Does Psychology show Christianity to be the Result of Brain States?

A few years ago, Mo Collins and Bob Newhart teamed up to create a very funny skit about a woman who visits a psychiatrist due to her fear of being buried alive in a box. Bob Newhart, obviously comfortable with playing the part of a psychiatrist after playing the same role for many years on the Bob Newhart show, gives Mo Collins some advice that she does not expect.

Obviously, Newhart plays an awful psychiatrist in this clip, and it is fortunate that psychiatrists and psychologists generally exhibit more knowledge, skill and care than Newhart's psychiatrist in the skit. People afflicted with any number of a wide array of emotional and mental wellness issues will almost certainly not respond well to a directive to "stop it" as the best method for treating a person with deep-seated psychiatric concerns.

While it is possible to make light of psychiatric issues, the issues themselves are quite real and require the care of a knowledgeable and caring psychiatrist or psychologist. In fact, in my present primary job I work with a lot of people who suffer from various emotional wellness and mental health issues. I have worked directly or indirectly with people who suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, PTSD and borderline personality disorder. Caring for these issues is incredibly difficult even with the help of trained psychiatrists and psychologists. And these are the issues that are actually harder for trained professionals to handle than conditions that are the result of dysfunction in the brain such as seizures.

Have you ever observed a seizure? The first time you see a grand mal (aka tonic clonic) seizure, it can totally freak you out. Several of the people that I support have seizure disorders, and I have grown accustomed to seizures and recognize them as simply a part of life for many people. While the majority of the American population has never observed a seizure, seizures remain among the most common neurological disorders. Around 65 million people around the world are afflicted with a seizure disorder. One may ask, if seizures are so common, shouldn't those that study the brain would know everything about them? Despite expectations, the answer is that doctors still no very little about seizures. According to WebMD,

Although epilepsy is one of the most common neurological disorders involving the nervous system, experts often cannot explain exactly how or why the disease develops and how or why the abnormal electrical activity in the brain occurs. Epilepsy does not always follow a predictable course. It can develop at any age and may get worse over time or get better.
The simple fact is that while doctors know that seizures are primarily caused by an interruption of electrical activity in the brain, and while they know some of the past events in a person's life that may lead to seizures, no one is really sure what causes any particular individual to develop a seizure condition or what can be done to fix the brain so that the person is "cured" of having seizures. The most common and least perilous treatment that doctors can undertake is to prescribe medications that reduce the incidents or moderate the severity of seizures. The only other somewhat common seizure treatment is for doctors to remove portions of the brain that are experiencing seizures if the seizure disorder significantly impacts a person's life or may have become so severe as to threaten the individuals' health. Naturally, given the risks associated with surgery to the brain (especially the corresponding risks of the consequences that may follow from removing part of the person's brain), doctors are extremely reluctant to use surgery in response to seizures other than in extreme situations.

This is not too surprising because, in all sincerity, despite years of study and a great deal of funding of research, scientists know very little about the brain or its working. As the New York Times points out in an article appropriately entitled "Learning How Little We Know About the Brain":
Yet the growing body of data — maps, atlases and so-called connectomes that show linkages between cells and regions of the brain — represents a paradox of progress, with the advances also highlighting great gaps in understanding. So many large and small questions remain unanswered. How is information encoded and transferred from cell to cell or from network to network of cells? Science found a genetic code but there is no brain-wide neural code; no electrical or chemical alphabet exists that can be recombined to say “red” or “fear” or “wink” or “run.” And no one knows whether information is encoded differently in various parts of the brain.
This lack of understanding of the workings of the brain contributes to the fact that we simply don't know all that much about psychology. As the website Data Science & Psychology (a website maintained by Ravi Iyer, holder of "a PhD in Psychology from the University of Southern California and remains an active researcher, having published 20+ articles in leading peer-reviewed psychology journals over the past few years, most of which concern the empirical study of moral and political attitudes") points out:
The conclusions I reach on this blog are, like all social science research, uncertain, as no research on human psychology can really be conclusive, given the nature of the subject. The best we can do is to provide evidence toward any conclusion, and if enough evidence accumulates, then the chances of our conclusion being right are greater.
Now, if professionals cannot fully explain seizures (which is largely a physical condition - something is wrong with the mechanics of the brain), how much more difficult is it for them to explain psychological issues which are not primarily caused by physical problems in the brain? I can't tell you how many times I have heard from professionals words to the effect of "we simply don't know very much about the causes of these kinds of things." Please understand, I am not writing this to slam any psychiatrists or psychologists; they are largely good people who are working hard at coming to some type of understanding of how people think. The simple fact is that psychiatry is one of the least certain of all of the sciences because they simply have not been able to crack the details of how the brain works or how we really think.

Thus, I was more than a little surprised when someone recently made a comment on Cadre Comments and referred me to an article on Psychology Today by Psychologist Todd P. Kashdan, Ph.D. entitled "Why does religion persist? A look at bizarre ideas, hypocrisy and God's obsession with sex" as proof that Christianity is no more than a social construct. Specifically, the individual stated:
The overwhelming evidence suggests an explanation for why christianity [and all religions for that matter] persists is not that its narrative is true per se but that it is an epiphenomenal by-product of our need to make sense of the genetic and evolutionary drivers for human behaviour in the absence of modern scientific knowledge and understanding two thousand years ago that we now are so thankfully privy to.
Given how little we understand about how the brain and thinking work, I found it more than a little odd that someone would consider an article about how we think as constituting some type of incontrovertible truth that Christianity (and, in fact, all religion) is nothing more than an "epiphenomenal by-product". The author of the note did use the article to bolster his claim, but several reasons lead me to conclude that the supporting article is of doubtful value.

