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.