Some time ago I was invited to a conference entitled: Religion, Conflict and Peace: Global Perspectives. These subjects have fascinated me for some time and it was while studying for my post grad in Ecumenics that I acquired an insight that forever changed my understanding of these issues. I have been fascinated by the functions of the brain since I was a child. My interest sprung from my mother’s struggles with mental illness. My interest in psychology, personal development, and the functions and potential of the human brain has continued unabated since those early days. I was particularly thrilled with the advent of fMRI and other marvels of modern science that have allowed us to peer into the working brain.
We have learned some remarkable things from these investigations and the findings are fomenting tremendous philosophical and spiritual debate. I wanted to do a Masters on the correlation between neuroscience and spirituality, with the central focus being on how spirituality/religion affects cognitive functions - more precisely, I was interested in the correlations between the scientific paradigm of Emotional Intelligence and the spiritual goal of the actualisation of the higher or divine self [the attainment of spiritual maturity], with specific interest in exploring the spiritual and bio-mechanical underpinnings of this endeavour. Sadly, I couldn’t secure the support for this enterprise but while attempting to make this happen I discovered something, arguably, more profound and unsettling about the role neurological factors play in the evolution of religion, conflict, and peace.
We are all well aware that the human organism is subject to the operations of several key drives that are hardwired into the brain. The most well known ones would be the: Fight-or-Flight Response, biological triggers/compulsions of hunger and thirst, and of course FEAR. We understand that damage to the brain can impair us in a variety of ways in terms of: speech, movement, reasoning, empathy, learning, memory, mood, temperament, and that in the absence of a functioning brain we are reduced to the status of vegetables.
Considered spiritually, the human being can be understood as a type of triune entity – a being that exists in three inter-related dimensions: material, intellectual, and spiritual, all of which are unified through the function of personality – that volitional, controlling, and uniquely identifying element that makes the three One. Scripture viewed human being as a simple dichotomy: the Body/Temple/Vessel of Clay and the indwelling and distinct Living Being and this is a serviceable paradigm but it has its shortcomings.
These distinctions give rise to questions: If the material body is an instrument for objectivising the will of the supervening personality what factors should we be aware of in its employment? Are there practices, conditions, or factors that enhance the will or mitigate against its function? We know, for example, that physical and emotional trauma can adversely impact cognitive function; sometimes in ways subtle and sometimes in ways not so subtle. It is therefore reasonable to ask in what way these factors might impact the formation or the spiritualisation [idealisation] of our identity.
Given that neural dynamics play a crucial role in healthy and efficient cognitive function the spiritual implications of the brain appears to be inescapable. Can we be sure that the brain isn’t tricking us into the belief that we are being guided by our spiritual principles when, in fact, we are being guided by very subtle biological inclinations? Isn’t it altogether possible for us to misconstrue biological inclination for spiritual impulses? After all, haven’t the prophets taught us that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things and even desperately wicked,’ ever leading us astray? Is it possible to discern the yearnings of the flesh from the ‘urging of the angels’?
I am reminded of an old saying: ‘the best trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’. It could certainly be argued that the greatest trick ever pulled off by the brain is the belief that it doesn’t influence our thinking processes and decision making.
The insights afforded us through contemporary neuroscience tells us that such a belief is an illusion, our neural wiring has a far more profound and extensive influence on the operations of our cognitive functions than we realise and these facts present disconcerting implications for theologians and will inevitably generate considerable cognitive dissonance among religious thinkers – at least until we have fully metabolised the implications of these facts.
My insight into how all this fits together began during one particular class while studying for my post grad. I’ll be first to admit that I have been shining my boots on the backsides of the institutions of Rome since I could understand the word ‘Hypocrisy’. No one was more vociferous in their condemnation of Rome and her servants than I. However, I had an unusual reaction once while in a room surrounded by individuals that were either not brought up in the tradition or had made an open break with it. The speaker offered patronising commentary on Catholicism, which was picked up and amplified by the group. I was suddenly and unexpectedly seized by disgust and contempt and felt immediately defensive. I was shocked at these feelings; shocked, not only that I wasn’t joining in and being the most condemnatory voice in the group but, that I felt the urge to defend my tradition [my people] from these naysayers. I was utterly paralysed between what I was observing and what I was experiencing and so remained in bewildered silence.
