Where angels no longer fear to tread

Updated: Mar 31 2008, 07:14am hrs
By the standards of European scientific collaboration, $3.1 million is not a huge sum. But it might be the start of something that will challenge human perceptions of reality at least as much as the billions being spent by the European particle-physics laboratory (CERN) at Geneva. The first task of CERNs new machine, the Large Hadron Collider, which is due to open later this year, will be to search for the Higgs bosonan object that has been dubbed, with a certain amount of hyperbole, the God particle. The $3.1 million, by contrast, will be spent on the search for God Himselfor, rather, for the biological reasons why so many people believe in God, gods and religion in general.

Explaining Religion, as the project is known, is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. It began last September, will run for three years, and involves scholars from 14 universities and a range of disciplines ranging from psychology to economics. And it is merely the latest manifestation of a growing tendency for science to poke its nose into the God business.

Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenonarguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiensbut a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.

Explaining Religion is an ambitious attempt to do this. The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a surveillance-camera God might improve reproductive success to an individuals Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a persons reputationfor instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of cooperation, for what reasons, and whether such cooperation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.

It is an ambitious shopping list. Fortunately, other researchers have blazed a trail. Patrick McNamara, for example, is the head of the Evolutionary Neurobehaviour Laboratory at Boston Universitys School of Medicine. He works with people who suffer from Parkinsons disease. In a preliminary study, Dr McNamara discovered that those with Parkinsons had lower levels of religiosity than healthy individuals, and that the difference seemed to correlate with the diseases severity. He therefore suspects a link with dopamine levels and is now conducting a follow-up involving some patients who are taking dopamine-boosting medicine and some of whom are not.

Such neurochemical work, though preliminary, may tie in with scanning studies conducted to try to find out which parts of the brain are involved in religious experience. Nina Azari, a neuroscientist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, has looked at the brains of religious people. She used positron emission tomography (PET) to measure brain activity in six fundamentalist Christians and six non-religious controls. The Christians all said that reciting the first verse of the 23rd psalm helped them enter a religious state of mind, so both groups were scanned in six different sets of circumstances: while reading the first verse of the 23rd psalm, while reciting it out loud, while reading a happy story, while reciting that story out loud, while reading a neutral text and while at rest.

Dr Azaris PET study, together with one by Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania, which used single-photon emission computed tomography done on Buddhist monks, and another by Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal, which put Carmelite nuns in a magnetic-resonance-imaging machine, all suggest that religious activity is spread across many parts of the brain. That conflicts not only with the limbic-system theory, but also with earlier reports of a so-called God Spot that derived partly from work conducted on epileptics. These reports suggested that religiosity originates specifically in the brains temporal lobe, and that religious visions are the result of epileptic seizures that affect this part of the brain.

Though there is clearly still a long way to go, this sort of imaging should eventually tie down the circuitry of religious experience and that, combined with work on messenger molecules of the sort that Dr McNamara is doing, will illuminate how the brain generates and processes religious experiences. Dr McNamara, for example, plans to analyse a database called the Ethnographic Atlas to see if he can find any correlations between the amount of cultural co-operation found in a society and the intensity of its religious rituals. And Richard Sosis, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, has already done some research which suggests that the long-term co-operative benefits of religion outweigh the short-term costs it imposes in the form of praying many times a day, avoiding certain foods, fasting and so on.

A follow-up study that Dr Sosis conducted in collaboration with Eric Bressler of McMaster University in Canada focused on 83 of these communes to see if the amount of time they survived correlated with the strictures and expectations they imposed on the behaviour of their members. As they expected, they found that the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted. But the same did not hold true of secular communes. Dr Sosis therefore concludes that ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a communitywhat is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.

Evolutionary biologists tend to be atheists, and most would be surprised if the scientific investigation of religion did not end up supporting their point of view. But if a propensity to religious behaviour really is an evolved trait, then they have talked themselves into a position where they cannot benefit from it, much as a sceptic cannot benefit from the placebo effect of homeopathy. Maybe, therefore, it is God who will have the last laugh after allwhether He actually exists or not.

The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008