The Ironies of Science: Religion is the Addiction

It’s not uncommon for TBM Mormons to claim that people who leave the religion do so because they want to sin.  Tied to this are all sorts of claims about addiction: addiction to drugs, to pornography, to alcohol, to coffee, and to sex.  A simplified caricature of the TBM perspective might be something like: Mormons are righteous, good, healthy, people with no addictions and non-Mormons – but particularly ex-Mormons – are less-righteous, not very healthy people with lots of addictions.

Then along comes that thing called “science” and flips all of these baseless claims on their head.  I don’t mean to wax toward scientism, but it’s awesome when you have data, rigorous methodology, and closer approximations of reality on your side.

I’m not sure if you caught it, but an article recently came out in Social Neuroscience that used fMRI on 19 devout, returned-missionary Mormons and found some really, really cool stuff.

First, the big finding: when Mormons claim they are “feeling the spirit,” the “reward” center in their brain is being activated.  This same center of the brain is activated when people feel romantic love, parental love, and drug-induced euphoric states.

So, what does that mean?

It means that Mormons are addicted to Mormonism!

Mormons are kind of like junkies.  They get a “hit” (aka “feel the spirit”), it activates the reward centers in their brains, and then they want more.  So, they seek out other opportunities (e.g., fast and testimony meeting, watching Mormon-produced videos, youth conferences, etc.) to get another “hit” and are constantly in pursuit of more “hits” where they can “feel the spirit” in order to feel that same reward.

Mormons are junkies.

Oh, the irony!

But the study isn’t done dropping delightful little, technically-worded bombs.  Here are a couple more that I thought were amazing.

“Activation of the medial prefrontal cortex in all three tasks may suggest a role in representation of affective meaning for the religious stimuli and suggests that cognitive attribution and judgment of the meaning or value of religious stimuli contributes to their experience.”

Translation: You have to be taught to associate emotions with religious stimuli.  In other words, Mormons don’t “feel the spirit” because the “spirit” is actually there.  Mormons are taught that there are times when you associate X (e.g., people crying at youth conference) with Y (e.g., a powerful emotion).  Feeling the spirit is taught, not innate.  Ipso facto, there is no “spirit.” There is just a learned association between stimulus and response.

“Broadly, our findings are consistent with the view that religious experience may be described through known neural circuits mediating cognitive processes such as reward, social cognition, attention, and emotive processing rather than through a novel category of experience.”

Translation: There is nothing novel or unique about religious experiences – they are just an aggregate of other experiences.  In other words, religious experiences aggregate other types of neural experiences – rewards, cognitive attribution, attention, and emotion – into an experience such that the result is feeling something, but there is nothing special or unique about “religious experiences” per se.  They are cognitive/neural experiences.  Nothing mystical or supernatural is happening at all.  It’s all visible in the brain and fits neatly within the neuroscience paradigm.  Religion isn’t supernatural; it’s neurochemical.

Okay, what’s the big takeaway from this study then?

The biggest one is that Mormons are addicts (note: I doubt this is true for all Mormons but it is likely true for many).  That explains a lot.

Have you ever tried talking an alcoholic out of drinking?  How about telling a heroine addict that they are ruining their lives?  Reason and logic don’t work.  Until they see the damage from their behavior and make a decision on their own to change, they will continue down the path they are on (and even that is an over-simplification of how addiction and recovery work).

What about using logic and reason with Mormons?  You’re likely to get the same result.  It doesn’t work.  Those of us who have left often use simple explanations to address this, like, “They always turn to faith in the end.”  Yes, logic, reason, and even evidence may be on the side of the nonbelievers.  But until we recognize that Mormonism (and, likely, religion generally) is functionally like meth, we will continue to fail in our interactions with Mormons.



Ferguson, M. A., Nielsen, J. A., King, J. B., Dai, L., Giangrasso, D. M., Holman, R., … Anderson, J. S. (2016). Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons. Social Neuroscience, 0(0), 1–13.

Once You Figure Out God Is a Jerk

So, I heard some years ago that religious people tend to be happier and healthier.  It didn’t especially jive with my experience, but hey, it’s what the scientific data say, right?

Here’s an interesting piece from the NY Times, corroborating and explaining some of the benefits of “religious attendance — [or] at least, religiosity” the reasons for which are “not entirely clear”.  Some of the benefit derives first from “social support [which] is directly tied to better health” and second from “healthy behavior” (” on average, regular church attendees drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous than others”).

But the author also suggests a third factor, something rooted in the imaginative and intellectual experience of creating a relationship with an immaterial being:

I want to suggest that this is a skill and that it can be learned. We can call it absorption: the capacity to be caught up in your imagination, in a way you enjoy. What I saw in church as an anthropological observer was that people were encouraged to listen to God in their minds, but only to pay attention to mental experiences that were in accord with what they took to be God’s character, which they took to be good. I saw that people were able to learn to experience God in this way, and that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier — at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale. Increasingly, other studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health.

