The Cognitive Neuropsychiatry of
Religious Belief and Experience
Introduction: Abstract cesses underlying normal
Religion as belief generation and
Pathology The claim that religious belief is delusional is evalu- evaluation, and to ex-
ated using a current cognitive neuropsychiatric model plain delusions in terms
“[Religion] is the opium of of delusion formation and maintenance. This model of damage to processes
the people” (Karl MARX explains delusions in terms of the conjunction of two implicated in this model
1963, pp43–44). cognitive deficits—the first a neuropsychological defi- of normal functioning.
cit giving rise to an anomalous perceptual experience, Cognitive neuropsychia-
“Religion would thus be the the second a deficit in the machinery of belief evalua- try is thus a branch of
universal obsessional neu- tion. cognitive neuropsychol-
rosis of humanity” (Sig- It is argued that to provide an account of religious be- ogy, a ﬁeld which investi-
mund FREUD 1927, p713). liefs as delusional within this model, two require- gates disordered cogni-
ments must be met: 1. Plausible candidates for the tion as a means of
At least since MARX and first factor must be put forward; and 2. There must learning more about nor-
FREUD, there has existed a exist individuals with aberrant religious perceptions mal cognition (COLTH-
conceptualization of reli- who do not develop deluded beliefs about those expe- EART 2002).
gious belief as pathologi- riences. With regard to requirement 1, a range of Can religious beliefs,
cal.1 According to this “neurotheological” research is reviewed. The second however, properly be
view, religious beliefs re- stated requirement is addressed via consideration of conceived of as delu-
sult from, and are indica- “mystic atheists”—individuals who have had mysti- sional? The pathological
cal experiences yet have not adopted religious beliefs
tive of, some kind of in- nature of some seems
as a result.
tellectual ﬂaw or quite unequivocal (in
A variety of problematic issues for the above account
deﬁciency (PLANTINGA psychiatric circles at
are tackled. It is concluded that insight into the moti-
2000). We might say that least). SAVER and RABIN
vational basis for religious beliefs, when combined
religious beliefs are here (1997), for example, cite
with OCCAM’s principle of scientific parsimony, al-
construed as reﬂecting the World Health Organi-
lows a plausible case to be made for religious belief as
doxastic dysfunction (from delusional, provided that a particular construal of sation’s ﬁnding that reli-
the Greek word “doxa”, belief pathology is adopted.. gious delusions occur in
meaning “opinion” or 3.2% of unselected
“belief”)—something has Key words schizophrenic patients.
gone awry in the mecha- SAVER and RABIN also
nisms by which religious Delusion, hallucination, cognitive neuropsychiatry, note, however, that mak-
people form and evaluate religious experience. ing diagnostic distinc-
beliefs. tions between culturally
The advent of cogni- sanctioned religious be-
tive neuropsychiatry (DAVID/HALLIGAN 1996) has liefs and religious delusions is both a clinical chal-
heralded a new approach to theorizing about such lenge and a challenge to established psychiatric no-
pathologies of belief, or delusions. Cognitive neu- sology. JACKSON (1997) made a psychometric
ropsychiatry aims to develop a model of the pro- comparison between individuals reporting spiritual
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 1 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
experiences and those reporting psychotic experi- cal religion-as-delusion claim5 from the perspective
ences and concluded that there was no clear distinc- of this new model. The model is known as the “two
tion between them. Due to the apparent equivoca- deﬁcit” or “two factor” model of delusions (DAVIES/
tion involved in characterisations of religious COLTHEART 2000; LANGDON/COLTHEART 2000; DAVIES
pathology, therefore, the present paper will not fo- et al. 2001; BREEN/CAINE/COLTHEART 2001; COLTH-
cus upon the more obvious cases of religious pathol- EART 2002) and takes as its point of departure theo-
ogy, but will evaluate culturally accepted religious retical work by MAHER and colleagues (MAHER 1974,
beliefs2. 1988, 1992, 1999; MAHER/ROSS 1984; MAHER/SPITZER
So then, can religious beliefs that are sanctioned 1993). MAHER had maintained that delusions do not
by, and prevalent in, society be appropriately con- arise via defective reasoning, but rather constitute
ceptualized as delusional? If we look to the deﬁni- rational responses to unusual perceptual experi-
tion of delusion furnished by the American Psychiat- ences, which are in turn caused by a spectrum of
ric Association (APA), it is not clear that they can. A neuropsychological abnormalities. MAHER’s is thus
delusion is deﬁned in the Diagnostic and Statistical an empiricist account of delusion formation (CAMP-
Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Inter- BELL 2001).
