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To Believe and “Sacrifice”: A Scientific Reason

A Scientific Reason
Religion can also serve as a crucial tool for facilitating large, cooperative societies. The continued prevalence and importance of religion across cultures can largely be attributed to its use as a social mechanism.
| Sumeyra Tosun | Issue 153 (May - Jun 2023)

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Personal Ethics

In This Article

  • What is the place of some religious practices in our lives? How do we, as human beings, relate to the notion we call faith?
  • Meditation, as well as other contemplative spiritual practices, improve attention and deactivates brain regions responsible for self-focus.
  • The continued prevalence and importance of religion across cultures can largely be attributed to its use as a social mechanism. Religion is one of the primary methods by which societies encourage unrelated individuals to treat each other with kindness.

Throughout history religion has, and continues to, occupy a powerful position in people's lives. Despite doubts raised by philosophers and scientists, religion has thrived in every culture for thousands of years with over 85 percent of the world's population currently subscribing to some form of religious belief. While this is so, there are many who are critical of religious traditions, especially with respect to certain rituals, which they find strange: fasting all day, going long distances to visit a sanctuary, circumambulating a building, and of course offering sacrifices are among such practices.

Many Islamic scholars have defined worship as submission to God with love and reverence and seeking nearness to Him by doing what He has commanded. Well, what is the place of such religious practices, which look strange to some, in our lives? How do we, as human beings, relate to the notion we call faith?

Neuroscience findings that have emerged in recent years show that we have a very fundamental relationship with faith – and therefore with such acts of worship. Researchers who explore the psychology and neuroscience of religion are shedding light on why, and how, religious belief endures. Neurotheologians contend that the human brain's structure and operation predispose us to have faith in God. They suggest that God's biological substrate is located in the limbic system, the brain's emotion center.  According to Rhawn Joseph, a renowned neurotheologian, the limbic system contains “God neurons” and “God neurotransmitters” (Joseph, 2001). The hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus are among the limbic structures that have been linked to religious conviction. Neurotheologians cite alterations in these regions in functional MRI scans of subjects practicing religious meditation. They argue that if thinking about God alters brain function, there must be an inherent neural drive to believe in God. A study published in 2009 demonstrated that religious thoughts activate the region of the brain involved in interpreting others' emotions and intentions known as “theory of mind” (Azar, 2010; Kapogiannis et al., 2009).

Thinking about God, it has been found, is akin to thinking about an authority figure, like one’s parents. The difference is related to contemplative practices, such as meditation and prayer, which can alter the brain's wiring in regular practitioners (Slagter et al., 2011). When the brain activity of long-term Buddhist meditators was monitored during meditation with fMRI and EEG techniques, it has been found that they possess a more robust and well-organized attention system than novice meditators. Essentially, meditation, as well as other contemplative spiritual practices, improve attention and deactivates brain regions responsible for self-focus (Davidson & Lutz, 2008).

For the first time in history, we are gaining insight into spiritual experiences as not being separate from the human body but rather intertwined with human matter, specifically the brain's matter. Consequently, matter and spirit are no longer seen as opposing forces but rather as interconnected, if not identical (Delio, 2003).

Hamer's research does not aim to prove the existence of God, which falls within the purview of religion, but rather to demonstrate that spirituality is a genuine phenomenon that can be defined and measured. As Hamer views it, spirituality is rooted in genetics while religion derives from memes – the cultural equivalent of genes – ideas, values, or behavioral patterns passed from one generation to the next through non-genetic means, often by imitation. He posits that religion is influenced by environmental factors while spirituality is influenced by nature (Goldman, 2004; Hamer, 2005).

These cognitions share a common thread that leads us to perceive the world as deliberately designed by someone or something. Young children, for instance, often believe that even minor aspects of the natural world were created with a purpose. If you inquire why a collection of rocks is sharp, they may say, “So animals won't sit on them and break them.” When asked about the reason for the existence of rivers, they may answer, “So we can go fishing” (Kelemen, 2004). Research suggests that adults also tend to seek meaning particularly during times of uncertainty.

Neuroscientific studies lend credence to the notion that the brain has an innate inclination to believe. This inclination appears to be distributed throughout the brain and likely stems from neural pathways (Kapogiannis et al., 2009). This aligns with the Islamic principle of the “original pattern,” which refers to the innate disposition that God has instilled in human beings. “So set your whole being upon the Religion as one of pure faith. This is the original pattern belonging to God on which He has originated humankind. No change can there be in God’s creation. This is the upright, ever-true Religion, but most of the people do not know” (Qur’an 30:30).

