Robert Sapolsky: Religion is a mental illness

July 9, 2017 • 1:00 pm

I discovered neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky this weekend, and now reader jjh called my attention to this video showing him lecture on religion. In response to Westerners who laugh at shamans and the like, Sapolsky argues that our own society is afflicted with equally stupid stuff, ranging from religion, which he calls “Westernized irrationality”, to New Age crystal fetishes. He also claims, based on the similarity of religious behavior and schizophrenic behavior, that religion is a human construct founded by “schizotypals,” and many religious people are on the “spectrum of schizotypalism”. He further argues that the inventors of religion may have also had obsessive-compulsive disorders, which led to the pervasiveness of ritual. I’m not sure all of this is true, but it’s interesting to hear a neuroscientist view religion through the lens of his expertise.

I won’t reprise Sapolsky’s arguments in this 19-minute video, but I do have two things to say. First, I’m amazed that he could get away with this kind of stuff. It helps that he’s at Stanford, a private university, and thus isn’t subject to First Amendment restrictions, but he’s also soft spoken and kindly, which eases the sting of his words. Further, it helps that he’s probably teaching about neuroscience, and thus has the excuse of analyzing a pervasive human phenomenon through the lens of his profession. Finally, Sapolsky is just as “strident” as any New Atheist, and we should count him among them from now on. Actually, I see that the Freedom From Religion Foundation recognized this by giving Sapolsky its “Emperor Has No Clothes Award” in 2002, so he’s been doing this for a while.

He’s an excellent lecturer. If you want to hear a related and equally provocative four-minute talk, go here.

49 thoughts on “Robert Sapolsky: Religion is a mental illness

  1. Sapolsky is an amazing guy, yet another thoroughgoing atheist with the intellectual ability to ground it. Another atheist of my acquaintance has also mentioned him very appreciatively.

    He is one of the subjects with a short personal essay in the book Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, in which a number of leading scientists explain how they got involved in science.

    Here are my two favorite quotes from the essay:

    “I see science as an imperative, a weapon against antiprogressive forces in society, against right-wing yahoos, against religious intolerance.”

    “Two nights later (he had just been exposed to the some of the more horrendous parts of the bible), I woke up in the middle of the night with the sudden cold realization: There is no God. This is gibberish. Since then, I’ve had no religion, in fact no capacity for spirituality of any sort whatsoever. This is not a cold point of view: I am as intensely emotional now as I was at the age of thirteen, and I don’t find science and emotionality to be at all contradictory. Nor do I believe that science is an emotional substitute for religion. But for me, it has finally made the religious worldview impossible.”

  2. I am surprised you didn’t know this one. The complete one is here, at one hour and twenty minutes.

    In his Introduction to Human Behavioural Biology (you should see at least the first, some later ones are very specialist, and can be skipped, but also touches on gender and dimorphism and such), he says somewhere that the lesson on religion is not filmed and included, and hints at problems.

    Also see this great talk: Are Humans Another Primate?

    1. I was just about to post this 🙂 Thanks, Aneris. Both these lectures are hardcore Sapolsky
      and required reading for everybody.

    2. His comments about sickle cell anaemia were interesting. Schizophrenia appears to have a genetic base but why is it assumed that there’s a schizophrenia gene?

      With sickle cell inheriting a single copy of the gene has benefits but inheriting two causes the illness.

      Could schizophrenia be the product of several genes that, individually, are adaptive, but that if inherited in combination are pathological?

      If that were the case evolution would preserve those genes.

      1. My thought as well. The combination would be rarer than the individual genes which together are maladaptive. Thus, it is maintained in the population in a kind of chancy balance.

        1. I’ve read that autistics often excel at ‘folk physics’ rather than ‘folk psychology’. There also seems to be a correlation between families with autistic kids and engineers.

          I’m on the spectrum; one of my brothers is a physics teacher, the other is a plumber. So it doesn’t seem a stretch of the imagination to me that autism may be the product of of genes that may be adaptive individually – including genes that may code for curiosity or an instinctive grasp for how things work – but maladaptive in combination.

          Other conditions may have a similar cause.

          1. The prevalence of autism in the Dutch city of Eindhoven is significantly higher. This is thought to be caused by the Dutch company Philips having its r&d there for over 125 years and the engineers this attracted.