national Version (DSM-IV) as “A false belief based MAHER’s account has received some theoretical
on incorrect inference about external reality that is and empirical support. ELLIS and YOUNG (1990), for
ﬁrmly sustained despite what almost everyone else be- example, proposed that the aforementioned
lieves and despite what constitutes incontrovertible Capgras delusion arises when the affective compo-
and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The nent of face recognition is disrupted. The idea is
belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of that there are two components to face recognition,
the person’s culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article an overt “pattern-matching” component and an af-
of religious faith) (American Psychiatric Association fective component, which provides the “buzz of fa-
1995, p783, italics added). miliarity” we experience upon encountering a loved
Just how much credence should be given to the one. If this affective component is disrupted, the en-
above deﬁnition of delusions? Is it appropriate to suing discordance between (say) “she looks like my
deﬁne delusions in such a way as to exclude any- wife” and “she doesn’t feel like my wife” might be
thing that a sufﬁciently large number of people be- subsequently resolved by invocation of the impos-
lieve? DAVIES et al. (2001) argue that any bizarrely tor scenario. This account has received corrobora-
implausible belief (i.e., a belief that violates logical, tion from work done by ELLIS, YOUNG, QUAYLE and
physical or biological principles that are widely DE PAUW (1997), who recorded skin-conductance re-
known) that is formed and maintained in ways sponses (SCRs) while showing Capgras patients and
characteristic of (unambiguous) delusions should, normal subjects a series of predominantly unfamil-
for theoretical purposes, be classiﬁed as a delusion3. iar faces, with occasional familiar faces interspersed.
It would seem that many typical religious beliefs The ﬁndings were that whereas normal subjects
(for example, the belief that an obscure Middle-east- showed signiﬁcantly greater autonomic responsive-
ern virgin gave birth to a child that was simulta- ness to familiar faces (indexed by mean SCR),
neously God and the incarnate son of God) violate Capgras patients failed to show a pattern of auto-
at least as many established logical, physical and bi- nomic discrimination between familiar and unfa-
ological principles as other beliefs that are unequiv- miliar faces—both types of face produced equal de-
ocally viewed as being delusional (for example, the grees of affective response.
“Capgras” belief that one’s loved one has been re- This experiment provides support for MAHER’s
placed by an impostor). With respect to bizarre im- contention that delusions are responses to aberrant
plausibility, therefore, at least some conventional perceptual experiences. COLTHEART, DAVIES, LANG-
religious beliefs certainly qualify as delusions. But DON and BREEN (DAVIES/COLTHEART 2000; LANGDON/
are they formed and maintained in ways character- COLTHEART 2000; BREEN et al. 2001; DAVIES et al.
istic of other delusions? 2001) identify perceptual aberrations that may be
associated with a series of other monothematic de-
lusions, including delusions of alien control,
The Two-Deﬁcit Model
thought insertion and mirrored-self misidentiﬁca-
In this paper I will describe a current cognitive neu- tion. These researchers argue, however, that
ropsychiatric model of monothematic delusion for- whereas aberrant perceptual experiences may in-
mation and maintenance4, and evaluate the histori- deed be necessary for delusions to develop, they do
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 2 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
not provide explanatory sufﬁciency. They point to COLTHEART and colleagues for testing the model has
the fact that there exist non-deluded individuals been to seek to demonstrate that, when one identi-
with aberrant perceptual experiences, experiences ﬁes Deﬁcit-1 in any delusional condition, one can
which indeed parallel those which (it is hypothe- ﬁnd examples of non-deluded people in whom that
sised) are experienced by deluded individuals. Deﬁcit-1 is present. Consistent with this approach, I
TRANEL, DAMASIO and DAMASIO (1995), for example, argue in this paper that to provide a two-factor ac-
found that non-deluded patients with damage to bi- count of religious belief as delusional, two require-
lateral ventromedial frontal regions of the brain also ments must be met:
fail to discriminate autonomically between familiar 1. A plausible candidate or candidates for the first
and unfamiliar faces. Assuming that the neuropsy- factor (relevant perceptual aberrations under-
chological abnormality underlying the perfor- pinned by neuropsychological anomalies) must
mance of Capgras patients and TRANEL’s frontal pa- be put forward; and
tients gives rise to the same aberrant perceptual 2. There must exist individuals with aberrant per-
experience, a problem surfaces for MAHER’s claim ceptual experiences that parallel those of the in-
that delusions are a rational response to aberrant ex- dividuals with religious delusions but who do not
periences. COLTHEART and colleagues argue that MA- develop deluded beliefs about those experiences.
