Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy

    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Can religion and ideologies lead to cognitive disorder?

Posted by robertpriddy on January 20, 2015

Religious faith depends upon a system of beliefs, not proven facts and certainly not scientifically verifiable facts. It depends on much more than belief as such. The influences of parents and the mental and emotional imprinting to which their children are subjected forms a basis – naive childhood acceptance of beliefs. The strength and nature of this influence will affect the ability of the adult to think otherwise. The memories, feelings and thoughts in a human brain are sustained in the form of connections between neurons or circuits which result from impressions received. How strong the impressions remain depends upon and how often memories and thoughts of them etc. are repeated. The strength of the neuron circuits preserving them grows with constant repetition and falls off the less they are reawakened. 

Having learned a religious or other wide-ranging ideology, developed and nurtured for decades, it is often harder to give it up that to retain it. One may modify it but those who have invested much in it – study, hopes,  social connections and activities to promote it or put it into practice – most likely would seldom reject it fully. In the face of the compromising and even most destructive facts, the first reaction is to seek answers, explanations which preserve the faith – possibly modify parts of it. These are examples of ‘psychological denial’  and are found in both religion and politics (as well in many other spheres of thought). Such denial is a known phenomenon and understanding its mechanism has been important at least since the work of Freud . Modern understanding of human reactions, mental and emotional, is expanding rapidly through the growth of the neurological sciences (with their breakthrough advances technologies). Both religions in the modern world are such belief systems. So how does such denial work? For many people – those who are less thoughtful and perspicacious – it seems that a certain feature of our brains is the answer. “Denials are nothing more than a statement with a ‘not’ tagged on, and it’s often the statement rather than the ‘not’ that seeps into the brain.” This is illustrated well by Cordelia Fine (in  ‘A Mind of its Own‘, Icon Books) where she compares the subconscious to a butler who looks after everyday duties so that our conscious minds can concentrate on more uncommon or elevated work. The best butlers, however, keep their masters happy by acting to protect them from supposed undue concerns and concealing various truths from him. Thus, our  predisposition to believe what we want to believe is aided by the brain function which conveniently side-lines ‘what the butler saw’.  “…evidence that fits with our beliefs is quickly waved through the mental border control“, while “counter-evidence must submit to close interrogation and even then will probably not be allowed in“. The moral: we should keep our mental butlers in check… not be a defenceless martyr to the fictions of the brain, and watch out in particular for its instinctive bigotry, which leads us to jump to conclusions.

One aspect of what is known as  ‘religious indoctrination’  is the regular repetition of beliefs and all other set formulae, such as holy names, prayers (like Hail Mary), creeds, hymns, mantras, bhajans, and also repetitive actions like ritual worship and other constant reminders or symbols of faith. This strengthens the belief network and its related mindset in the brain and at the same time weakens its opposites, like doubts, criticisms, alternate views, and other beliefs. This is common practice in many sectarian cults. So automatic or unquestioning acceptance of statements that come from sources positive towards one faith also tend to crowd out stimulate the mind ideas and facts threaten it and soon pre-judges or rejects such problematic information out of hand in advance. Recognition of this state of affairs by communist regimes was often behind various attempts of ‘brain-washing’ through enforced indoctrination techniques backed up by psychological torture and violence. The constant and boring repetition of communist slogans and text in the USSR and its satellites was also back up by fear of a draconian system of oppression, though it apparently proved less successful in removing contrary ideas in its populations, as the eventual overthrow of  the USSR showed.

However, and fortunately, it has been shown experimentally that such systems of increasingly fixed and very strong thought patterns are not immutable, but that neither is changing them easy, even if there is any stimulus to change (such as unwanted and emotionally negative events which bring on a serious a crisis of faith). If this were not so, people would not be able to go through thought revolutions, major shifts of belief, opinion and attitude etc. and all human culture would stagnate. So automatic or unquestioning acceptance of statements as long as they come from sources positive towards one faith also stimulates the mind to reject in advance whatever ideas and facts threaten it. Likewise in dismissing all problematic information out of hand or prejudicially.

When people become highly dogmatic and unwavering in set opinions and beliefs, it can be said that the brain has developed a condition of relative cognitive disorder. However ordered the set system may be within itself, if it has a fanatical aspect, it necessarily meets conflicting influences from the social environment it can only take in with great mental and or emotional difficulty . This disorder can be localised to certain subjects, like religion, politics or whatever other field of discourse , yet in many instances it tends to overflow into many even remotely related spheres of the person’s life.

What so affects a personal life can, under given conditions, spread to affect the lives of many others and therefore most fanaticism, is potentially dangerous to the society. In the case of religious fanaticism this is almost self-evident nowadays.  As Voltaire, who was among the first in Europe to confront religious fanaticism effectively in public, wrote “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”. (Questions sur les miracles 1765 – summary translation).

The mind in evolution, brain-dependent and temporary
The human personality and the ego vs. the self


One Response to “Can religion and ideologies lead to cognitive disorder?”

  1. Roy Niles said

    I’d argue that there’s an instinctive basis for religious belief, as I’d further argue that all instincts, and especially humans’, were inherited from things our ancestors had come to terms with ages ago. it would have seemed obvious that the forces of the universe had some intelligent motivation, otherwise they would not be so beneficently predicable at times, and act with such deadlines at others.
    And this is the instinctive lesson that has led us to evolve and prosper while at the same time to divide and conquer.

    Robert’s reply:-
    For something to be an instinct it must be present (at least in a potential form) from birth onwards, it is inherited. There is no known or demonstrable instinctive basis for religious belief, that is entirely guesswork. The baby has an instinct to seek the nipple, but not to cry fro a mother (or father), for that develops later when it learns that the pleasing and stimulating touch and warmth come from a person. There is an instinct to seek pleasure, avoid pain….. religion cannot be inherited in any form whatever, however, but only an impulse to seek those things necessary to the infant’s survival and pleasure. Children grow up into an environment (unless they are deprived) where everything is controlled by their mother, and soon also father. This is not an instinct but a learned understanding, while beliefs are also learned not inborn in any respect. When they mature they realise that their parents are not gods, that their parents’ knowledge is really very limited. Besides, the forces of nature may prove to be anything but beneficially predictable. When the security of protection of mother and father assumes little or no further importance, the priest – wanting to create and if need be enforce social order – and probably gain personal security through power over his group, the spirits of nature, of the ancestors and so on until someone proposes an all-knowing protective (and also punishing) ‘holy spirit’. The assertion that an instinct for religious belief has led us to evolve and prosper flies in the face of humanities’ greatest achievements, understanding evolution and nature, which has has to fight against religious obscurantism tooth and nail. That we divide and conquer is also a result of evolutionary struggle, but religions divide people more than any political ideology… so conflicts arise, sometimes exclusively for religious beliefs (as we are witnessing these days again)

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