Spirituality, Religiosity, and Madness

Spirituality has been defined as the experience of an inner sense of something greater than oneself, or as sensing a meaning to existence that transcends one's immediate circumstances.

Despite being a confirmed atheist, I am not immune to such experiences. Obviously I am cognitively aware that the world of nature is greater than myself. To believe otherwise would make me a megalomaniac! Besides, how could a part be greater than the whole?

However, the wonderful, euphoric feeling that nature is greater than I comes upon me less often. Sensing a transcendent meaning has come to me only in dreams or under the influence of certain psychoactive chemicals – both being altered states of consciousness. Shamans know all about this phenomenon when they use mood altering drugs to induce spiritual hallucinations during religious ceremonies. Even those who have never taken a hallucinogen have probably experienced dreams that convey a strong sense of having uncovered a deeper meaning to life – only to have the answer to the mystery dissipate rapidly upon awakening!

We have numerous different understandings of religion. Religion deals with the same subject matter as spirituality, yet it is not equivalent. On this blog, religion is taken to mean the system of dogmatic teachings that have arisen out of an assumption that the supernatural actually exists. That is, religious systems are built upon superstitious beliefs in magical powers.

Religious rites, like any rites, can induce a sense of peace or invoke passion. This emotional evocation speaks more of our communal attachment to symbols than it does to any valid existence of the supernatural. To understand what I mean, think of your reaction to hearing your national anthem played when one of your countrymen has won Olympic gold.

Reliogiosity is not equivalent to spirituality, though both can coexist in one individual. Atheists can have spiritual experience and religious individuals can lack spiritual experiences.

The psychology of religiosity is intriguing, as are the psychopathologies, such as schizophrenia that appear to be related to religiosity. Why do some individuals seems so prone to spiritual and/or religious convictions?

V.S. Ramachandran and his team studied the increased religiosity of sufferers of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). The results of the study showed a greater arousal in the temporal lobe epilepsy sufferers in response to religious words as compared to the non-religious. The non-religious were more aroused by sexual words, while religious control groups were aroused by religious and sexual words [w]. The medial temporal lobe sits very close to the amygdala, which is our primitive 'emotional' nucleus that mediates emotional reactions and modulates emotional memories. Ramachandran conducted the study because he had observed a strong correlation between TLE and obsessive religious convictions.

Of course, this is not to say that all who hold strong religious convictions are suffering temporal lobe epilepsy or taking hallucinogens. Ramachandran's research merely points to a possible mechanism for the observation that a higher percentage of those with TLE than of the population at large are hyper-religious. It is to say that humans both seek to comprehend patterns and are emotional beings. In the absence of knowledge to explain phenomena in the natural world, it is scarcely surprising that our various ancestors invented mythologies.

That humans have continued to cling to religious beliefs despite vast advances in understanding of natural phenomena merely underlines the emotionality that humans invest in magic-thinking. At least we have stopped blood sacrifices to make the sun continue to shine and no longer believe that horse-drawn chariots drag the sun across the sky!


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