new integrated discipline that encompasses molecular biology, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, neurology, psychology, and psychiatry. Brains decide how we view and control our lives. The brain is programmable, but it can also program itself. Brains generate the imaginings and construction of the beliefs and creeds that constitute religion, the second worldview considered here.

Figure 1. A triune worldview. Interrelationships among neuroscience, religion, and mental health. Together, they can be the basis for a life of fulfillment and joy.

Another member of the Triune is mental health, which is inevitably entangled with the functions of brain and the ideology of religion. Mental health is the under-recognized concern of our times, when we are overwhelmed with more information than our brains can process, leading us to feel sometimes anxious, afraid, depressed, insecure, inadequate, and even helpless. We are the victims of and sometimes the perpetrators of such vices as selfishness, greed, envy, sloth, lust, cynicism, animosity, hypocrisy, denial, dishonesty, deception, distrust, anger, and neglect.

The worldview of religion emerges from brain function, and our religious choices program our brain to believe and act in specified ways. Mental illness can corrupt reasonable religious perspectives. Religious views and practices may aggravate mental illness or promote mental health.

The thesis here is that in the search for a happy and fulfilled life, we must look to all three worldviews. Most readers likely haven’t been taught much about neuroscience, and may not realize you need such knowledge to benefit everyday living. You might not be hooked on religion, or the religion you have leaves you confused and unsatisfied. However, your mental health hooks you, whether you realize it or not. Being hooked on improving your mental health will serve you well. Both neuroscience and religion can contribute to that.

I do not mean to suggest an equivalence of the three components in Figure 1. Nothing may be more important than religion’s focus on God and the immortal soul. On the other hand, there is value in emphasizing that each member of this triune can have profound reciprocal relationships with each of the others.

A triune theme recurs later in the book when we visit the idea of a Triune Brain, an oversimplified way to think of the brain as being constituted from our evolved reptile brain, the brain of primitive mammalian ancestors, and the brain of newly evolved primates, and when we explore the Triune Mind (conscious, unconscious, nonconscious).

What is the point of seeking a better understanding of these reciprocal relationships between neuroscience, religion, and mental health? The answer is that such understanding gives us more control over our lives and more opportunity to be happy and fulfilled. Sigmund Freud considered religious belief as a neurosis, whereas his notable nemesis, Carl Jung, held the more constructive view that a propensity for religious belief was one of several normal aspects of the human psyche. Thus, the relevant question is not whether to be religious or not, but to decide on the kind of religiosity to embrace. In the process, understanding yourself in terms of brain function, thought, and emotions will reveal how to have a better life.

Karl Marx condemned religion as the “opiate of the masses,” apparently not realizing that he just made the case that we should embrace religion, because it can give us the comfort and peace that earthly Communism never can. Becoming addicted to religion of the right kind can give us a lifetime of better bodily and mental health and provide meaning and purpose for a fulfilling life.

However, both brain function and religion can conspire to destroy happiness and fulfillment. Haven’t we all had times where even religious ideas caused angst, anxiety, despair, depression, pessimism, obsessions, and other negative feelings? Hasn’t religion often presented us with feelings of unworthiness, fear, condemnation, and defeat? Some people reject religion as irrational or unsatisfying in one or more ways. Atheists and agnostics reject religion in part because they do not see the benefits; their negative views of religious doctrines and practices obscure perception of religion’s benefits. Others support a particular religious group, but do so with troubling questions about what they should believe. The rational objective should be to understand religious belief and practice in ways that are helpful. The theme of this book is to show a way to modernize religion and enhance its crucial importance for creating a better life—in this world.

Cultural advance of religion has not progressed as much as secular culture. Some would say that is a good thing, because culture is degenerate in so many respects. A religion that is out of step with the general culture risks being irrelevant, and thus ignored or rejected, as is the case in many parts of the today's world.

After eight decades of living in a changing world, I find today that many of the cultural changes are too harmful to ignore. Here is what disturbs me:

1. Dismissiveness and cruelty to fellow humans.

2. Growing abandonment of truth and personal honor.

3. Coarsening of the culture.

4. Perversion of religious truths in the pursuit of personal and political agendas.

5. Declining support and participation in organized religion, which sometimes deserves it.

Even more disturbing is that so many others in religious organizations seem undisturbed. If religion is serving us so well, why do these problems seem so prevalent?