Spiritual beliefs may also contribute to a longer and healthier life. A significant body of research indicates that religious individuals have a longer lifespan, are less prone to depression, are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and are even more likely to attend dental appointments more regularly (Inzlicht & Tullett, 2010; 2011; McCullough & Willoughby, 2009).

Religion can also serve as a crucial tool for facilitating large, cooperative societies. The continued prevalence and importance of religion across cultures can largely be attributed to its use as a social mechanism. Religion is one of the primary methods by which societies encourage unrelated individuals to treat each other with kindness (Norenzayan et al., 2016). Research conducted in 15 diverse societies found that individuals who practiced a world religion displayed greater fairness towards strangers in economic games than non-religious individuals (Henrich et al., 2010).

The Holy Qur’an emphasizes the importance of combining belief with good deeds, referring to true Muslims as “those who believe and do good deeds” (e.g., Qur'an 2:277; 4:173; 10:4, 10:9, 13:29; 19:96). Virtuous deeds serve as the guiding principle for Muslim behavior, and the concept of a “giving culture” is fundamental to comprehensive development in Islam. Therefore, there are various ways to promote charitable behavior and donations among Muslims. Sacrifice, or Qurban, is a significant method of charitable behavior in Islam. It involves sacrificing (usually) a sheep or a cow during a specific time of the year, and the Qur’an orders that the meat be eaten while also feeding the poor who live in contentment and humility (Qur’an 22:36). Muslims are prescribed to keep one-third of the share, and donate the remaining two. Although it is a demanding practice, many Muslims follow this order each year.

One of the primary purposes of the Qurban practice in Islam is to cultivate piety and increase believers' consciousness of God. As the Qur’an states, it is not the physical offering of the sacrificial animals that reaches God but rather the devotion and piety of the individuals who offer them (Qur’an 22:37). The practice is meant to bring believers closer to God and strengthen their relationship with Him as the word “Qurban” itself is derived from a root word meaning “closeness.”

Overall, Islam emphasizes the importance of improving one's relationship with God and with all of His creation. The Qur’anic verses emphasize the significance of doing good deeds and being aware of God's presence in all aspects of life. This focus on piety and spiritual awareness may explain the prevalence of religious practices that promote prosocial behaviors, charitable giving among Muslims, and the relationship with our Maker. Thus, with the practice of sacrifice/qurban we fulfil our nature of being as we are predisposed to believe in God and develop a closer relationship with him.

References

  • Azar, B. (2010). A reason to believe. Monitor on Psychology, 41(11), 53-56.
  • Davidson, R. J., & Lutz, A. (2008). Buddha's brain: Neuroplasticity and meditation [in the spotlight]. IEEE signal processing magazine, 25(1), 176-174.
  • Delio I. (2003). Are we wired for God? New Theology Review, 16, 31-43.
  • Goldman, M. A. (2004). The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes.
  • Hamer, D. H. (2005). The God gene: How faith is hardwired into our genes. Anchor.
  • Henrich, J., Ensminger, J., McElreath, R., Barr, A., Barrett, C., Bolyanatz, A., ... & Ziker, J. (2010). Markets, religion, community size, and the evolution of fairness and punishment. Science, 327(5972), 1480-1484.
  • Inzlicht, M., & Tullett, A. M. (2010). Reflecting on God: Religious primes can reduce neurophysiological response to errors. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1184-1190.
  • Inzlicht, M., Tullett, A. M., & Good, M. (2011). Existential neuroscience: a proximate explanation of religion as flexible meaning and palliative. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1(3), 244-251.
  • Joseph R. (2001). The limbic system and the soul: evolution and the neuroanatomy of religious experience. Zygon, 36,105-136.
  • Kapogiannis, D., Barbey, A. K., Su, M., Zamboni, G., Krueger, F., & Grafman, J. (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(12), 4876-4881.
  • Kelemen, D. (2004). Are children “intuitive theists”? Reasoning about purpose and design in nature. Psychological Science, 15(5), 295-301.
  • McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69.
  • Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A. F., Gervais, W. M., Willard, A. K., McNamara, R. A., Slingerland, E., & Henrich, J. (2016). The cultural evolution of prosocial religions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39, e1.
  • Slagter, H. A., Davidson, R. J., & Lutz, A. (2011). Mental training as a tool in the neuroscientific study of brain and cognitive plasticity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5, 17.

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