For example, in one study, when God was experienced as remote or not loving, the more someone prayed, the more psychiatric distress she seemed to have; when God was experienced as close and intimate, the more someone prayed, the less ill he was. In another study, at a private Christian college in Southern California, the positive quality of an attachment to God significantly decreased stress and did so more effectively than the quality of the person’s relationships with other people.

She goes on to posits possible benefits even beyond those who want to believe in God. Perhaps it

may teach us how to harness the “placebo” effect — a terrible word, because it suggests an absence of intervention rather than the presence of a healing mechanism that depends neither on pharmaceuticals nor on surgery. We do not understand the placebo effect, but we know it is real. That is, we have increasingly better evidence that what anthropologists would call “symbolic healing” has real physical effects on the body. At the heart of some of these mysterious effects may be the capacity to trust that what can only be imagined may be real, and be good.

I find this all pretty intriguing, because I have had some remarkable experiences with an unseen world that I cannot and frankly prefer not to explain.  I mean, it’s unseen!  I don’t know enough about it.  It might be this externally verifiable thing, or it might be just an idea that is very real to me.

I believe in the realness of ideas.  Fictional characters are not real people, but they are real ideas.  Heavenly Mother is, to me, a real idea, a real idea with real potential.  So is Edward Cullen.  He’s a bad idea, but he’s a real idea.  Elizabeth Bennet (the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, in case you don’t know) is a terrific idea!  Cinderalla is a hyper-real idea–she’s so real she’s an achetype for us.  All these ideas, although they are only ideas, have had real effects on the world.

We can see the same thing with political ideologies.  Consider the idea that one race is superior to others, that one gender is superior to the other(s), or all that men are created equal.  These are all real ideas, and they become more or less “true” as we believe in them more or less.

The problem with the character of God as he exists in the Mormon fiction about him is that he’s an asshole.  It takes an act of willful blindness not to see this.  And once you see this, praying to him creates greater and greater psychic and “psychiatric distress,” as the author put it.

Furthermore, in Mormonism he’s such a nasty, vicious douche that even once you realize that there are nicer versions of him out there–versions where he’s not racist, misogynist and homophobic, anti-intellecual and obsessed with the minutea of dietary codes, pruriently obsessed with his children’s sex lives, and gleefully sentencing to hell women who hate polygamy–the taint of his cruelty and barbarity lingers on. It’s really HARD to replace that asshole with a kinder, gentler version.  After all, the whole atonement thing, the requirement that some of his children execute his favorite son as a condition of anyone being able to hang out with him, is pretty barbaric and cruel.  The idea that the atonement shows love is somehow real, despite being absolutely nonsensical.

Once you figure all that out, it’s easy, even when you read an article like this one, to do the math: “Let’s see: going to church can add up to three years to your life.  Three times 365 is 1095 days.  But you have to go to church every Sunday.  If you started going to church as an infant and live to be 75, that’s 3900 days.  Even if you skip a few Sundays here and there, that’s still at least three times as many days that you LOSE to church throughout your life as you GAIN BACK from at it at the end.  Hmm.  I’ll stick with having Sunday off, thank you very much.”


Studying the Original

I recently saw the documentary “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock” about Teri Horton, a woman who may have purchased a Jackson Pollock painting at a thrift store for $5.

It was a fascinating documentary, with a clear perspective. The crux of the film is that Teri cannot prove that the painting is in fact, a Jackson Pollock painting. Through forensics, it appears as if a fingerprint of Pollock’s is on the back of her painting. Also, you look at the painting, and certified Pollock paintings, and it certainly looks very convincing. In a court of law, it’s possible that this evidence could be used to convict a criminal. Or, it could be faked. Either way, it’s a powerful argument.
Continue reading “Studying the Original”

atheist v. Muslim – part 1

I play soccer on occasion during the lunch hour at my university. One of the other players (probably the best player) is an Iranian-American, “H”, who is also Muslim (he’s in IT). He asked me what I teach and when I told him Sociology of Religion, he became very interested. He said his favorite topic is religion. I knew where this would end up going, but I thought it would be fun to go there anyway. He eventually suggested we do lunch, which we did. Over lunch a number of topics were raised, resulting in the following email to me:

Good morning ProfXM,

Here is a short list of what Quran says about life and universe as we know it. I know there are more. But this should keep you busy for a while.

Creation of the universe. Smoke, dust, plume.

Surah Hud:7 He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days – and His Throne was over the waters – that He might try you, which of you is best in conduct. Continue reading “atheist v. Muslim – part 1”

Sunday in Outer Blogness: Debating Reality Edition!

It looks like a large segment of the American public thinks that a couple of out-of-context quotes from some leaked emails constitute knock-out-punch evidence that global warming is a lie. How can there be so much debate over things as cut-and-dried as facts and reality??? Fortunately Outer Blogness has risen to the task of exploring why!

The best short post I’ve seen on how to rationally analyze evidence (outside your area of specialization) comes from NeuroLogica (hat tip Kuri). I’d quote just one part, but it’s not long, and the whole thing is quite informative (regardless of your ideology). NeuroLogica discusses some of the ways bias affects critical thinking, and Aerin sent me an interesting NPR segment explaining some scientific studies illustrating this sort of bias in action. Sadly, some out groups are biased against their own. Continue reading “Sunday in Outer Blogness: Debating Reality Edition!”