This stayed with me for some time. I reflected upon it. I endeavoured to digest the experience by discussing it with friends. I recognised this defensive feeling as a familial feeling. As an example of this type of feeling I will use a hypothetical family member. I can criticise family members all I want: X is lazy; X is stupid; X is a grasping, greedy, lying, selfish, money grabbing, little so-and-so. However, the moment someone from outside the family says the exact same thing, even if it is factually true, I get immediately defensive. It is acceptable to me and for me and mine [the In-Group] to make such assertions but not for anyone outside the family [the Out-Group]. The very fact of their Out-Group status makes their assertions appear hostile, ill-advised, rooted in ignorance, and maliciously intended. We feel this engage when someone from outside our neighbourhood criticises our neighbourhood, when a daughter that is critical of her mother hears someone else criticise her mother, as we watch our team suffer defeat and have to endure the taunts of a pundit or some other Out-grouper, we hear it in the speech of our fellows: We did this, We lost, We were in trouble there. The ups and downs of the We is a visceral experience regardless of the fact that the ‘I’ of this equation had no material hand, act, or part in the achievement of the asserted We.
The We experience is wired into a simple philosophical inclination: All-for-One-and-One-for-All, such that if you attack one – you attack us all, conversely – if you attack US ALL you attack One, meaning that I personalise [internalise] the feeling – I feel this as an attack on ME/US and react out of the inherent neural defence mechanisms.
Examples of the operations of this dynamic abound and it is rooted in what I call the neurological entity of the Host Identity/the US/the Blended Self [in the parlance of Social Theory it is known as the In-Group]. A functional example to highlight this would be the parent-child relationship. A child is nurtured in the womb for X number of months but upon being born it is still dependent upon the nurturing care of the parents. The Parents take over the role of the placenta/womb and, in the case of caring parents, they become - in a very real sense - an extension of the child’s immune system; they will vigorously defend their child’s well being and go to great lengths to nurture it. Even though the child is a physically separate entity, it becomes a living part of the hosts; a neurologically encircuited active and integrated value within the Host Identity of the In-Group called Family.
The nurturing In-Group expands outward from immediate family to extended family, to the larger Community to which we are attached. It has experiential roots in family, and it is therefore unsurprising that the reality and concept of Family is primal in dignity and power in the wider context of culture. The growing child is supplied with a cultural matrix that nurtures and forms identity; while the adult [ideally] has a cultural matrix that facilitates the actualisation of its highest self. These matrices are absolutely vital to our well being. We acquire the essentials, and a few luxuries, of life through group association; Group belonging is essential to survival, especially so for children. The brain understands that it exists and survives because of [owes its life to] the Group/Host Identity.
The Host Identity establishes the Key-Note, the contextualising value, of a system. Just as the child is a very real subset within a larger In-Group system the Host Identity likewise exercises a determining influence in the operations of a system and of the individual’s role within that system. It is worth bearing in mind that the things, events, and forces that affect the H.I. positively or negatively can affect the individual in-group member with just as much force as if those forces were acting upon the members own child.
The fact that the sense Host Identity is as visceral and evocative of emotionally rooted behaviour as is the connection with one’s own child is easily proved.
The In-Group can comprise Family, School, Team, Company, Religious Grouping, Profession, Political Affiliation, College, Nationality, Race, ideological persuasion, you name it. The neural circuitry of the In-Group is integrated into the deep brain [most likely the Limbic System], much lower than our higher cognitive faculties, and can therefore solicit aggression from otherwise peace loving individuals. Consider the gentle grandmother who enjoys knitting booties for the grandchildren upon whom she dotes; now consider this same grandmother pitch-side when one of her little darlings is playing an important match and a member of the opposing team [an out-grouper] fouls them. Her language and demeanour change. She becomes flush with rage and screams obscenities at the offender, the referee, the opposing team, and the whole area they are from. Were the offender close enough she’d should him what a foul was! This is the same lady who, under ordinary circumstances, wouldn’t say boo to a goose but through the operations of deeply rooted neural circuitry is transformed into a vicious defender.
As another example, any one of us may have been subject to aggressive or intimidating behaviour but we’ll most often just talk our way out of it or find some way to defuse the situation with a minimum of discomfort. We are not as motivated about ourselves as we are about our In-Group because the brain sees the In-Group as more important; it places a higher value on the In-Group than on individual. Our In-Group loyalty can veto our instincts for self-preservation and give rise to what we generally regard as selfless behaviour; that is behaviour that seeks to preserve and enhance the In-Group regardless of the consequences to the individual self. This particular type of behaviour is universally regarded as the highest virtue; while the most heinous of sins is to place the self ahead of or above the interests of the In-Group; to enrich oneself at the expense of the In-Group.