First, the article itself reflects little more than a prejudiced work of an atheist psychologist-- one who writes more like the silly New Atheists than like a person who has the temperament to think sufficiently carefully about the issues to become a Ph.D. One would expect that a Ph.D. would be a little careful with his claims, but not so with Dr. Kashsdan. Consider the first paragraph of the article where Dr. Kashdan states that his article is part of an on-going debate about religion in the pages of Psychology Today:
There has been debate as to the future of religion. I, for one, believe that religion is going to last for quite a long period of time. Despite scientific facts, philosophical arguments against the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient creator, undeniable evidence for Darwin's evolution theory, and ridicule, religion remains the norm.
Nothing like an unbiased article, eh? Oh, but the author isn't finished. Consider the second paragraph:
As a psychologist, the most interesting questions have nothing to do about whether or not God exists. An idea that cannot be proved or disproved and thus is trite, contrived, and appallingly boring.
Well, at least Dr. Kashdan and I share one viewpoint: an idea that cannot be proved or disproved is trite, contrived and appallingly boring. That's why I won't bother quoting from any of the rest of his article -- I carry a deep aversion to being bored. (Besides, it doesn't take a great psychoanalyst to recognize from the remainder of the article that Kashdan's real objection to Christianity is his own obsession with sex and how he thinks that religion represses it. Sad, really.)

Despite the obvious negative bias and lack of provability of his assertions, there are two other problems with the view that Christianity (and religion generally) is simply an epiphenomenal by-product. The first is that Dr. Kashdan's viewpoint certainly does not represent the views of all psychologists - and I would expect it doesn't even represent the views of a majority of the psychologists (admittedly, that is merely conjecture, but wild-eyed atheism doesn't attract as many converts as soft-spoken atheism). In fact, there are Christian psychologists - people who have the same degree as Dr. Kashdan -- who not only disagree with his prejudiced views, but who believe that psychology works best when Christian principles are part of the resolution. Thus, I don't believe that one atheist (who is obviously ill-informed about Christian thought) who hold an anti-religion bias writing an article (even if it is published in Psychology Today) provides insurmountable proof that Christianity (and religion generally) is somehow a by-product of brain processes.

Additionally, let's suppose for the sake of argument that the person who published the comment is correct and that religion is an epiphenomenal by-product, i.e., it is something that we would believe as a by-product of brain functioning or some type of evolutionary hang-on. Here's the question: does that mean that it is untrue?

There is an old saying which Joseph Heller used in Catch-22, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you." Psychological states may make us more likely to believe something. They may incline us to believe or disbelieve a certain state of affairs as being true or right. But unlike many other religions, Christianity is not a religion that relies upon states of mind. Christianity is a religion that claims to be true based upon facts. It asks people to look at its claims and judge the truth of Christianity based on the evidence.

Some people will look at the evidence and reject it -- I think that they are wrong, but that's what the debate is about. Others will look at the evidence and agree that it is true. And while it is possible that one party may be more inclined to accept the evidence and the other party more inclined to reject the evidence based upon epiphenomenal influence, the question isn't whether one person's thinking is correct and the other person's thinking is deficient -- in fact, they are both equally influenced by their brain states, but that influence is not controlling for either party. The question is whether Christianity is true, and that is a question that can be answered independently of our brain states.


im-skeptical said…
The question is whether Christianity is true, and that is a question that can be answered independently of our brain states.

Quite right. That's precisely why skeptics want to see OBJECTIVE evidence. It's something that is independent of our feelings and beliefs (ie. brain states).
Joe Hinman said…
The question is whether Christianity is true, and that is a question that can be answered independently of our brain states.

Quite right. That's precisely why skeptics want to see OBJECTIVE evidence. It's something that is independent of our feelings and beliefs (ie. brain states).

you do not want objective evidence. I have 200 studies from peer reviewed journals all you do is turn off your brain when I tell you about them. You go "they don't say God exists so they don't prove anything." 'I say:"no they don't say that they function in a different way but they back up my arguments and make them work." then I say "Here's how they function:" at that point you hear Charlie Brown adult talk: wawawwwawwaswa,wawawa? wawa,
wawawa! "Yes mane I lost my homework,"
im-skeptical said…
I have 200 studies from peer reviewed journals ..............................

Yes, Joe. They show that there is some correlation between well-being and attitudes of spirituality. After that, it's your subjective feelings that draw some imagined connection between the objective data and your imaginary God. Joe, there is no God in any of your peer-reviewed data. There is not one scientific study that has ever found God.
BK said…
IMS, Christians have given you objective evidence. I've read enough of your comments to recognize that your problem is that you discount the evidence because it doesn't meet your personal definition of objective.

Take, for example, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Your common objection is that we don't see people raised from the dead so it didn't happen. But the raising from the dead is miraculous by definition. You then want a test to show that miracles happen. The only proof of that is historic evidence. Historic evidence is not the same as scientific evidence, yet you seem to always demand that historical evidence meet higher standards than what historians accept simply because you have closed your mind to any evidence of the supernatural or the miraclulous.

The evidence is there. You just demand more of Christianity than your own worldview.
JBsptfn said…
BK The evidence is there. You just demand more of Christianity than your own worldview.

He sure does. He won't accept the resurrection, but he will gladly believe that life can come from non-life.
im-skeptical said…

You are the one who talked about answering the question "independently of our brain states". That means objectively, not subjectively. But the only way you can answer is to make subjective judgements about the evidence. You talk about things that are "miraculous by definition". There is ZERO objective evidence that such things ever happen. But you believe it anyway. Why? Because it's part of your broader belief system, which is a collection of BRAIN STATES. Anyone who doesn't share your brain states fails to see this evidence because it isn't objective evidence.

I do not demand anything more from Christianity than I do from any other belief. I only want objective evidence as a justification to believe.
Joe Hinman said…
essay this morning empirical data

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