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The Neuropsychology of Religion

Abstract : Consider religion to be a community's (1) costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual world of supernatural agents (3) who master people's existential anxieties, such as death and deception. This intellectual framework guides a research program that aims to foster scientific dialogue between cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology regarding a set of phenomena vital to most human life and all societies (Atran 2002). The present chapter mainly concerns the third criterion of religion (3), and its implications for neuropsychology. Previous neurobiological studies of religion have focused on tracking participant's neurophysiological responses during episodes of religious experience and recording individual patterns of trance, vision, revelation and the like. This has favored comparison of religious experience with temporal-lobe brain-wave patterns during epileptic seizures and acute schizophrenic episodes. Cognitive structures of the human mind/brain in general, and cognitions of agency in particular, are usually represented in these studies in simple-minded terms (e.g., binary oppositions, holistic vs. analytical tensions, hierarchical organization, etc.) that have little input from, or pertinence to, recent findings of cognitive and developmental psychology. Perhaps more telling is recent work on the role of the prefrontal cortices in processing concepts of agency and self and in cognitive mediation of relevant emotions originating in (what was once called) “the limbic system.” Still, for those religious believers who never have an emotionally intense encounter with the Divine – including the overwhelming majority of persons in our society – the neurophysiological bases of faith remain a complete mystery.
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Submitted on : Tuesday, September 3, 2002 - 8:50:50 PM
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Scott Atran. The Neuropsychology of Religion. Rhawn Joseph. NeuroTheology : Brain, Science, Spirituality & Religious Experience, University Press California, pp.ch. 10, 2002. ⟨ijn_00000110⟩

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