What is significant about this is that the same neural Self-Defence mechanism or circuit that operates to effect self-preservation engages when we fall under the impression that the In-Group is under threat – the brain has no alternative mechanism. The brain translates the ‘I’ into the ‘We’ - the Blended Self/Host Identity - and acts with the exact same neuro-biological mechanics and power as it would when the higher cognitive functions lose the upper hand to Panic. The potency of this dynamic is bound up with the fact that to the brain the In-Group has as a higher value than just the self; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few is a value that is hardwired into the brain.
We should bear in mind that, in a normal person, during times of Panic all higher cognitive functions become subservient to the lower brain. It is older and, from an evolutionary perspective, far more effective in getting out of dangerous situations. It is non-reflective, instinctive [automatic or practically so], and therefore much faster than the higher cognitive faculties in dealing with unexpected emergencies; more definite in decision and therefore not prone to ‘freezing’; and absolute in its prerogative to survive at all costs. However, when the individual feels that the In-Group has become prey to perceived threat from an Other the Panic experienced is of a different order: it is the survival of the Group that is at stake and therefore the self vanishes in significance, the self becomes utterly absorbed into the goal of defending the In-Group; the line between Self and the H.I. is blurred and the full cognitive and physical resources of the individual are put at the disposal of the H.I. Remember: Under such circumstances it is not just you that is in danger but your entire support network: your children, siblings, parents, country, your ‘way-of-life’, your values, the memory and sacrifices of your ancestors, everything is in danger of being effaced, and the profound urgency communicated by this sense of danger exerts a tremendous mobilising effect on the cognitive capacities and physical powers of the individual. Consequently, we could say that the presence of the self is inversely proportional to the value of the perceived threat and we can argue this position as the actions during times of such stress are very highly automatic, pre-programmed, such behaviours result from pre-established programs embedded in our neural circuitry and have little, if anything, to do with our conscious [higher] minds.
Community is inevitable and fundamental to our existence and identity. Its primacy is early programmed into our sense being. We early learn to appreciate that our existence is an effect [a function] of the existence of the Group. We reason, however poorly, that one [I] cannot exist without the other [the In-Group] and this has profound implications in terms of identity formation, one’s sense of duty, and the horizon of your moral cosmos. After all, without the Group – what am I?
All In-Groups have their defining characteristics. Membership of a group is dependent upon shared values, ideals, and beliefs. Outsiders are regarded with suspicion until their orientation and alignment with group values become known. Membership confers rights and responsibilities, privileges and obligations, opportunities and protections; all of which have a cost, refusal to conform sets in motion a series of progressive punitive measures culminating ultimately in the loss of group membership [ostracism/expulsion/death].
One can be born into a group or adopted by it. Being born into a group inevitably entails involuntary subjection to the consciousness/identity forming elements of group customs and conspires to effect the fluency of the individual in the customs, values, ideals, and the historical narrative of the group identity, all of which serve to contextualise the individual’s identity [their origin] within the meta-narrative of the Group – establishing a shared identity and destiny. The group, quite literally, becomes our world in that it establishes the horizon of cultural experience [at least in youth]. Adopted members must swear oaths of allegiance and undertake to abide by the rules, live by the values of the host group, and, if necessary, defend with their very lives the welfare of the group. All groups have their creeds and their codes: Biker gangs, Freedom Fighters, Nations, Religions, even the Boy Scouts.
The global community of Christendom is divided up into many - [largely] mutually exclusive - ‘nations’, whose borders are defined by their respective creeds and codes, many of whom who have made salvation and passage into communion dependent upon the willingness of the prospective member to subscribe to their particular variation of their respective creeds and proscribe and reject everyone else’s; a salvation by right beliefs sort of thing. The fact that these structures are found repeatedly in such endless profusion [across all races and cultures] is not a coincidence– it has a biological root. It is the stamp that indicates the operation of deep neurological circuitry.
So, what can all this teach us about religion, conflict, and peace?
Let us take Catholicism as an example. It is best that I do as I am a member of that family, [albeit that I am one of the black sheep] and can therefore speak with relative impunity – as one family member speaking about the others. For now, at least, they haven’t kicked me out. Though, realistically, it’s only a matter of time really, and after this article I doubt I’ll be welcomed anywhere else.
The Catholic Church, the institutions and ideologies of Rome, all her servants high and low, and the lowly flock she shepherds, is one enormous Host Identity. It has its defining features that make it distinct from others but at heart it differs in words only; structurally it is largely the same. Protestant groups have their creeds and codes to which you must subscribe if you are to be adopted by their community. The nation of Ireland or Russia presents their demands to any prospective citizen. Citizenship is only a right to those born within the community, everyone else must earn the privilege; the means of earning this privilege varies from place to place.
