Saturday, April 19, 2014

Religion Is for Psychopaths

I recently came across an article about a professor of neurology at U.C. Irvine named James Fallon.  There have been a number of articles about him and his work recently, so you may be familiar with this story.

Prof. Fallon was participating in a study comparing the brains of normal people with those of confirmed psychopaths.  The study found certain traits that the brains of the psychopaths all seem to have in common.

As part of the study, he scanned his own brain and discovered that he had the same traits in his brain as the psychopaths.  He also happened to have several murderers in his family tree.  He now presents this discovery as an example of how biology is not destiny.  Having a loving family prevented him from becoming yet another murderer in the family tree. 

The most intriguing part of the article to me is where he discusses the misdeeds of his youth, because having a good family wasn't really enough to make him a good person.  That didn't happen until he left religion, saw his behavior for what it really was, and took responsibility for it.

Here is his description of that thought process:
Since I’m a lapsed Catholic, I started thinking of psychopathic behavior in terms of the seven deadly sins. Those sins, to me, are just psychopathic traits and tendencies with different names — I kept sinning, and I kept doing it over and over and over. And using the term “sin” is one example of how we’ve all mollified psychopathic behaviors: if it’s a sin, well then that’s okay, because everyone sins and then you go to church on Sunday and you make it better. But it’s not actually okay.
I’d say that around 10 or 15 percent of us are pretty borderline as far as psychopathy goes, but we all let those behaviors slip and we protect each other — we say “oh, it’s okay, he does that all the time,” or “oh, that’s just how she is.” It’s a Stockholm Syndrome epidemic. What I’d tell you to do is strip away the bullshit terms and excuses surrounding your behavior, and ask yourself what you’re actually doing and how it affects other people. For me, simple linguistics were what it took to change my behavior. Instead of saying, “Oh, that’s a sin and I gotta go to church,” it’s a matter of saying “Oh wow, I just did something really psychopathic, and I gotta figure out how to stop it.”
In other words, he was a classic hypocrite who simply used religion to feel good about himself when he didn't deserve to do so.  Once he stopped using religion as a guide for his thinking he made the leap to being a good, responsible person.  And, he offers this as advice for those afraid that they, too, may be psychopathic.  Clearly, he recognizes that religion is just an excuse for bad behavior--a salve for psychopaths.

In addition, he makes a very legitimate point about the way in which the rest of society treats the psychopathic in our midst.  We try to make excuses for them, especially when they are a member of our "tribe".  We do this out of fear.

This behavior helps us understand why there is a taboo in our society with regard to criticizing religion.  It exists for the same reason:  fear of the deranged.  Fortunately, we have reached a point in human history where an increasingly large number of people have begun to realize that we should be more afraid of keeping silent in the face of the insanity that is religion.  We can only hope it isn't too late.

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