I organized this book to show the kind of knowledge of brain functions that is relevant to religion. Specific examples illustrate how applying knowledge of brain functions can improve our mental health and integrate with religion to make it more reasoned and mature. We will consider how this integration of neuroscience, mental health, and religion might promote evolution of religion toward a 21st Century religion. Without growth in religious belief and practice, religion may shrivel to become a historical relic of primitive culture.

Religion in Decline

Gallup and Pew polls reveal that atheists are a growing population in the U.S., and especially so in other countries, such as China, France, and Czech Republic. In Sweden, atheists now account for about 30% of the population. A 2015 Pew Survey revealed that the importance of religion to people varies enormously across the globe, ranging from 93% of the population in Ethiopia valuing religion highly to only 53% in the U.S. to a miniscule 3% in China. Think about the Chinese atheism. Many pundits project China to become the new world leader. Atheists in the European countries ranged from 28% in Poland, to 14% in France. PEW surveys in 2007 and 2014 indicate that fewer U.S. adults think religion is important in their life than those who say it is not important (39% in both years). The number claiming to be atheist or agnostic has grown from 25% to 31% between the two polls.5

Christian churches that we look to for reminders of loving our neighbors and even our enemies, are losing massive numbers of members. Here, according to, are some startling statistics on Christians in the U.S.:

  • Nearly 50% of Americans have no church home. It is much less in Europe.

  • There is an annual net loss of churches of 3,000.

  • Each year, 2.7 million members become inactive.

  • Between 1990-2000, church membership declined 9.5%, while population increased 11%.

  • Only China and India have more non-Christians than the U.S.

President Obama was chided for saying “We are no longer a Christian nation.” The data are on his side. Moreover, analysts predict that the percentage of Christians in the U.S. will decrease substantially over the next several decades.

The decline in religious affiliation in Europe and the U.S. seems especially evident with current adolescents.6 Many possible explanations exist: affluence, coarsening of the culture, breakdown of the family, sexual permissiveness, poor education, and ineffective recruiting of members to religious institutions. Loyalty to Catholicism will likely suffer in light of sexual scandals involving hundreds of priests. Paradoxically, the rise of religious fundamentalism, particularly among Evangelicals and Muslims, has driven God out of the minds of many people who regard those theologies as extreme. Many educated people, especially scholars and scientists, reject religion as unenlightened superstition.

Science, education, and cultural change are likely accelerating this loss of interest in religion. Scientists are conspicuously less committed to religion. A Pew poll in 2009 showed that only 33% of scientists believe in God, compared to 83% of the general public.7 Presumably, such disbelief occurs because scientists see no compelling evidence for God, and scientists are evidence-obsessive. Science seems to explain much of what others attribute to God. Paradoxically, scientists know that in their own scientific research absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Of the minority of scientists who believe in God, some are prominent advocates, such as Francis Collins, who led a team that mapped the human genome. Some believers are Nobel Laureates.8

The book, Religion vs. Science by Elaine Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle, includes survey results from elite scientists in a handful of premier U.S. universities. They discovered that less than half of those scientists believe in God. Only 9% are certain of God's existence, while some 60% of the public has that certainty. Some kind of religious affiliation is found in only 47% of scientists, while among the general public some 84% claim a religious affiliation. Only 2% of scientists are evangelicals, but 28% of the U.S. religious population is evangelical. Only Jewish scientists buck the trend: 16% of scientists are practicing Jews, while only 2% of the public is Jewish.

Highly educated people generally tend toward atheism. That is why schools and universities shove religion out of their curricula. Premier universities like Oxford and Cambridge were created as religious institutions, but that rationale is no longer honored.

As our society generally secularizes, we can expect that disbelief will become the norm. The next generation leads the way. A survey of 1,517 U. S. Generation Z youngsters, which includes today's teenagers, shows that this is the most atheistic generation, double the percentage of atheists in the general public.9 Though they don't know much about science, 55% of them say science conflicts with or is not relevant for the Bible. Part of the cause is that adult believers have told them that the only valid religious views are those found in the Bible. The survey also probed reasons for the atheism and found that the leading causes for disbelief were, in descending order:

  • An all-powerful God would not allow so much suffering and evil in the world.

