Edward Taylor thought the source of religion lies in the enigmatic belief that the soul is separate from the body. But he did not put religious belief down to neurology. He attributed it to dreams. If our primitive ancestors dreamed of a dead relative, then, without the aid of science, they would naturally assume a spirit lived on in another realm even after the destruction of the body.
Max Muller believed religion grew out of human beings’ early encounters with nature. Human beings observed the skies, oceans, and forests. They knew they did not create them. So, they assumed someone, or something, else must have done so.
Similarly, Robert Marrett argued that human beings believed in a supernatural force that lives in both animate and inanimate things.
Durkheim explained religion on the basis that its rites and rituals help a community to form a collective consciousness. He thought religion arose as a kind of social adhesive.
But Aslan favours neurology as providing the best explanation for religion. He says religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon. He is convinced that the widespread belief that we are embodied souls is the source of religious belief and that this belief arises due to our neurological makeup.
I think there is another important reason for religious belief Aslan does not discuss. It is Marx’s idea of religion as an opiate, religion’s ability to provide comfort in the face of suffering. Marx though much of this suffering was caused by the prevailing system. Hence religion was the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. Of course, the notion that we can somehow remove suffering from human existence by transforming social conditions is a fallacy. But if religion provides people with relief in the face of suffering, then one can see how this could easily combine with our feeling that we have an inner self that is separate from our bodies, to give religion a powerful grip over the human psyche.
Portuguese neurologist Antonio Damasio tells us that the “self” is located within a very specific part of the brain- the brain stem. The brain stem lies between our cerebral cortex and the spinal cord and houses the life regulating functions of the body.
The brain stem has very specific physiological functions. If the upper part of the brain stem is sufficiently damaged through events such as a stroke, then a coma, or vegetative state, results. Images can still be physically formed in the brain’s cortices. But the person is unaware of them because consciousness is lost. The “self”, or at least self-perception, disappears.
When enough damage is done to the lower part of the brain stem there is complete paralysis. Yet the conscious mind is maintained. This is a horrible state for an individual to be caught in, despite the continued existence of self-perception.
For Damasio, the different and very specific effects, which result from damage to distinct parts of the brain stem, mean that the “self” exists in a very physical way and in a very specific location. Do enough damage to that physical part of the brain and the self, in the sense of consciousness, no longer exists. The inner “me” that seems to us to be so independent of our bodies is gone.
Damasio says that the basic physiology of our brain stem is shared with other vertebrates. Accordingly, they also possess a consciousness and a sense of “self”.
But the other vertebrates do not have a cerebral cortex which is as rich as ours and this is the distinguishing feature of the human brain. Our richer cerebral cortex results in our having a far stronger sense of self, or an “autobiographical self”. This is because our sense of self is built on a larger base of past memories than for other vertebrates.
Our cerebral cortex contains our lived past as well as our anticipated future. It gives us imagination, creativity, and language. It results in the growth of human culture – religion, justice, commerce, the arts, sport, science, and technology. And unlike the other animals, it is from the culture that we derive behaviors that are not set by our biology, a phenomenon that Damasio calls “socio-cultural regulation”.
But if Aslan is correct religion does not originally arise from “socio-cultural regulation” but from a neurologically based feeling that our self is separate from our body and its brain function.
Socio-cultural regulation might well influence or determine the type of religion that we adopt, plus the type of rules, regulations, and social norms that we accept. But the feeling we have of a self, independent from our body, is sourced in the way that our biology leads us to sense both the world around us and our existence as independent observers of that world.
Some Eastern religions do not believe in a soul. Buddhism, or some streams of it, holds that there is no soul and that the self is a delusion. Our true nature is that we are like waves in an ocean that have no real separate existence from the larger body of water within which the waves exist. But even if one believes that the self is a delusion, the fact that we experience this delusion confirms that our neurology leads us to feel this separate sense of self.
For the philosopher Rene Descartes, the sense of a separate self was the only sure proof of our existence. If we doubt everything then there could be a grand deceiver who tricks us into believing we exist. But for Descartes, the fact that we have a perception that we exist is proof that we must-even if we are deceived our consciousness has to exist in order for it to be deceived. Hence Descartes’s famous maxim “I think therefore I am”. And indeed Descartes believed this self, or soul, exists independent of our bodies. But I think Descartes missed out on a vital step. He should have said “I have a functioning brain. Therefore I can think. Therefore I know I am”. Admittedly, this is nowhere near as catchy.
My mother was an avowed atheist. Shortly before her death, she was photographed with myself and my brother and sister. On viewing the photograph she remarked “Who is the old woman in that photo? I guess it must be me”. When I was a teenager I was at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather always sat in a chair in the living room. Parkinson’s disease gave him a tremor and he could only walk with a walker. “I want to play with the kids on the floor,” he remarked. “Don’t be ridiculous” said my grandmother. A few hours later my grandfather was dead from a stroke. My own body can no longer do what it used to. Exercising the other day I felt I wanted to hop into a new one. I know others who have had the same sensation.
When we are young and healthy most of us tend not to experience this disassociation from our bodies. Everything just works. We feel integrated. Aging is a process that invariably involves the loss of physical and mental capacities we used to take for granted. Yet we often still have a “me” inside us that seems younger, that wants to resist these processes, that imagines itself somehow apart from our bodies.
I think that this is the same feeling that religious people believe to be the soul.