  3. When I, a thoughtful and unblessed Presbyterian, examine the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is insane; not in all things, but in religious matters. (Mark Twain)

  4. I don’t really but the ‘religion is a mental illness’ argument because mental illnesses are partly defined by their divergence from norms and for religious people in religious societies that simply is not the case.

    Schizotypy seems like a poor candidate in any case. Look at the symptoms (from Wkiipedia):

    1. Unusual experiences: The disposition to have unusual perceptual and other cognitive experiences, such as hallucinations, magical or superstitious belief and interpretation of events (see also delusions).

    Well, no. Religious experiences are simply not ‘unusual’ in societies where they are the norm.

    2. Cognitive disorganization: A tendency for thoughts to become derailed, disorganised or tangential (see also formal thought disorder).

    Again, no. Far from ‘disorganised thought’ religions offer a structure through which everything can be ‘understood’ or at least assigned a ‘proper’ place or meaning.

    Introverted anhedonia: A tendency to introverted, emotionally flat and asocial behaviour, associated with a deficiency in the ability to feel pleasure from social and physical stimulation.

    I wish. If religion lead to ’emotional flatness’ theists wouldn’t be blowing shit up and throwing a hissy-fit over teddy bears and cartoons. Nor can religious rapture be reconciled with a lack of affect.

    Impulsive nonconformity: The disposition to unstable mood and behaviour particularly with regard to rules and social conventions.

    Non-conformity and a disregard for rules and social conventions are precisely the opposite of what we see from the religious. Religions emphasise order, hierarchy, obedience and submission.

    There are conditions such as schizophrenia and temporal lobe epilepsy which correlate highly with hyper-religiosity just as there are conditions like Aspergers which correlate with atheism.

    We don’t have a shared language for talking about social pathologies in the way we do for mental health issues, and we need one.

    At best applying mental health terminology to social issues offers us vague and misleading metaphors such as ‘delusional’ and at worst promotes ignorance and misunderstanding of genuine psychiatric conditions or developmental disorders.

    1. I tend to agree. Mental disease generally is defined as behavior outside the norm. Which is why homosexuality is no longer considered a disease because it consistently appears in humans the world over.

      Religious belief and rules, far more than homosexuality are near universal (and far more universal than atheism). The details vary, and certainly religion is not rational, but many other things humans do (including perfectly normal sexual behaviors) are not rational either.

      I suspect that generic ‘religion’ is an evolutionary adaptation. Not that the beliefs are true (usually obviously false), but as part of our complex and powerful social instincts, it forms a complex social and behavioral bond. Nature doesn’t care that the beliefs are largely nonsense, but when a population is unified under a shared sense of belief, ritual and morality, the result tends to be a lot more powerful and cohesive than a loose confederation of intellects. In fact there is some evidence that the more strange or extreme the ritual, the stronger the effect. One explanation is that interlopers would have a much harder time faking an esoteric or emotionally/physically demanding ritual. It makes it easier to spot an outsider.

      Some years ago there was a study of kibbutzes in Israel. Over the course of time the religiously based ones stayed intact, while the secularly organized ones tended to fall apart after a while.

      1. Jay observed in passing that: “In fact there is some evidence that the more strange or extreme the ritual, the stronger the effect.” EXACTLY. We see this in every new instance of jihadi homicide/suicide behavior and in other less destructive examples, such as the Haredim in Israel.

    2. I was going back to read through and note that I agree on much, but I see that I either reproduced or unwittingly copied whole or part of your correlation analysis that I saw during earlier browsing.

      Generally I have learned to be very cautious about behavior, disorder and diagnosis. And so see little prior value until I have observational data to look at.

    3. It might be that schizotypy, as Sapolsky describes it, appears mainly in religious leaders like shamans and Martin Luther. We could say they are completely delusional and fit the description of the disorder. What you seem to point out is that religious cultures consist of people who don’t meet the requirements. The followers of the shamans and priests. It’s possible, though, that the cultural conditions which lead people to be devout followers are always with us. Times of stress and insecurity make the larger population needy and susceptible. Religious societies do not require everyone to be schizotypic, only a few key individuals.
      Interestingly, nonreligious cultures, modern Scandinavia for example, have many fewer followers of religious zealots, probably precisely because they have succeeded in removing stress and insecurity.

