Friday, August 20, 2004


Science is beginning to zero in on a complex of genetic and cultural markers which may explain the evolutionary tendencies for religiosity (i.e. a capacity for the intense experience of religious feeling). A passage in “Freedom Evolves” triggered a memory in me of passages about religious conversion experiences from William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience” which I recalled from my youth. I hunted up a copy of James’s work and found the information I sought.

First, the passages in Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves”:

“Religion is ubiquitous in human culture, and it flourishes in spite of its considerable costs. Any phenomena that apparently exceeds the functional cries out for explanation.... From an evolutionary point of view, religion appears to be a ubiquitous penchant for somersaults of the most elaborate sort, and as such, it demands an explanation (p. 183).”

To simplify Dennett: religion doesn’t seem to have a good reason for existing. It’s so elaborate and requires so much effort and resources from its practitioners that it oughtn’t to have a function in human biology. Then Dennett goes on to list several reasons why religion might hang on so doggedly to the human imagination. Dennett ultimately suggests a genetic reason for religion. He’s not the only modern scientist to come up with possible genetic explanations for religion.

“There may, of course, actually be such things as genes for religion. For instance, heightened ‘religiosity’ is a defining symptom of certain forms of epilepsy, and it is known that there are genetic predispositions for epilepsy. It could be that cultural environments—sets of traditions and practices and expectations—become amplifiers and shapers of certain rare phenotypes, tending to turn them into shamans or priests or prophets whose message is whatever the local message is.... In just such a way the ‘gift of prophecy’ could actually ‘run in the family’—there would be a gene for it in exactly the same way there are genes for myopia or hypertension (p. 184).”

As I read the preceding passages in Dennett’s book, I recalled reading of conversion experiences described in William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, and I realized they could quite easily be described as epileptic fits. I had read James’s book about thirty years ago, and it’s a serious study of the religious experiences of major historical religious figures which he presented as a series of twenty lectures at the University of Edinburgh as Gifford Lecturer on Natural Religion in the early part of last century.

Additionally, I have also had a personal conversion experience about 28 years ago, but it did not land me in the Christian “born again” camp. It landed me in the believer camp for some time, but eventually, my practical nature took me back to skepticism and atheism, but I do understand what it feels like to think one has had a transcendental or spiritual experience such as religious peoples describe. My religious experience, though, in no way mimicked a seizure.

However, all these “spiritual” experiences are just as well described as emotional, psychological or psychic experiences. In fact, I don’t see how one can have a “spiritual” experience and recognize it as such since any spiritual experience which one “felt” would then be described in emotional terms. Many conversion experiences, after the discovery of electricity, are described in the terms of a felt electrical shock which, of course, would also describe a seizure. Once the meme for electricity entered our vocabulary, you would expect people to be able to describe the seizure and conversion experiences in those terms. Anyhow, let me give you two conversion experiences from James’s book which fall under the heading, I think, of “epileptic seizures” such as Dennett noted:

“The church of San Andrea [delle Fratte] was poor, small, and empty; I believe that I found myself there almost alone. No work of art attracted my attention; and I passed my eyes mechanically over its interior without being arrested by any particular thought. I can only remember an entirely black dog which went trotting and turning before me as I mused. In an instant the dog disappeared, the whole church vanished, I no longer saw anything,... or more truly I saw, O my God, one thing alone.... I was there prostrated on the ground, bathed in my tears, with my heart beside itself, when M.B. called me back to life. I could not reply to the questions which followed from him one upon the other.”

Here’s a second conversion epileptic:

“I know not how I got back into the encampment, but found myself staggering up to [the] Holiness tent... and by a large oak, ten feet from the tent, I fell on my face by the bench, and tried to pray, and every time I would call on God, something like a man’s hand would strangle me by choking. I don’t know whether there were any one around or near me or not. I thought I should surely die if I did not get help, but just as often as I would pray, that unseen hand was felt on my throat and my breath squeezed off.... So I made one final struggle to call on God for mercy, with the same choking and strangling, determined to finish the sentence of prayer for Mercy, if I did strangle and die, and the last I remember that time was falling back on the ground with the same unseen hand on my throat. I don’t know how long I lay there or what was going on.... When I came to myself, there were a crowd around me praising God.”

Both these describe a loss of consciousness one would expect in an epileptic event. So, if certain types of epilepsy have genetic and religious features, we can imagine that further study may find a genetic component to religious feeling.

"Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich." —Napoleon

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