  • Hypocrisy of believers.

  • Science refutes too much of what the Bible says.

  • They don't believe in fairy tales.

  • Christianity has committed too many injustices.

Nearly half of teens and millennials do not commit to belief. They refuse to believe because they insist on factual evidence. Oddly, these youngsters have little trouble believing gossip or political propaganda. Since religion cannot provide proof for God, and science does provide proof for its version of reality, you can see where we are going.

One reason for the decline in religion is that we are reluctant to teach religious ideas to children. The cliché and misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution, “separation of church and state” is the usual excuse for pushing religion out of public schools.

One of scientists mentioned by Ecklund's book, a physicist who had no religious identity, offered a defense of religion in the classroom, saying: "Getting students to talk about religion is an important part of their instruction in a university setting. It ought to be something that everybody talks about―personally and even professionally... that is our job―to get students to think and evaluate. Religion has to be a part of that―not just their own but other people's." Sadly, my college course in Neuroscience and Religion is apparently unique.

Ecklund is right of course. The teenage brain is in a process of re-wiring, forming connections that will sustain basic attitudes and beliefs for a lifetime. College presents freedom, temptations, and exposure to science that secularize youngsters, degrading their trust in the Sunday-school lessons of their childhood. Students may never develop a reasoned and mature religion if they are not exposed to it during this crucial narrow window of time in college.

A hopeful sign is that religious studies programs seem to be expanding in U.S. universities. In the past decade, the total number of religious studies majors has increased 40% in major public universities. It is crucial that these programs avoid endorsing obsolete religious views. Modern understanding of the world, particularly as regards science, should force some re-examination. Unfortunately, many religious leaders are not receptive to re-examination and often poorly informed of science. Science faculties could contribute to enlightened religious education, but scientists are not so-inclined. My experience is that the liberal arts faculty that run religious studies programs do not welcome science.

This book should give some assurance that it is okay to re-evaluate what religion teaches. Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," which by the way is the motto for my class. The hope is that these late-stage teenagers learn the value of such personal re-examination while it is still easier to do. A religion that cannot defend itself in the face of modern knowledge and reason needs serious challenge.

The purpose of this book is not to teach religion but to help readers understand the relationships of brain function, mental health, and religious thinking. For those who are open to it, faith can have reasoned justification from science. Yet, for all its demonstrated prowess, science has a negative image in many circles. For example, in Kevin Williamson’s critique of the “scientistic delusion,” he contends, “The world beyond science is not only religion, it is also art and literature, which have been in notable if predictable decline as our increasingly timid culture defers more desperately to white-coat-wearing figures of authority, demanding that they provide lab-tested, peer-reviewed, eternal answers to life’s every question.”10 Such anti-science bias makes science unwanted in the pulpit and among liberal arts college programs. Science would inform religion were it to be welcomed. One overlooked possibility comes from the central role that neuroscience plays in mental health. Mature religious understanding cannot occur in people with mental health problems.

I call for more open-mindedness among those biased against science and among those religious people who are intolerant of religions other than their own. Should such a climate develop, it would be easier for scientists to be more open-minded about religion. The emphasis here, however, is on self-examination of one's own religious beliefs. When, in the last chapter, I call for 21st Century religion, I mean that we all should embrace more reasoned and mature religious belief, one in which each person constructs a belief system that incorporates science and accommodates the good in other religions, while rejecting that which is unreasonable. Scriptures of all faiths say we should believe certain things and do certain things because “God says so.” How can we be so sure what God says? In addition, there is not enough emphasis on the why and how of what God likely intends, which is something neuroscience can help provide.