When one In-Group shares the same living space with other and competing Out-Groups, the neurological dynamics of Dominance come into play. A key driving factor in this interplay between groups is the process of internalisation of Group Identity through which ‘I’ becomes ‘US/WE’ wherein and whereby an individual learns to contextualise their existence by means of the cultural instruments of the In-Group or, put another way, the individuals identity becomes encircuited into the Host Identity such that their fates are seen as identical. Dominance behaviour is rooted in our biology; it is a key step towards securing unfettered access to the perceived limited resources of an environment. Dominance is little concerned with things like: Fairness, Justice, Karma, Morality, Ethics, Mercy, and Goodness. These ideals and values are discerned by the higher mind. The biologically dominated brain is single minded, crude, and brutal. Morality is a blessing bestowed upon the faithful [loyal] members of the In-Group.
During the struggle for dominance the bestial comes to the fore, albeit that it often appears in the habiliments of self-righteousness – more than figuratively, the wolf of biological inclination in the sheep’s clothing of the raiment of cultural sophistication. When, for example, the Catholic Church is perceived to be ‘under attack’ from an ‘ISM’ of one form or another, the neurologically rooted self-defence mechanisms engage [the exact same mechanism that engages when two people (or peoples) fight or prepare to fight]. The brain immediately screens all knowledge of the Other/Out-Group for weaknesses and amplifies the supposed ‘wrongs’ suffered at their hands [the biological roots of prejudice, this same screening occurs when two people argue] and concocts a multi-pronged plan of attack involving rhetoric, invective, threats, intimidation, deception, aggression – exactly the sort of behaviour that animals demonstrate when they find themselves in strange territory and feel inclined to assert dominance for fear of appearing weak. There is much bluster and locking of horns, albeit that this occurs on a much higher intellectual plane.
Religious ‘nations’/In-Group Identities/Host Identities like Catholicism or Protestantism do not war as might England and France with weapons of steel and fire, their wars are fought using different means but the desired result is usually the same – the extermination of the diseased vermin that is the Other, and the mechanism and values that drive this behaviour in both parties is identical. A brain engaged in hostility naturally dehumanises the Other. The defensive brain creates highly simplified and distorted characterisations of the Other [exactly as occurs when two people argue]: this helps dissolve empathy and is the biological root of institutional racism and sectarianism. Group Alpha’s set the tone, inculcating group hate, group animosity, group acrimony, through consciousness forming propaganda that demonises the other; covertly or implicitly in times of ‘peace’ or overtly and explicitly in times of ‘war’. Like the Wasp Queen, she sets the mood of the nest. If she’s stressed, everybody gets stressed. If she’s at ease, everyone will feel at ease. If she says ‘FIGHT!’ everybody gets out and fights.
The images of the Other concocted by the stressed brain are stereotypes: simplified, shorthand symbols referring to threatening entities or competitors for dominance [persons or groups]. Stereotypes emerge from within In-Groups, they require the over-arching context provided by the Host Identities in order to be intelligible. Stereotypes are usually highly simplistic and drift easily into gross misrepresentation. As symbols their roots can be traced to the emotional functions of the Limbic and the symbol making Right-Brain systems – the long and arduous path across the higher functions of the pre-frontal and orbito-frontal cortex and language and logic centres of the Left Brain means that logic and rationality are often not a part of these exchanges.
Stereotypes are an attempt by the subconscious of ‘one’ [some group Alpha] to effect the conformity of consciousness, to co-opt or entrain the consciousness of an ‘other’ in the In-Group and thereby seek to establish the behavioural standard of one [favoured] group toward another [ill favoured] group. This is a key step in the effecting of the dominance of one group over another. Dominance is not about respect, it is about control of perceived limited resources, and is ultimately rooted in fear of death/extinction. Such behaviours have their roots in our biology, not our pneumatology. It is significant that we are emotional beings long before we ever learn to be rational beings. The simplistic emotional ‘logic’ of the brain I term ‘Bio-Logic’ and unless we are specifically trained otherwise bio-logic is the default operating system of most individuals.
These factors highlight the necessity of transcending biologically rooted self [the Ego] and one’s Host Identity as a prerequisite for the apperception of truth and, furthermore, indicates the value of the quest for the ultimate meta-narrative of the whole of Creation and the super Host Identity of the Great Cosmic Brotherhood that it promises.
