Stanford anthropologist Robert Sapolsky considers it a good possibility that religion is a result of the passionate and irrational beliefs of persuasive persons with schizophrenia, and outlines his hypothesis in a recent 90 minute lecture, bootlegged below.
If I understand Sapolsky’s argument correctly, it goes
1. Schizophrenia is a genetic disorder.
2. Like other grievous disorders, in its fullest form, schizophrenia would be wiped out by evolution.
3. To survive evolution, like other grievous disorders, schizophrenia must have a “positive” function in its partial form.
4. (Understated) There are many forms of schizophrenia, and many ways the disorder manifests. Science has not mapped the illness.
4. One partial form of schizophrenia is called schizotypal disorder, symptoms of which are concrete and “metamagical” thinking.
5. Historical religious practices – and current religious practice – express many examples of paranoid, compulsive, schizotypal, and insane thinking and behavior, which has adapted to a closed community of persons with a high tolerance for a specific sort of weirdness and defined as religion.
6. It’s presumable that persons with what we call schizotypal disorders have found fulfilling and influential roles as mystics, shaman, seers, oracles, saints, visionaries, artists, both forming and supporting the supernatural foundations of religions, and therefore schizophrenia perpetuates.
If you think Sapolsky’s argument is tenuous, consider the alternative.
Dr. Sapolsky is a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, and a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museum of Kenya. In 2008, National Geographic & PBS aired an hour-long special on stress featuring Dr. Sapolsky and his research on the subject. In addition to A Primate’s Memoir, which won the 2001 Bay Area Book Reviewers Award in nonfiction, Robert Sapolsky has written three other books, The Trouble with Testosterone, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and Monkeyluv and Other Essays on our Lives as Animals. His articles have appeared in publications such as Discover and The New Yorker. Dr. Sapolsky was awarded Rockefeller University’s Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science for 2008.
EXTRA – Robert Sapolsky at Stanford, his recent research
EXTRA – Robert Sapolsky on Wikipedia
EXTRA – Find out if you’re crazy with this 50 question online schizotypal personality questionnaire
EXTRA – DSM IV TSR diagnostic criteria for schizotypal disorder