Chapter Two

Making Sense of Religion

All throughout human history, we find evidence that humans have had some kind of belief about a higher being, a creator or team of creators. Perhaps the reasoning, especially in primitive societies, was wonderment over the stars, the earth, the plants, the animals, and of course the fellow humans. How did all this come into being? This is an obvious question that any sentient being is bound to ask at some point. The assumption was, and still is, that the arrow of time must have begun when none of these things existed. They came into being. Something or someone had to do the creating. Logic says that you can’t create something from nothing. So we imagine a creator God. But who or what created God? The whole thing seems irresolvable by reason. Faith supplies what science and reason cannot.

To a primitive mind, steeped in the daily experience that humans create things, a notion naturally occurs that some human-like superior being created our surroundings and us. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, popularized the idea of prevenient grace, the notion that humans have an innate desire to know and worship the creator God. This desire and searching can fulfill our existence, and thus be emotionally rewarding. Wesley could have couched these ideas in terms of the brain’s reward circuitry, but he was a preacher, not a scientist. Also, in his time, nobody knew about the biology of belief or the dopaminergic reward system of the brain through which the brain regards religious ideas to be appealing.

With the modern scientific worldview of quantum mechanics, a new vision of creation has emerged that seemingly does not require a creator God. However, isn’t the God of scripture also the God of the laws of nature? Physicists like to reflect on creation as arising from the "Big Bang," wherein the universe was created when a super-condensed ball of mass became so compressed and dense that it exploded, spewing stars throughout the vacuum of space, which in turn created dust clouds that condensed into planets. This view is hard to refute on any scientific grounds. However, the issue remains as to what caused the original condensed ball of mass. We must add the unresolved set of questions on what created the laws of physics and chemistry that gave rise to the original ball of mass and to the forces of nature that organize particulate matter into atoms and molecules. Life, even of microbes and plants, is still harder to explain.

Humans Feel a Need for Religion

Even atheists and agnostics think we have to consider religious questions, if only to end up in disbelief. Humans try to use science to explain the mysteries of life. When evidence is incomplete or absent, the brain constructs meaningful responses as best it can. This may be the motivation for humans to create religion. Consider ancient Egyptians. They saw the sun come up in the morning and set in the evening. The cycle was dependable, so some unknown force must control it. So why not think that the control comes from supernatural forces—a god. Actually, they liked the idea of two gods, Horus and Seth. The rising and setting reflected a daily battle between the two gods. People worshipped the sun gods, because they needed the sun to come up every day, and appeasing the sun god with gifts and praise was their way of serving this god.11 Other generations constructed an array of supernatural gods. Because options exist, we feel compelled to make a choice of what we think is the best option. At crucial points in real life when we are hooked off our life stage, we confront existential questions (Figure. 2).

Figure 2. Diagram of the existential questions every person must make at one or more times in life. Neuroscience is particularly relevant to questions of personal standards and goals and how one needs to spend a lifetime in achieving personal expectations.

The key element in Figure 2 is the question, “What kind of person should I be?” Everybody, believer, agnostic, or atheist, has to address this question. Believers in God must draw some conclusions about what God must be like, because that determines your idea of what God would expect you to become and how your failures would be judged. When we then accept a set of what we think are God's standards, our being hooked by religion changes us to become hooked on religion. The relevance of neuroscience to the last two questions in Figure 2 will become evident as we progress through the ideas in this book.

Even if an individual rejects all notion of God, the collective society wants and needs some kind of religion. Religion hooks society, or at least it was that way throughout most of history. Christian political writer, Peggy Shriver, made the point this way: "Religion is a 'binding together’ of our experiences of the world; it organizes life into a meaningful whole; it brings the adherent under a divine canopy with all the rest of creation. Religious faith points to a transcendent being around whom human life finds a home, a sense of purpose, a focus for adoration and service, a grounding for existence and value.”12 All history, even human prehistory, documents that people want a religion. What promoted the universality of religious impulse was when people saw gods as moralizing, setting standards and enforcing moral behavior that promoted group cohesion and welfare.13 The current trend away from religion in the U.S. and Europe does not prove that people have lost interest in spiritual matters. Maybe it just means they are dissatisfied with the options provided by organized religion.

Religions can provide emotional support for coping with life’s vicissitudes. Religious people are less prone to depression, less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, and even go to the dentist more often. They live longer, perhaps because they deal better with stress and take better care of themselves.