Dehumanising and objectifying the Other dissolves and dismantles any moral quandaries or apprehensions that may exist about executing violence and injustice against the Other. The In-Group is always seen as noble, pure, honest, brave, loving, worthy, while servants of the Out-Group are depicted in opposite tones: ignoble, corrupt, cowards, hate filled, wretched, poisonous, treacherous. They are said to ‘hate us and all we stand for’, they are toxic, association with them is dangerous, their disease is infectious, contact with them must be avoided at all costs.
The biological program of the Host Identities is predisposed to suspicion of aliens and is naturally primed for defensive behaviours upon contact with perceived potential ‘competitors’. Outsiders create stress in a system because their alignment with the values and ideals of the group is unknown. In the absence of information systems tend toward chaos, and the absence of information on this issue fosters mistrust, suspicion, and paranoia, and motivates the In-Group to establish a ‘polarising filter’ through which the ‘outsider’ can only pass by projecting or assuming ‘shapes’ and/or ‘positions’ familiar to the interrogator [oaths of loyalty – tests of fealty]. Inability to meet the established criteria triggers an escalation in defensive measures. Inability or unwillingness to conform may have fatal consequences. Political, religious, and economic imperialism can trace its roots back to this biologically rooted urge to dominance and desire to establish conformity.
When the Protestant identity first emerged from its Host the birth was brutal and bloody. The off-spring was immediately perceived as an enemy – a competitor, a threat to dominance. The Host being actually dominant spent considerable resources in its attempts to destroy the child it gave birth to but to no avail. The child was found to be vigorous, inventive, highly adaptable, and utterly indomitable.
Outside of the physical implements of war employed by the servants of Rome there was considerable theological rhetoric: justifications, defences, propositions, attacks, apologetics, not to mention excommunication. The purpose of this was to bolster the identity of the Catholic In-Group with the intention of undermining the Protestant Out-Group. A considerable amount of ink has been spilled in service to this agenda. This fact proves that much of what passes for theology has its roots NOT in our pneumatology [our relationship with the spiritual and things divine] but in our biology [the bonds of the flesh that tie us to matter]. Our brains have very successfully deceived us into thinking that our reasoning served a higher purpose, that we were ‘doing God’s will’ but little did we realise how profoundly true was the declaration ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’, for in this insight do we discover that though people felt that they were acting in service to God or a higher and noble calling the fact remains that they were still servants of the flesh and not the spirit.
The animosity that exists between the Religious Host Identities exists not in the Host itself but in the hearts of its component members. Host Identities/In-Groups are not hot houses or incubators of divisive and exclusivist theology, moreover these divisive and exclusivist theologies are simply a testament to FEAR; the fear of the Other felt by its members - which exists in direct contravention of the universal brotherhood taught and lived by all spiritual masters. Religion did not invent these things. Religion can’t. Religion is not a person. Religion has neither reflective moral imagination nor free will. On macroscopic levels H.I. exhibit animal like behaviour and the reason for this can be found in the beating heart of the animal that gives life to the system.
So here we are. It was once said that ‘That there’s only enough religion in the world to make us hate one another but not enough to make us love one another.’ The line of reasoning that I have herein outlined proves that the hate is not endemic to religion but is sponsored by the fear dominated heart of the instruments of the Host Identity. It is in our very own hearts that we find the roots of invective and aggression, the will that facilitates and fosters institutional racism, sectarianism, and imperialism.
In the fear driven human heart is to be found the seed of many of the world’s troubles but it is equally in the fear purged heart, the heart inspired and illuminated by divine spiritual ideals – a will liberated from the bonds of the flesh, is to be found the cure for all that ails her.
Under such conditions, as evolving, self directing imperfect beings, conflict is inevitable but as the race matures, and we come to understand ourselves more fully, peace will be attained, first personally – on an individual, person by person basis, and thereafter socially as these healthy beings come together to form healing wholes.
This insight strikes, with lethal force, at the biological root of theological arrogance. It does not kill identity or tradition. It does not make them null and void. It contextualises its role in our evolution and helps us distinguish between good [spiritually infused] religion and bad [biologically rooted] religion. It allows us to re-contextualise religious, political, and economic imperialism; allows us to understand history anew and to envision a far better future than ever we could and do so with the realisation that such a future is truly attainable.
There is much here that I have not touched upon: the spiritual significance of Loyalty and how In-Group loyalty sets the defining meta-narrative for sin; The phenomenon of the Internalisation of Identity; The political, social, economic, and religious implications and possibilities inherent in internalisation and self transcendence; Self: knowing, understanding, directing; considerations in the synchronising of the material self with the divine/higher self; Transcending Self, Host Identity, and attaining membership of the Host Identity of the Cosmos.