  5. Kind of reminds me of Jonathan Haidt in that he’s using his intellectually clout and soft-spoken manner to expose insanity without too much backlash. Great scientist.

    When will be allowed to truly speak about modern SJWs, marxists and postmodernists with the same freedom?

    How many parallels to religious behavior will we need?

    1. Sam Harris is softly spoken. Sometimes I just drift off listening to him.

      It’s like he doesn’t actually need to produce specific podcasts on meditation, I can just relax listening to him talk about the end of civilisation.

    2. What society do you live in where you’re not allowed to criticize Marxists and SJWs? Personally I see social justice as a good, but maybe that’s just me.

      1. I’m sure that, for instance, the Marxist nuts who were demolishing Hamburg during the recent G20 summit see themselves as “social justice warriors”, but personally I think they are doing more harm than good, and yes, they should also seek mental help.

  6. A very compelling lecture. I bought his book that was posted yesterday; I’m looking forward to reading it.

  7. When it comes to religion, like any social phenomenon, I suspect social psychology is more likely to prove fruitful than a neuroscience perspective focused on individual pathologies.

    We are talking about social organisations that seek control over every aspect of your life, from expressions of belief in the supernatural to diet and sexual behaviour.

    They lie on a spectrum between the looser forms of social control represented by wider society and the intense controlling behaviour of one-on-one abusive spousal relationships.

    Of course, that’s going to have neurological effects but the direction of influence is from social experience to the brain rather than from the individual brain into society.

    1. That’s very interesting. So were your points on mental illness in general.
      Though I do think that you’re not addressing Sapolsky’s idea that it is the shaman who is ill, not necessarily his village followers. I believe the talk’s goal is more modest than explaining religion as a whole. Having read Sapolsky’s books, I think he would agree with you that social psychology tells a greater part of the story that is religion.

      1. I think it’s almost certain that Joan of Arc and the weirdo who wrote the Book of Revelations had some kind of neurological disorder (Joan was, I think, epileptic) and that shamens induce similar states by taking hallucinogens but when it comes to religious followers I think we can set aside medical diagnoses.

        Only about 3-4% of people are schizotypal. If we extend the definition of to cover religious people in general we’d be inflating that figure by about 2000%.

        Social psychology isn’t as glamorous as neuroscience, especially now that most of the interesting experiments would be considered unethical if reproduce today, but I recently read a book on brainwashing by a neuroscientist who gave convincing social psychology explanations for supposed cases of brainwashing such as Patty Hearst and the Manson family.

        If we look at religion (or political extremism) as neurological disorders we are comforting ourselves that those are things that happen to other people when we should be guarding ourselves from the manipulative behaviour of others.

        1. I do agree with Dror Speiser that you’re missing Sapolsky’s point that “it is the shaman who is ill, not necessarily his village followers.” In other words, you are actually saying pretty much the same thing that Sapolosky & Speiser are.

  8. I’ve been following his work ever since I read his A Primate’s Memoir many years ago. He a fantastic writer in addition to being a profound thinker. I haven’t seen this video, so thanks for sharing!

  9. Sapolsky has also addressed the possibility that Jesus, if he existed, might have had mental instabilities (and may in these videos; I haven’t had a chance to look). Those could explain the personal charisma, etc. That perspective is found in an essay in Sapolsky’s “The Trouble With Testosterone,” a collection of his writings from 1997. A lot of Sapolsky’s scientific work deals with stress in primates. I recommend, to start, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” 1994.

  10. That was interesting, for two reasons.

    First, I stumbled on the anthropological theory of the 40’s when commenting on your Foxpost, which I think Sapolsky is referring to. (Not having watched the long version in the comments.) “Anthropology circa 1940 assumed that religion is in complete continuity with magical thinking,[3][dubious – discuss] ” [ ].

    Second, I know Sapolsky as an anthropologist of primate behavior, where his hypothesis is that human behavior is special in many ways. I now see he has a TED talk on that, but it was a video of a conference presentation that I watched. Sapolsky makes some good observations and analysis, but I get the feeling as here that these are hypotheses in need of test. [Admittedly, I think observing humans is plagued with bias, and there is at best a continuity with a possibility of extremes. So I am biased against Sapolsky.] Or as my biologist teachers would call them, facile “narratives” rather than solid knowledge.