Religion not only provides ways to think about a creator God, but also can provide unique meaning to life. True, false religion gives false meaning, but the believer does not knowingly embrace a false-belief system. Another reason that some people seek religion is that they think it helps them to be happier and more fulfilled. Every sane person, even the nonbeliever, wants to be happy and fulfilled. Believers and atheists alike will not find happiness and fulfillment if they violate what historically been called natural law, which asserts that humans should act in ways that serve the interests of their tribe and species (Figure 3). To the historical understanding of natural law, moderns must add the laws of science.

Figure 3. To become happy and fulfilled, the wise person strives to obey natural law. Religious people must also strive to obey God’s law, as they are able to understand it.

Why do some people believe in God and others can't or won't? A definitive answer eludes us. The modern age presents unique obstacles to faith, in particular modernity and the explosion of scientific discoveries that challenge traditional religion. Postmodern philosophy also adds its own challenges.

The paradox of religion has always been and still is that it may bind us all together in compassion or fracture social structures into contentious sectarianism—even war. The problem arises not so much with religion as with human weakness. Humans are unique among species in that their most feared enemies are not another species but other human groups. Often, human groups congeal around shared religious beliefs, and religion is often part of the rationale for intolerance of out-groups.

How we think about God is deeply important, because it affects our choices of religious belief and choices about how we live our lives. Picture an early primate biped in Africa, living in a forest of many different kinds of animals, some of them looking and behaving somewhat as she does. She looks up at a huge blue sky and a bright sun. She sees clouds roll in with storms of rain, thunder, and lightning. Every evening, she sees the sun disappear and the sky becomes filled with innumerous stars and a bright moon that changes its shape every few days. What is such a person to think? "What is all this? Where did it all come from? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What controls these things? Is there a ‘who’ that created and controls all this?" At least four possibilities must have come to mind:

1. Things just are and always have been. That explains nothing.

2. Something must have created and is controlling all this. Gods perhaps.

3. These gods are wrathful, are to be feared, and must be appeased.

4. These gods love their creation, love us, and we must worship and serve them.

All these possibilities might have seemed valid, but not equally valid. There is also the question of whether there are multiple gods or just one God. Those early Africans, and all of us who followed, make a choice among the options. We have no way to prove the correct view. We only have a choice of which view to hold, but the opportunity to change the choice always exists. Let us analyze the optional beliefs:

1. If there is no God, then we have no hope beyond death. We are like any other animal, except smarter. We have to find life meaning and purpose in some way that is independent of a nonexistent God. What difference would it make? Nothing we think or do really matters except as it gratifies our physical and emotional needs. Is such selfishness the point of living? If everybody were totally selfish, what would happen to society? What point would unselfishness have, except to gain favor among our peers, which itself is a selfish goal? As all people like Augustine and C. S. Lewis eventually discover, living for oneself makes us vulnerable to disappointment, failure, impaired social relations, and a generally empty life. By thinking we live in a vast universe of meaninglessness, we doom ourselves to despair.

2. A God that is beyond space and time may likely have little interest or even ability to interact with lowly humans that live on one dinky planet among billions in the four-dimensional world of space and time. This could be the God of a multi-dimensional multi-verse that many physicists suppose exists beyond our reach. This God wound up the laws of chemistry and physics like a clock to let it run its course. This God is not accessible to humans and provides no opportunity to enrich human earthly existence.

3. A God of wrath seems to leap out of the pages of the Old Testament and of the Qur’an. We would naturally fear such a God, but have little reason for love or worship. Your chances of pleasing such a God are small. Why try? Why honor a god who is less righteous than you are? Who would want to spend an eternity with such a hateful and judgmental God? Such a God offers no promise of eternal bliss.

4. Maybe most people find comfort in believing in a God who cares for creation. If the God one believes in is caring, comforting, and supporting, beliefs give life more meaning and purpose, helps you cope with life's issues and problems, and empowers you to pursue happiness successfully. Is that so bad? Such belief can reduce stress, improve your health, and even improve sleep quality. Religion can reduce pain and suffering. Religion has an addictive component in that it is positively reinforcing for believers, and they engage in religious behavior to continue to receive such reinforcement. I see nothing wrong in valuing religion for the peace and comfort it can provide. Moreover, unlike opiates, addiction to religion does not damage your health and in fact can have stress reduction and healing effects.