HER’s account is incomplete, and that a second fac-
tor is needed. The First Requirement
COLTHEART and colleagues admit that the nature
of their proposed second deﬁcit is inadequately With regard to requirement 1) above, a range of
characterised. At present it can be described simply “neurotheological” research—research into the
as the loss of the ability to reject candidates for be- neural basis of religious and mystical experiences—
lief on the grounds of their implausibility and their will now be reviewed. This review will focus on the-
inconsistency with everything else that the deluded oretical and empirical work carried out by NEWBERG,
individual knows (DAVIES et al. 2001). They do, D’AQUILI and colleagues, RAMACHANDRAN and col-
however, offer suggestions regarding the nature of leagues, and PERSINGER and colleagues.
the ability that is lost. LANGDON and COLTHEART
(2000), for example, suggest that the second deﬁcit Newberg, d’Aquili and colleagues. NEWBERG and
entails loss of the ability to override an automatic D’AQUILI (2000) note that the sensation of union
bias for prioritising sensory evidence when forming with some higher power or fundamental state is an
beliefs. Natural selection has furnished us with this important aspect of religious and mystical experi-
bias, as it makes good evolutionary sense to trust the ences. Such unitary experiences may involve a de-
evidence of our senses. LANGDON and COLTHEART creased awareness of the boundaries between the
contend, however, that normal belief evaluation in- self and the external world, culminating in the “ab-
volves an ability to suspend this automatic bias such olition of all boundaries of discrete being” (p. 253).
that other causal explanations (for example, “sub- According to NEWBERG and D’AQUILI (2000), it is
personal dysfunction” explanations that attribute likely that, neuropsychologically, the self-other di-
the experience to dysfunctional neurochemistry) chotomy is a function of the brain’s posterior supe-
can be weighed up and considered. They hypothe- rior parietal lobule (PSPL). They suggest that deaffer-
size that the second deﬁcit may essentially be a loss entiation (blocking of sensory inputs) of the PSPL,
of this ability. which may occur via meditation or the rhythm of
ceremonial ritual, underlies unitary states by dimin-
ishing the individual’s apprehension of the self-
Religion as Delusion:
other dichotomy. Consistent with this hypothesis,
A Two-Deﬁcit Account NEWBERG, D’AQUILI and colleagues have in a number
of studies found single photon emission computed
Two Requirements tomography (SPECT) evidence that meditation is
linked to a relative decrease in regional cerebral
The two-factor account seems to provide a plausible blood ﬂow (rCBF) in the PSPL (NEWBERG et al. 1997a,
explanatory framework for some domains of bizarre 1997b; NEWBERG et al. 2001).
belief. But what of religion? Can beliefs of a religious
nature be conceptualized as delusional with the Ramachandran and colleagues. A connection be-
two-factor model? The general strategy adopted by tween religious experience and epilepsy (especially
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 3 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
temporolimbic epilepsy) has long been appreciated The results of this experiment eliminate the pos-
(SAVER/RABIN 1997). According to RAMACHANDRAN, sibility that ictal “kindling” in TLE patients has re-
there are three mutually compatible reasons for this sulted in a generalized limbic hyperconnectivity
connection (RAMACHANDRAN/BLAKESLEE 1998). (the religiosity of these patients cannot therefore be
Firstly, it is possible that the turbulent and inexpli- explained in terms of everything becoming meaning-
cable emotions engendered by the epileptic seizures ful). The selective augmentation for religious stim-
are misinterpreted in mystical terms. This sugges- uli indicates rather that temporal lobe seizures have
tion accords well with a two-deﬁcit approach to reli- selectively enhanced certain neural connections
gious belief as delusion– the ﬁrst deﬁcit comprising and weakened others. The implications of this re-
aberrant emotional experiences resulting from sei- search for a two-deﬁcit account of religious belief as
zures, which, in the context of the second deﬁcit, delusion are clear: the bottom line is that there may
are interpreted in mystical (as opposed to subper- be localizable neural circuitry involved in mediating
sonal dysfunction) terms. RAMACHANDRAN and religious experience, circuitry which becomes hy-
BLAKESLEE (1998) argue, however, that emotional peractive in cases of temporal lobe epilepsy (RAM-
turmoil per se cannot sufﬁce as the aberrant experi- ACHANDRAN’s third possibility). Religion-speciﬁc
ence, because other emotional disorders such as Bi- temporolimbic kindling may thus constitute the
polar Disorder do not have the same association ﬁrst deﬁcit—a neuropsychological abnormality un-
with religiosity. derlying an aberrant perceptual experience.