Dallin Oaks tries to remain relevant

For some reason someone thought it would be a good idea to invite Dallin Oaks to Harvard to talk to students. First mistake.

Dallin Oaks went. Second mistake.

Dallin Oaks said something. Third mistake.

Quick summary of what Oaks said: People in the US, generally, are ignorant about religion. He says that’s bad. Oaks then blames higher education for this, claiming that higher education has lost its focus now that it actually spends its time teaching students things like science, medicine, and engineering instead of theology. (Makes me think of Mencken on theology, “Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.” H L Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy, “Sententi: Arcana Coelestia” (1949).) I’m sure we’d have the technology we have today if all we did in college is just talk about the unknowable. Yep, this is genius. What a great idea, former law professor Oaks! (I wonder if he followed his own advice when he was a law professor; talk about worthless law school classes.)

Not having made a big enough fool out of himself, Oaks tries harder by claiming he knows ‘The Truth’ and is going to tell the students ‘The Truth.’ Though, apparently, ‘The Truth’ is really 3 ‘The Truths’:

  • The nature of God, including the role of the three members of the Godhead, and the corollary truth that there are moral absolutes.
  • The purpose of life.
  • The three-fold sources of truth about man and the universe: science, the scriptures and continuing revelation, and how we can know them.

Maybe I’m just a jaded secularist, but it sure seems like: #1 is heavily debated and certainly not knowable; #2 has as many “truths” as there are people on the planet; and #3 is an oxymoron.

So, what have we gained from this? Oaks thinks all universities should teach just Mormon theology. I bet we could learn more if I simply put my 9 month old son in front of everyone and we all watched him for an hour; at the very least he’d be more entertaining.

Oldies but Goodies: Testimony of a Dissident

A while back another blogger asked me to submit an essay about my Mormon experience. Probably, for good reasons he changed his mind and never published it. Since it is already written and might shed some light on my argument at Times and Seasons, I might as well publish it myself. It might help some people to understand where I am coming from.

Testimony of a Dissident
When I grew up in the seventies and eighties, Church was a liberating experience. My mother converted when I was six. My father never joined the LDS Church and refused permission for me to get baptized until I was fourteen. Since the prohibition was never sufficiently justified, it only stimulated my aspirations.

I was an enthusiastic Mormon, walking five miles to get to Church when I couldnt afford public transportation. Except for my younger brother, I was the only Mormon in my school. Everyone knew about me because I was a Mormon for a reason. Probably the best indicator of my commitment to the Mormon cause was my role as a joint teacher in the conversion of over thirty Germans, which contributed to the creation of another ward. Continue reading “Oldies but Goodies: Testimony of a Dissident”

Utah bankruptcy isn’t about Mormons?

I caught this article while reading my science news this morning: Bankruptcy Rates Reflect Policy, Not People. Basically what the article says is that the different rates of bankruptcy filings by state are not due to spending patterns or characteristics of the people in those states but rather policies regarding bankruptcy filing. In other words, Mormons aren’t REALLY spending more than they are making or filing bankruptcy at higher rates (by Mormons I mean Utahans, just to be clear). What’s happening is the laws in the state simply make it more beneficial to file for bankruptcy. Additionally, the younger age structure of the state increases the odds of Utahans filing for bankruptcy.

Okay, those arguments make sense. However, look at the affiliations of the professors who wrote it… Brigham Young University. Hmmm… Anyone think this is a direct response to the claims the paper debunks about Mormons spending too much and being quick to file for bankruptcy (as outlined above)? I’m not going to challenge the article’s findings (not my area of expertise and I don’t have the time), but if there are any economists out there who want to dig into this paper and try to replicate the findings, I’d be really interested to hear what you find.

So much for dualism, try googlism…

In reading through my morning dose of tech news, I caught this story about the medical and health ramifications of humans having over 1 trillion bacteria inside us (more bacteria than there are human cells). The health ramifications are fascinating, but because I relate everything back to religion I immediately had to ask, “What are the religious ramifications?” Well, if humans really are “body” and “soul” in the classic dualistic understanding, does that mean that our “soul” doesn’t include the trillion “little souls” of our symbiotic bacteria? Or does it? What about the implication for identity? Am I: profxm = human DNA and its manifestation + soul + bacteria + bacterial souls?

And what about Mormon notions of resurrection? Will resurrected Mormons be resurrected with their trillion bacteria in place? Are they part of a resurrected body? Did Joseph Smith get it wrong when he said resurrected beings have “flesh and bone” instead of “flesh and blood”? Should the phrase instead be “flesh, bone, and bacteria”?

Of course, as a skeptic and atheist, this simply suggests to me one more argument against notions of a soul and one more argument for evolution. Did god/s/esses really create humans using bacteria as a key ingredient? That seems contrary to any notion of humans being a “special creation.”