Are humans genetically predisposed to believe in gods?

Answer by Jim Ashby:

It must be over a decade now since we confirmed that the brain can produce 'spiritual' experiences. It was discovered when scientists explored the association between epilepsy and intense spiritual experiences. It seems that temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) creates electrical storms in the brain that stimulates an adjacent area (originally labeled the 'God Module'). Many of these epileptics are hyper-religious. Since then, other research indicates that it's not a single module involved but other areas of the brain also. Using magnetic stimulation, researchers can elicit sensations of transcendence, awe, and majesty as well as out-of-body experiences (OOBE) or the sense of another, unseen, presence in the room.

Why our brains have evolved this peculiar function is a matter of debate. Conventional speculation is that it could be a primitive coping mechanism of some sort with various implications for spirituality and religiosity. It should be noted that some people are more sensitive to the 'God Module' than others are. This could partly account for diversity in religiosity: why some people have spiritual experiences and some don't.

I remember, years ago, Epilepsy Toronto had, on its web page, a list of famous people who have had epilepsy. The idea of the list is that epilepsy doesn’t need to stand in the way of achievement. On that list – along with such luminaries as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joan of Arc, Napoleon and Newton – was Muhammad. Well, you guessed it . . . the incendiary email this organization received from indignant Muslims, prompted them to quickly remove Muhammad from its on-line list. By now, we all know that nothing gets results like Muslim threats.

This Epilepsy Toronto incident reminded me of the connection between epilepsy and the ”God Module”. Could it be that a major branch of history has been determined by one man’s bout with epilepsy? I think it might have! It certainly is a possibility.

Anyway, I did a Google search for ”Muhammad and epilepsy” and hit pay-dirt. There appears to be a strong correlation between the symptoms of epilepsy and witness descriptions of Muhammad’s condition while in his ”trances”. Epilepsy (the ”sacred disease”, also known as the ”falling sickness”) is what the ancients thought were demon possessions. According to historian Philip Schaff (1819-93), witnesses reported that Muhammad 'sometimes growled like a camel, foamed at his mouth, and streamed with perspiration.' One article claimed that Muhammad was known to have had epileptic symptoms from at least the age of five but I have no idea how they know that.

Epilepsy would explain Muhammad’s visions and preoccupation with spirituality and his solitary retreats to the mountains for contemplative meditation. Many epileptics describe the spiritual sensations surrounding seizures as so exquisite that they actually look forward to these fits. Fyodor Dostoyevsky claimed that he would not trade 10 years of life for a single epilepsy-induced spiritual experience.

Ancient, superstitious people, especially in Muhammad’s day, were easily impressed by these seizures. They seemed real, because they were. However, they weren't demon possessions or contact with God; they were epileptic seizures. These seizures are reported to have frightened Muhammad until his wife, Khadija (the first, ever, Muslim), convinced him that they were divine communiqués. That’s right . . . Khadija was the first Muslim – Muhammad was the second.

There is only anecdotal evidence that Muhammad was an epileptic. It’s just a theory but is a convincing one: many historians and researchers believe it. Owsei Temkin, Professor Emeritus of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Falling Sickness: A history of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the beginnings of Modern Neurology, wrote that:

Epilepsy was first attributed to Muhammad by 8th century Byzantine historian Theophanes who wrote, in his 'Chronography', that Muhammad’s wife "was very much grieved that she, being of noble descent, was tied to such a man, who was not only poor but epileptic as well."

19th century orientalist, D. S. Margoliouth, also claimed that Muhammad suffered from epilepsy and might even have faked epileptic seizures, for effect, during some of his more conveniently timed 'revelations'. Another 19th century orientalist, Aloys Sprenger, attributed Muhammad's revelations to epileptic seizures or a "paroxysm of cataleptic insanity." In 1869, Sir William Muir, in his book, 'The Life of Mahomet' also attributed epilepsy to Muhammad.

However, most modern historians reject the epilepsy diagnosis. But Dr. Frank R. Freemon claims that such rejections are based on widespread misconceptions about the various types of epilepsy and that differential diagnosis rules out schizophrenic hallucinations, drug-induced hallucinations, transient ischemic attacks, hypoglycemia, labyrinthitis, Ménière’s disease, and inner ear maladies. His analysis led to a diagnosis of psychomotor seizures from temporal lobe epilepsy as the most likely explanation. However, he did acknowledge that it's impossible to make an unequivocal differential diagnosis.

More recently, prolific author, Clifford A. Pickover, in his book, 'Strange Brains and Genius', wrote that:

Dostoevsky, another famous epileptic whose works are filled with ecstatic visions of universal love (and terrible nightmares of uncanny fear and radical evil), thought it was obvious that Mohammad’s visions of God were triggered by epilepsy. ”Mohammad assures us in this Koran that he had seen Paradise,” Dostoevsky notes. ”He did not lie. He had indeed been in Paradise during an attack of epilepsy, from which he suffered, as I do.”

I guess it takes one to know one.

Are humans genetically predisposed to believe in gods?

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3 thoughts on “Are humans genetically predisposed to believe in gods?”

  1. I can see that up to a point. If you remove the pressures for food and mates, status means nothing tangible. These are part of the human condition culturally speaking, not a necessary part. Given that it is not necessary, meaning and purpose are without meaning outside of a cultural context. Change the culture and you change the context.

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  2. Why must everything have a purpose? Why must everything have a meaning? Sometimes sh1t happens and that is what it is. Why must epileptics be normal or strive to be? Why is ‘normal’ good?

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    1. I think it might be a part of the human condition. Maybe it’s a consequence of being intelligent, self-aware, time-aware, death-aware social animals who must compete for our meals and our mates and our status.

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