Secondly, RAMACHANDRAN considers the possibil-
ity, ﬁrst put forward by BEAR and FEDIO (1977), that Persinger and colleagues. COOK and PERSINGER
the repeated electrical bursts characteristic of sei- (1997) claim that the sense of an external presence
zures permanently facilitate certain neural path- constitutes the phenomenological basis for most re-
ways or connections (a process known as “kin- ligious experiences. They hypothesise that the expe-
dling”) involved in the assignment of emotional rience of this presence is essentially “the transient
salience to objects and events. The limbic system awareness of a right-hemispheric homologue of the
forms part of a distributed neural network that per- left-hemispheric sense of self” occurring in associa-
forms this function of allocating affective valence tion with “transient intercalations of neuroelectri-
and signiﬁcance to experiences (SAVER/RABIN 1997). cal patterns between the two cerebral hemispheres”
If pathways linking sensations to limbic emotional (p683). In other words, COOK and PERSINGER hy-
centres (connections between the inferior temporal pothesise that transcranial magnetic stimulation
cortex (IT) and the amygdala) are strengthened, (TMS) of the region of the brain’s right hemisphere
then every object and event (even trivial ones) may presumed to control notions of the self generates a
become subjectively imbued with deep signiﬁcance. “sensed presence” when the left hemisphere at-
The patient would “see a world in a grain of sand” tempts to comprehend this nonexistent entity (HITT
(BLAKE 1982, p490). 1999).
To test this possibility RAMACHANDRAN et al. PERSINGER and colleagues use a modiﬁed motorcy-
(1997) recruited patients with temporal lobe epi- cle helmet within which four sets of solenoids are
lepsy (TLE) and religious preoccupations, and used embedded to generate a weak but complex mag-
indices of skin-conductance response (SCR) to in- netic ﬁeld over the right temporoparietal lobe
directly measure the strength of connections from (COOK/PERSINGER 1997). The most effective ﬁeld pat-
IT to the amygdala. The responses of these patients tern for generating the sensed presence is known as
were compared to two normal control groups— the “Thomas Pulse”, after Alex W. THOMAS, a col-
“very religious” people and non-religious people. league of PERSINGER’s who developed it (HITT 1999).
SCRs were recorded while participants were shown According to PERSINGER, at least 80 per cent of partic-
a series of stimuli that included words and images ipants stimulated in this way experience a presence
from the categories neutral, religious, violent and beside them in the room (VALPY 2001).
sexual. The results showed that whereas the SCRs of
the control participants (both religious and non- A Symptom Approach to Religious Experience
religious) were maximal to sexual stimuli, TLE pa-
tients showed heightened SCRs to religious words As mentioned previously, the two-deﬁcit model of
and icons. Their responses to other categories were COLTHEART and colleagues takes a cognitive neurop-
strangely diminished relative to the control sychiatric approach. The focus is on explaining psy-
groups. chiatric symptoms (delusions), irrespective of clinical
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 4 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
diagnostic category, in terms of speciﬁc dysfunctions tents “can be named but cannot be communicated
in normal processes. This symptom-based approach in their full visceral intensity, resulting in a report of
may be contrasted with the traditional diagnostic ineffability (p507).” GOODMAN (2002), meanwhile,
approach in psychiatry, which is concerned prima- outlines a neurophysiological account of the time
rily with general disease processes. Symptom-based distortion that some mystics experience. This ac-
approaches have been increasingly adopted in re- count suggests that feelings of timelessness result
cent years given doubts about the conception of from serotonergic action upon the substantia nigra
schizophrenia as a unitary disease entity and the neural loop, thought by some to constitute the
need to develop symptom-focussed therapeutic in- body’s “internal reference clock” (p269).
terventions (BENTALL 1990).