Our idea of a loving God conforms to our own experience in the family. Parents love their children, even when they misbehave. Children may still love their parents even when they say they hate them because of the discipline. Conscientious adults take pains with their handiwork—the children they are molding into adults. Parents invest time and effort in their child-rearing activity. They sacrifice on behalf of their labor. Why would God be any different?

Prosocial Behavior

While all religions focus on individual righteousness and personal salvation, all religions also have a strong social engagement component. A study of an ethnically diverse population evaluated people's degree of religiosity and compared that with their level of engagement in social and civic activities. The more religious people were more socially engaged.14

The social attachment to others may correspondingly influence affiliating with God. Early childhood attachment experiences often shape religiosity. In a test of this point, questioning of adults about their early childhood experiences revealed a correlation with later religiosity. Those who had secure attachments to their primary caregiver during childhood were more likely to share the religiousness of their mothers. These people were more likely to think of God as loving and reassuring. Negatively attachment to their mothers tended to have opposite effects. Perhaps this is a form of rebelliousness. Of those who were not attached to the mother, 28% had sudden religious conversions as adolescents. A similar level of sudden conversions occurred in the adults in this category.15

One reason that religion evolved so early in human history is that human society requires order and cooperation, and religion can provide the needed framework. Selfish behavior does not serve the common good, and religions aim to curb selfishness. In particular, religions posit a supernatural entity that observes human behavior, and metes punishment or rewards as deserved. A survey of 48 worldwide case studies, mostly from Africa and Southeast Asia, reveals many examples of how religious beliefs promote cooperation.16 The survey focused on community-based resources based on agricultural, forestry, and environmental protection practices. Religion was a factor in monitoring practices in 31% of the case studies and in sanctioning malpractice in 81% of the cases. Many of these cases involved what some would call primitive religions, in which gods, spirits, or ancestors actually inhabited the resources and were active in punishing misuse of the resources. The kinds of punishment for misbehavior ranged from bad weather, natural disaster, personal misfortune, disease, and even death.

Yielding to peer pressure is a natural prosocial tendency, because humans seek the positive reinforcement that comes from approval and acceptance by others. Adolescents seem especially prone to such susceptibility, in large part because they are insecure and have not matured. However, peer pressure can serve positive ends. One study examined the rates of obesity, smoking, and happiness in people by comparing how their friends rated on such factors.17 Peer influence was clear. For example, if a person lost weight due to exercise workouts, it was likely that a close friend would also do the same was greatly increased. Likewise, smokers were 36% more likely to quit when their friends also quit. Having happy friends increased a person's own happiness by 8%. The point is clear: associate with people who lift you up, not drag you down. That should also apply to selecting which religious community to join.

Religious groups promote sociability, particularly among their members. The question arises, "Are people more religious because they are more social, or more social because they are religious?" I don't know, but suspect that either option could be true, depending on the individual. From a practical point of view, what is more important is that social factors no doubt have contributed to formation of various religious sects and denominations. Certain people find new ideas and doctrines attractive, and they influence each other to join in a distinctive faith tradition.

Loneliness, whether imposed or not, can be physically and emotionally harmful.18 Loneliness is a physiological stressor and causes the bodily harm of stress, such as immune-system impairment, cardiovascular problems, and shrinkage of the dendritic trees that form functional connections among neurons in the brain. The dopaminergic reward system becomes desensitized, which can promote depression.