    Specifically, human behavioral problems and diseases are arguable diagnoses, and using his own argument of the video correlation does not mean causation. But I can agree with Sapolsky that religion is a nutty product with especially large room for nutty individuals.

  11. Sapolsky has good New Atheist credentials, being among the first, if not *the* first scientist to be sued by Deepak Chopra, in 1996.

    (Chopra plagiarized Sapolsky, who complained; Chopra sued him, trying to intimidate him into shutting up — typical tactics by the New Age’s most litigious buffoon. Sapolsky, on advice from his lawyers, called his bluff, and Chopra backed off. Chopra has learned since then that it’s easier to co-opt willing (i.e. greedy and mushbrained) scientists rather just just stealing their work.)

    (Some more info here —

  12. Excellent lecture! Any idea of the date? Quite a while ago, I presume, as he’s quite the greybeard now.

  13. not commenting on individuals belief but on religion as a whole.. true enough, religion has been fine tuned from the radical sacrificial sometimes brutal elements of earlier gods and godesses.. they’ve tried to include mercy, and streamline a bit to financial sacrifice for the good of many and societal underpriviledged (maybe).. and can a society rely only on its own laws without the varied beliefs of “god’s” laws?.. but even fine tuned, the ingredients for radical beliefs is still there if one is so minded.. and what does a society do when one’s radical “god’s” laws are more prevalent or conflicting with societal laws?.. just asking?..

  14. About 8 years ago is when I had the realization that those against marriage equality were, how shall I put this, religiously motivated and their bread needed to be baked a little longer. Or nuttier than a fruitcake.

  15. I was also somewhat suprised that Dr. Coyne didnt know about Robert Sapolsky. Sapolsky has written some really excellent popular science books, most notably his guide to stress and stress-related diseases Why Zebras Dont Get Ulcers (2004, 3rd Edition). He has also written a good autobiography (A Primate´s Memoir), and I think that his essays has been anthologized in two books.

    Like some of the other readers of this blog, I have also watched a great deal of his videos on YT, especially when he´s talking about depression, OCD, or religion, and have even watched a few of his Human Behavioral Biology course.

    I havent finished his latest book, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best, and Worst” which came out not too long ago this year. He takes an unfamilar presentation of (the evolution of) behavior, like Dawkins did for the history of life on Earth in his book The Ancestor´s Tale. I was kind of suprised when I skimmed his book, and looked at one chapter in particular where Sapolsky discussed violence, he goes after Steven Pinker, and Keeley, for making our evolutionary history seem more bleak/bloody than it really is.

    Sapolsky went on several television programs to discuss his book, including The Daily Show, and Joe Rogan´s podcast.

  16. He forgot to mention the other pervasive religion- statism. The belief system that proposes the supernatural concept of the elite ruling class (except those that are worse than Hitler) and who can expertly micro manage all facets of a society, top down, and alter the planet’s evolution and galaxy through legislation and wishful thinking.

  17. I think the most interesting thing in Sapolsky’s version of determinism is that it is not based on “the laws of physics” but on biology — fetal conditions, upbringing, nourishment, other influences. I find that far more convincing. Guess I’m still a victim of the reaction against Victorian (Laplacian) determinism.

  18. Sapolsky is a great lecturer , he did a very interesting teaching company course where I first became familiar with his work. A guy worth listening to.

  19. I’m a Sapolsky fan. He taught a few excellent lectures on stress in my biopsychology class in college.

    As to the question of whether religiosity is a ‘mental illness’, I think it’s important to define what we mean by ‘mental illness’ or ‘mental disorder’:

    “A mental disorder is a condition characterized by thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that create dysfunction. Dysfunction means a disruption of a person’s ability to live their life productively or in a way that impairs their relationships, ability to think clearly, communicate with others, hold a job, or deal with stressful events.”

    Quoted from:

    I’m not convinced that being religious or participating in religious rituals necessarily fits this description of ‘mental disorders’. There are many many religious people who navigate life and relationships very effectively and productively. Indeed, participating in religion and ritual may be adaptive in many contexts of human experience- thus explaining why religion persists.

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