Just as schizophrenia is proﬁtably studied in The Second Requirement
terms of speciﬁc symptoms, a genuine cognitive
neuropsychiatry of religious experience might take With regard to my second stated requirement 2),
a “symptom” approach to such experience, break- the aforementioned neuroscientist Michael PERS-
ing it down into speciﬁc indicator components and INGER exempliﬁes individuals who have had aber-
studying these individually. This approach, which rant perceptual (in this case mystical) experiences
conceptualizes religious experience in terms of a yet have not developed delusory beliefs about those
collection of potentially dissociable features, is sim- experiences. RAMACHANDRAN and BLAKESLEE (1998)
ilar to another explicitly cognitive suggestion that describe how PERSINGER stimulated his own tempo-
religious experience might “be divided eventually ral lobes electromagnetically and “experienced God
into a variety of subprocesses, as has been, for exam- for the ﬁrst time in his life” (p175). Elsewhere PERS-
ple, the case with memory” (AZARI et al. 2001, INGER has been quoted as saying that “religion is a
p1652). property of the brain, only the brain and has little to
The research discussed above lays the ground- do with what’s out there” (VEDANTAM 2001). It
work for a viable cognitive neuropsychiatry of reli- seems, therefore, that PERSINGER has had the mysti-
gious experience. NEWBERG and D’AQUILI have em- cal experience of “encountering a God-like pres-
phasised the feature of unity, whereby the subject– ence”, but has not adopted the religious belief
object dichotomy is transcended and reality is expe- “There is a God” as a result. He is what we might
rienced as an undifferentiated whole (GOODMAN term a “mystic atheist”, someone who is able to
2002). The work of RAMACHANDRAN and colleagues override the evidence of his own senses when form-
bears meanwhile on the feelings of deep and pro- ing beliefs, and to accept instead a more scientiﬁ-
found signiﬁcance associated with religious experi- cally plausible (if less personally palatable) subper-
ences, while PERSINGER’s work attempts to explain sonal-level causal explanation for his experiences.
mystic reports of being in the presence of God. A In the terminology of the two-factor model, we
symptom-focussed cognitive neuropsychiatric ap- might say that Persinger has artiﬁcially induced the
proach to religious experience might synthesize the “ﬁrst deﬁcit” but is not subject to the second.
various “theories of religious experience” implicit in
these and other research programs.
Problems for a Two-Deﬁcit Account
A number of authors have proposed lists of the
essential features of religious experience (see, for ex-
ample, BUCKE 1991; PAHNKE 1966; JAMES 1992). In Interim Summary
addition to the above features, markers such as inef- I have now sketched out a plausible two-deﬁcit ac-
fability (the sense of the incommunicability of the count of experience-derived religious belief as delu-
experience) and timelessness are routinely men- sional. To recap brieﬂy, I began by noting that there
tioned. SAVER and RABIN (1997) claim that their was a tradition, dating back at least to such luminar-
“Limbic Marker Hypothesis” provides an account of ies as MARX and FREUD, which views religious belief
the core quality of ineffability. Like RAMACHANDRAN, as in some way pathological. I explored the fact that
SAVER and RABIN emphasize the central role of the the prevailing diagnostic bible (DSM-IV) makes lit-
limbic system. They argue that the contents of mys- tle provision for this tradition, by conveniently de-
tical experience are similar to those of ordinary ex- ﬁning delusion in such a way as to exclude conven-
perience but are tagged by the limbic system as be- tional religious beliefs, however bizarre and
ing of deep and fundamental importance. As with implausible they might be. I sidestepped this issue
strong emotions, therefore, these experiential con- however and examined the tenets of a currently
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 5 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
popular cognitive neuropsychiatric model of delu- nal stimulation. Given visual experience of an
sions. The two-deﬁcit model of COLTHEART and col- apple, for example, identiﬁcation of that experience
leagues attempts to explain all delusions (at least all as veridical or hallucinatory is simply a matter of de-
monothematic delusions) in terms of the conjunc- termining whether or not the apple is actually there
tion of two cognitive deﬁcits—the ﬁrst a neuropsy- (I might ask a nearby friend whether she too sees the
chological deﬁcit giving rise to an aberrant percep- apple, or I might exercise my other sensory faculties
tion of some kind, and the second a deﬁcit in belief by trying to reach for and take a bite of the apple).
revision machinery that leaves people with the ﬁrst In the case of religious experience, however, ver-
deﬁcit unable to discount or override the (aberrant) idicality is not so easy to establish. Given an over-
evidence of their senses. whelming sense of God’s divine presence, how
Subsequently, I noted that recent neurotheologi- might I seek to determine whether my experience is
cal research has identiﬁed a variety of anomalous veridical or hallucinatory? What kind of indepen-
neuropsychological processes that may underpin dent veriﬁcation of God’s presence could I try to ob-
different facets of mystical experiences, and which tain? There are no scientiﬁc instruments that could
thus constitute a spectrum of viable Deﬁcits-1. I conﬁrm His presence empirically, and asking a
noted further a dissociation between individuals nearby friend will not solve the matter, because it
with religious experiences who go on to develop re- seems entirely possible that God may be revealing
ligious beliefs and individuals with religious experi- Himself (veridically) to me and me alone. What
ences who do not develop such beliefs (our mystic other faculties could I exercise? Touch? Taste?