Loneliness usually occurs when a person has limited opportunities to interact with others. Loneliness can also occur when there are plenty of social interactions if one feels socially awkward, lacking in self-worth, or alienated. One interesting study compared three groups of people classified as lonely, normal, and socially embedded. People in the lonely group had elevated cortisol levels, reflecting the physiological stress of being lonely.19

People seek out social relations and friendship to prevent the angst of loneliness. This is an important feature of religious groups in that they generally provide a supporting social environment. As one gets older, as children leave home and spouses may die, some degree of loneliness becomes inevitable, and that is probably a main reason why older people participate in religious groups.20

Religious groups emphasize group activity in various forms: attending worship services, scripture study groups, and quasi-religious meetings like men's breakfasts or women's coffees. Some religions, like Catholics and Muslims, put heavy emphasis on religious schools. Participation in religious group activities helps alleviate loneliness and reduces commonly linked traits like anger and stress.21

Wisdom supposedly comes with age.22 "Elders" typically hold positions of authority in religious groups for that reason. Prosocial behavior and the ability to promote harmony are essential ingredients for religious communities, and older people have had more lifetime opportunity to hone those skills.

The opposite of prosocial behavior is rejecting or diminishing others. Such acts are painful to the human targets. The pain is emotional, but brain scans of people experiencing experimental rejection scenarios reveal that the same brain areas become active as when real physical pain occurs.23 Social pain is real pain. Unfortunately, aspirin and other related remedies for physical pain do nothing to help relieve emotional pain. Unfortunately, people in the U.S. increasingly seem more hostile and eager to insult others as sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, deplorable, and so on. Name-calling substitutes for dialog and understanding.

Sanctity of Life

Biological scientists typically have enormous respect for life because they understand far better than most people do, even most other kinds of scientists, just how astonishing life is. To a biologist, pond scum is magnificent. Despite the well-founded mechanistic explanations for evolution, life stills seems like a miracle even to many biologists. I am in this group. That's why you see biological scientists so engaged in protecting species, environmental protection, and animal welfare. That's why physicians take the oath of "do no harm."

Sanctity of life conflicts with the political issue of a “woman’s right to choose.” The contention with religion lies mainly with the definition of when human life begins. Framed this way, it is hard to reach agreement. A more manageable framing raises the question, “At what point in gestation do signs of child-like brain activity occur?” Technically, some say that a new human life begins when a zygote forms from the fusion of egg and sperm. However, this life is not sustainable outside the womb and has no biological capacity for human consciousness. There is also the matter of ensoulment, which religious people consider as what is distinct about humans. If ensoulment occurs at the moment of fertilization, does that mean that identical twins have the same soul? If ensoulment occurs some time later, how can we know just when that is? Whenever ensoulment occurs, does it appear fully formed or do we spend a lifetime shaping it?

Not surprisingly, various religious traditions have different views about when human life begins. Most Jewish and Muslim sects set the humanness of the fetus at about 40 days, while Catholics believe that human life begins at fertilization.24

If life were a creation of God, one would think that religious people would respect life as central to a worshipful life. Not necessarily so. I can illustrate the point by an avowed Christian physician who thinks it is his religious duty to perform abortions on demand.25 He says his abortion practice is akin to the Good Samaritan, because unwanted pregnancies cause a great deal of angst and stress. To him, unwanted pregnancy is a disease, and abortions are a medical treatment.

Most readers already have a fixed opinion about abortion. What I want to emphasize here is the specious and flawed thinking the good doctor uses to rationalize his practice.

First, pregnancy is not a disease, and it does not logically follow for treatment to be necessary. Second, the physician's oath of "do no harm" is violated. Not only is the unborn child killed, but also some women later become distressed over their abortion. Abortion does not always relieve a woman’s anxiety. Religious women may suffer profound guilt after an abortion, and some women develop post-traumatic stress syndrome.26 Most religions insist that human life is precious, and that God has a purpose for each newborn. Abortion could thwart the will of God. Third, the Samaritan analogy is not parallel. The Samaritan helped a person lying in a ditch, obviously either sick or beaten. Finally, the doctor's position lacked nuance. He does abortion for every woman that asks, with no restrictions to those who were true victims of rape, incest, or a medical condition that would jeopardize their life. To this doctor, abortion was birth control. There were apparently no qualms about late-term abortion. Surely, somewhere in his medical training, he learned that a late-term fetus has all the organs and brain in place that a newborn baby has. He may not know of research findings in the last decade. Namely, the late-term brain has all the neocortex layers of brain in place, is learning how to identify and control movement of limbs, and has the cardinal signs of consciousness (indications of feeling pain, sleep-wakefulness cycles, and brain-wave patterns and limb twitches characteristic of dreaming during sleep).

