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Frank Zindler: Why Is Religiosity So Hard To Cure?

April 2, Afternoon session.

The day’s formal session ended with “Why Is Religiosity So Hard To Cure?” by Frank Zindler. Mr. Zindler for twenty years was a teacher and professor of biology, psychobiology, and geology. Currently, he works as a linguist and editor of biochemical literature for a scientific publishing society. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Schools of Oriental Research, Society of Biblical Literature, and several other learned and professional organizations. In addition, he is a regular participant in the Jesus Seminar, and has lectured and written extensive about Bible history, creationist pseudoscience and evolution, and the historicity of Jesus. Zindler is fluent in several languages including a number of ancient dialects.

Mr. Zindler is editor of American Atheist Press and the American Atheist Magazine.

Drawing on personal experience, Zindler noted that logically refuting religious claims, or demolishing the historical foundations of doctrines, did not necessarily alter a person’s “belief” in a particular religion. He found a belief spectrum, from Biblical scholars who doubted the historical validity of canonical text but embraced a form of “intelligent design/creationism,” to technical scientists who -- despite a strong background in hard science -- embraced prophesy or similar tenets. Why do people continue to believe in the face of logic and evidence? Why can otherwise very intelligent people be religious believers?

One reason behind the “problem of the intelligent believer” is the ability of some people to compartmentalize their lives; he cited the case of a rabid fundamentalist who nevertheless was a competent, even proficient research biologist. In some cases, for example, perceptual biases -- say, about the consistency or inconsistency of Biblical texts -- can overwhelm any amount of contrary evidence.

Zindler noted the predominance of religion in cultures throughout history, and then noted the Darwinian basis of certain universal characteristics among humans. Could there be a similar basis for religious beliefs? One clue is “entheogenic” drugs or substances which create a sense of spiritual or ecstatic experience; “they are drugs that essentially ‘create god.’ Examples would be certain hallucinogenic substances, amanita muscaria (sacred mushrooms) and other substances. Similarly, there are “drugs which can take god away” -- anti-psychotic drugs, for instance, will often alleviate symptoms in certain patients who insist that they “hear god” or sense other supernatural beings.

Zindler added that it is possible to artificially induce “religious experiences” in nearly every person, including an Atheist. Hypnotic states of consciousness, for instance, replicate the subjective religious states that are often reported by believers. Another agent is temporal lobe epilepsy, which has been known to scientists for over a century; people who suffer from this are often extremely religious, even violent in their behavior. The location of the lesion which is the neurophysical basis of the epilepsy often is associated with a part of the brain related to religious sympathies, visions o states of consciousness.

“There are parts of the brain which when stimulated electrically will give the person religious experiences. This includes loss of sense of self, a feeling of being “one with the planet,” or receiving some ineffable kind of knowledge...”

If there is a part of the brain which allows these “god experiences,” what does this mean? Why would evolution move in such a direction? Some studies implicate parts of the brain involved in speech; but Zindler suggested that the “pre-verbal” portions of the brain, those having to do with non-verbal communication, may provide a crucial answer in this puzzle.

“Before we developed language, we evolved another system which suggested what was needed -- we had this communication ability.”

For Zindler, religion distorts perceptions, thus rendering somewhat immune to logical criticism. Fear in particular feeds religious phobias.

Zindler then segued into in a discussion of Atheism and different types of Atheists. What he termed “Type-A Atheists” are those in whom the need for religion never emerged. “Type-B Atheists” are former believers, but are quintessential extroverts. The A Types are drawn essentially by logical arguments; they need to be shown that “there are lots and lots of devils out there, which means that Atheists need to join together as an act of self defense and preservation.” Type-B Atheists look for social re-enforcement, the company of other Atheists, activities with others.

The Friday speakers’ portion of the Convention concluded. This evening, an informal cocktail soiree will be held along with the Life Members Dinner. The convention, and web cam coverage resumes tomorrow starting at 9:00 a.m. E.T.

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