atheists). This dissociation is evidence that our iden- Smell? These seem futile (not to mention irrever-
tiﬁed Deﬁcits-1 are not in themselves sufﬁcient for ent).
the development of religious beliefs. Clearly, some One might argue that the relevant faculty to call
other factor (or factors) must be operating. A viable upon here is the “faculty of reason”6. Viewed objec-
two-deﬁcit account of experience-derived religious tively and dispassionately, personal experience of
belief thus involves recognizing that religious expe- God does not constitute appropriate scientiﬁc evi-
rience can be conceived as anomalous experience dence of God’s presence or existence. To dispose of
qua Deﬁcit-1, whereas the presence or otherwise of experience-derived religious beliefs therefore we
Deﬁcit-2 is what distinguishes (non-deluded) “mys- may only need invoke “OCCAM’s razor”, the famous
tic atheists” from (deluded) “mystic believers”. scientiﬁc corrective for theories that are explanato-
rily hirsute. Firstly, however, let us take a few mo-
Religious Hallucinations? ments to consider what implications religious expe-
rience and neurotheological research have for the
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” facts about “what’s out there”.
(Carl SAGAN 1997, p60). Some reductionistically inclined commentators
have argued that evidence for a brain basis of reli-
Let us now consider some potential criticisms of the gious experience is evidence that religious experi-
account offered above. Firstly, it was suggested that ence is an artifact of biology—”a neurological illu-
the ability of an individual to override the evidence sion” (HEFFERN 2001, p23). Others have pointed out,
of their senses (evidence of encountering a God-like however, that as all human experience is brain-
presence) and to accept instead a more scientiﬁcally based, evidence that religious experience is brain-
credible subpersonal level explanation of their ex- based is only to be expected: “The external reality of
periences (dysfunctional brain chemistry) is what religious percepts is neither conﬁrmed nor discon-
reveals the presence or absence of Deﬁcit-2. In the ﬁrmed by establishing brain correlates of religious
face of religious experience, however, is adoption of experience” (SAVER/RABIN 1997, p498). According to
a religious belief really indicative of intellectual def- this view, insights into the way the brain functions
icit or dysfunction? to cause religious experience should no more de-
It may help here to draw a distinction between tract from the validity of religious experience than
veridical experience and hallucinatory experience. Both should insights into the way the brain processes vi-
types of experience share a compelling sense of real- sual information detract from the validity and im-
ity, yet whereas in cases of veridical experience the portance of seeing (GOODMAN 2002; RAMACHAN-
sense of reality is accurate (the experience consti- DRAN/BLAKESLEE 1998). Indeed, some authors have
tutes awareness of a true percept), hallucinatory ex- viewed neurotheological research as evidence for re-
periences are distinguished by the absence of exter- ligious belief, on the grounds that such research
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 6 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
provides evidence that God has deliberately en- species of akratic belief—belief that is motivated,
dowed humans with the neural capacities necessary that conﬂicts in some way with the believer’s better
to perceive Him (SAVER/RABIN 1997). judgement, and that therefore manifests weakness
The bottom line here seems to be that research of will (MELE 1993). We cannot but return to FREUD
into the neural bases of religious experience does here, who viewed all instances of religious belief as
not bear either way on the truth or otherwise of deriving from and fulﬁlling deep human wishes:
God’s existence. From a scientiﬁc standpoint, how- “The secret of their strength lies in the strength of
ever (more on this below), God’s existence is a com- those wishes” (FREUD 1995, p703).
plication unjustiﬁed by the facts. According to OC- The wish-fulﬁlling function of religious belief
CAM’s razor, “entities ought not to be multiplied lies in its capacity to allay our terror, terror of the
beyond necessity”7. If we thus take religious experi- world and of the human condition. FREUD writes of
ence as an explanandum (that which requires expla- nature rising “up against us, majestic, cruel and in-
nation), to posit God in our explanans8 (that which exorable…” (1995, p693). Echoing TENNYSON
does the explaining) is to posit a superﬂuous entity, (1850), KEEN (1997) declaims Mother Nature as “a
because the most parsimonious explanans involves brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw” and notes
construing religious experience as mere grimly that “we are ultimately helpless and aban-
hallucination9. OCCAM’s principle of parsimony thus doned in a world where we are fated to die (pxii).
compels us to suspend belief in God until such time BECKER (1973) analyses the terrifying dilemma of
as God provides more objective and incontrovert- human existence, the fact that as sentient, intelli-
ible evidence of his existence, perhaps by writing “a gent beings, we can contemplate our fate yet never
clear proclamation in the sky, or turn[ing] the moon escape it. We are “dual, up in the stars and yet
tartan” (DAVIES 1983, p195). housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body
that… aches and bleeds and will decay and die”
Faith as Motivated Belief? (p26).