I have noticed that my pro-abortion students tend to mollify their positions when they learn about the neural development in the fetus. This change occurs as they learn the evidence for emerging sentience in the third trimester of pregnancy.27 The human fetus shows withdrawal reflexes to noxious stimulation as early as 19 weeks. That response could be an unconscious reflex, but at around 24 weeks, the thalamocortical fetal pathways for conscious perception of pain are well established.

By 22-23 weeks, the fetus shows the ability to learn in that it diminishes its responsiveness to a frequently repeated stimulus. This is a conditioned type of learning and does not necessarily depend on consciousness. However, a higher level of learning occurs in the late term fetus, who can learn sounds and remember them after birth. For example, in one study the researcher repeatedly delivered a recorded made-up word sound delivered to the fetus in the second trimester. Then, after birth, electroencephalographic recordings demonstrated that the infant recognized this sound.28 Here is an area of research opportunity in the field of education. The fetus seems capable of learning.

Studies indicate that the late-stage fetus shows fully human sleep, including dream sleep.29 Presumably, the fetus at this stage is aware and likely conscious when not sleeping. A study in the Netherlands used fetal heart rate, body movements, and rapid eye movements (REM) at 36 weeks of gestation to identify distinct stages along the sleep-wakefulness continuum. Throughout any given day, the investigators noted a variety of stages: quiet non-REM, active REM, quite awake sleep and active wakefulness. Follow-up with mothers when these children were 8-9 or 14-15 years old revealed that their behavior was associated with some of their fetal sleep patterns. For example, when as a fetus they took more than three minutes to transition from quiet sleep to active sleep, they were less likely as a child to have self-control issues such as self-discipline and ability to focus. This suggests that unknown factors contribute to the sculpting of mental executive functions in the fetus.30 Identifying such factors might provide a way to prevent such conditions as attention deficit and hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and impaired decision-making.

The popularity of MRI technology leads to its use to track the growth of fetal brain tissue and cerebrospinal ventricles.31 I wonder how the investigators got permission to conduct this study. We have no knowledge that MRI of a fetus is safe. MRIs impose massive magnetic fields, and I suspect they could damage fetal tissue. When I had my MRI to examine a pinched nerve in the neck, the effect was enormous: I had nightmares all that night. Think what MRI might do to a fetus or infant.

Before leaving the subject of fetal development, we need to remind ourselves that what happens to a pregnant woman can readily affect her developing baby. Abundant medical evidence establishes that the mother's body chemistry and sensory experiences could potentially sculpt neuronal circuits during early brain development. An animal study has revealed that pregnant mothers under stress affect the stress-hormone responsiveness of their developing babies.32 For example, when the babies of stressed mothers become adult, they exhibit decreased DNA methylation of the corticotrophin-releasing-factor (CRF) and an increase in methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor exon promoter region in hypothalamic tissue. These effects are called epigenetic and indicate that some environmental effects during pregnancy can be genetically passed to the offspring. If such epigenetic processes occur in human mothers, the implications are enormous. Stressed mothers may give birth to babies that inherit their mother's stress. This is an example of the need to re-examine the old, now discredited, dogma in biology that it is not possible to inherit acquired characteristics. Here, the mother has acquired the physiological consequences of stress and has passed those on genetically to her offspring. Are women who live in stressful environments (such as poverty, spousal neglect/abuse, social conflict, etc.) giving birth to the next generation suffering from the same biological consequences?

The recurrent problem in abortion debates is the clash between rights of the mother and rights of the fetus. One line of argument contends that rights of the mother should prevail, for she already exists in this world as a functioning human being, whereas a fetus only has a potential for such autonomous existence. The counter-argument is that both mother and fetus have rights to existence. One right should not trump another. An exception would be in the case of a threat to life of the mother (for she can have other children later), or rape or incest (because both create emotional trauma: rape forced the conception, and incest promotes genetic defects). Pre-natal screening introduces yet another complication. If a fetus has a serious genetic defect or existing physical abnormality, a pro-life mother might seek abortion to spare the fetus and family from a lifetime of suffering. Decisions on what to do can be excruciating.

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