In the face of such a terrifying and helpless pre-
“Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” (Mark dicament, knowing that we are forever liable to
TWAIN 1897). suffering and annihilation, there is a tremendous
temptation to take solace in religion, to succumb
“You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their to beliefs in a divine and benevolent Providence
belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep that watches over us and “will not suffer us to be-
seated need to believe” (Carl SAGAN, source unknown). come a plaything of the over-mighty and pitiless
forces of nature.” (FREUD 1995, p696). Crudely put,
We have seen that a viable two-deﬁcit account of FREUD’s argument is thus that belief in God is sim-
religious belief as delusion pertains to only a subset ply a result of the desire that there be such a being
of religious beliefs—namely, the portion that de- as God (LOVELL 2003)11. The tension between the
rive from religious experience. Presumably, how- way the world is and the way we would wish it to be
ever, substantial numbers of believers in religious forces us either to “dully and stoically abandon
doctrines develop and maintain their beliefs in the [our] dreams”, or to abandon reality and live in a
absence of direct religious experience. How then dream world (KREEFT 1989, pp162–163). FREUD
can we account (atheologically) for the beliefs of views religious belief as an example of the latter.
these people? To be sure many of them can be at- It is important to realize that FREUD’s is a genetic
tributed to a process of unreﬂective socialisation— argument, and as such is potentially liable to the
that is, parents instil religious doctrines in their genetic fallacy. Genetic arguments move from a de-
children, many of whom accept these teachings scription of the historical or psychological pro-
without question. The fact that religious beliefs are cesses through which certain beliefs come to be
not distributed equally around the globe is evi- held, to the conclusion that those beliefs are false,
dence enough of this process. probably false, unjustiﬁed or unwarranted (LOVELL
But how are we to account for the fact that peo- 2003). FREUD’s strategy is to debunk religious be-
ple are so unreﬂective and unquestioning in this liefs by demonstrating that they result from wish-
particular domain—being vastly more credulous fulﬁllment. This strategy is clearly genetic. What is
here than in other domains?10 Surely the answer less clear, however, is whether the strategy is falla-
lies in the psychological beneﬁts that religious be- cious. If one construes FREUD as arguing that, ow-
liefs confer. This analysis views religious belief as a ing to their wish-fulﬁllment origin, religious be-
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 7 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
liefs must be false, the genetically fallacious charge Construals of “Belief Pathology”
would clearly be in order12. FREUD’s argument, how-
ever, is not usually construed so strongly. There is This paper has used the two-deﬁcit model of COLTH-
not space here to explore alternative construals. EART and colleagues to evaluate the view that reli-
What seems clear is that in failing to distinguish gious beliefs are pathological, that they represent
between reasons for belief (ratio credentis) and rea- breakdown or dysfunction in the way the human
sons for justiﬁcation (ratio veritatis), FREUD is at belief evaluation system normally operates. Let us
least in danger of committing an ad hominem form take a few moments now to examine more closely
of the genetic fallacy. The upshot is that FREUD’s this notion of “belief pathology”, to consider what
claim that religious beliefs derive from wishes has, it means precisely for the human belief formation
in itself, only dubious implications for the truth or system to malfunction. Firstly we need to consider
otherwise of God’s existence. the idea of “proper functioning”, a notion that
It is only fair to acknowledge here that just as PLANTINGA sees as deeply problematic because of its
atheists have criticized religious belief as being inherent relativity: “[A system] ‘functions properly’
based on wish-fulﬁllment, believers in their turn only with respect to a sort of grid we impose on
have attempted to expose the motivational under- [it]—a grid that incorporates our aims and desires”.
belly of atheistic beliefs. VITZ (1999), for example, (http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth02.html). It
puts forward a “defective father” hypothesis, makes sense to speak of “proper functioning” with
which argues that atheistic beliefs are the moti- respect to systems that we have designed and con-
vated product of anger and disappointment at structed in explicit accordance with our aims and
one’s father. The anger and disappointment may needs. Thus a television can be said to work prop-
stem from death, abandonment or abuse, or sim- erly if it works the way it was designed to. There is
ply from the father being cowardly and unworthy no difﬁculty in speaking of my television malfunc-
of respect (VITZ 1999)13. VITZ collected evidence for tioning, or in saying that my car has broken down,
this hypothesis by comparing prominent atheists because such devices have been deliberately de-
and theists in terms of their relationships with signed with speciﬁc functions in mind.
their fathers, and found impressive substantiation A natural system, however, be it an ecosystem or
for his “defective father” hypothesis in the lives of the human belief evaluation system, has not been
atheists such as HUME, SARTRE, CAMUS, FREUD and designed—at least not according to a standpoint
NIETZSCHE. A “motivated atheist” account of NI- which proclaims religious belief as delusional. As
ETZSCHE’s work is convincingly portrayed by Peter PLANTINGA points out, the “atheological objector”
NÁDAS in his extraordinary novel A Book of Memo- who construes religious belief in terms of pathology
ries: “I need only think of NIETZSCHE… of how re- or dysfunction therefore owes an account of these
lentlessly and precisely he rails against a God that notions14. But is it really problematic to speak of dys-
didn’t exist… and thus he fashions Him from His function or pathology where non-designed systems
absence, from the desperate anger he felt over His (systems that are the product of blind evolutionary
absence; he longs for Him, but should He exist, forces) are concerned? What about, say, cardiac pa-
he’d promptly destroy Him…” (NÁDAS 1997, thology? Surely the notion of pathology is a medical
p208). notion, a notion inextricably linked with the func-
VITZ’s hypothesis is put forward as a serious the- tioning of the (non-designed) human body? Medi-
ory of the psychological determinants of atheism, cal notions of disease and pathology are obviously
and constitutes an ingenious foil for FREUDIAN ob- to be construed relative to health and survival. My
jections to religious belief. What this argument heart functions properly, therefore, when it func-
makes clear is that any attempt to construe reli- tions in a manner that keeps me alive and well.
gious belief as pathological will need to appeal to One possibility that PLANTINGA suggests as the ba-
more than motivational factors alone. In order to sis for proper functioning, therefore, is in terms of the
integrate the insight that motives can be a source aptness of that functioning for promoting survival
of religious belief into a conception of religious be- at an individual or species level. Under this con-
lief as pathological, we will need to consider some strual of proper functioning, the onus is clearly on the
different construals of what it means for a belief to atheist to demonstrate that religious beliefs are
be pathological. more likely to jeopardize our individual survival, or
the survival of our species, than atheistic or agnostic
beliefs. There is not space here to explore this in de-
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 8 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
tail. Sufﬁce to say that the abundance of elderly lace, for example, or perhaps increase the likelihood
Christians seems to pose an immediate difﬁculty for of survival15. The fact that a belief formation system
any such argument mounted at the individual level. may function so as to satisfy motives other than the
Research indicates, furthermore, that practitioners motive to seek the truth is not therefore a problem,
of any mainstream faith have a longer lifespan, so long as other motives are always subordinate to
have fewer strokes, less heart disease, better im- the truth-seeking motive.
mune system functioning, and lower blood pressure The above analysis views belief-formation sys-
than the general population (NEWBERG/D’AQUILI/ tems as functioning properly when belief-formation
RAUSE 2001). Indeed, after a huge review of the liter- is predicated upon alethic reasons (from the Greek
ature pertaining to the health beneﬁts of religion, word “aletheia”, meaning “truth”), rather than prac-
Dr. Karold Koenig of Duke University Medical Cen- tical reasons (a practical reason for believing in God
tre remarked that “Lack of religious involvement may involve a desire for psychological well-being
has an effect on mortality that is equivalent to forty together with a conviction that belief in God is es-
years of smoking one pack of cigarettes per day” sential to such well-being; MELE 1993). The scien-
(EASTERBROOK 1999). Some writers (notably FREUD) tiﬁc method is arguably our greatest alethic instru-
have attempted to argue that religious beliefs are a ment, a method which utilizes principles of
threat to our survival as a species. Others have evidence and OCCAMIAN parsimony to discern truth.
pointed out, however, that religious traits, like all On these bases a belief in God’s existence is eviden-
traits, are evolutionarily determined—selected for tially unjustiﬁed and explanatorily superﬂuous, and
their survival value. Religion may have evolved to therefore pathological.
impose order and stability on society, for example,
by reinforcing kinship ties and encouraging tribe
Religion as Delusion:
loyalty and conformity (RAMACHANDRAN/BLAKESLEE
A Two-Factor Account
The other possibility that PLANTINGA considers is In the writings of COLTHEART and colleagues a trend
that proper functioning may be construed as func- can be discerned whereby talk of two cognitive deﬁ-
tioning that helps us to attain our ends. Under this cits (DAVIES/COLTHEART 2000; LANGDON/COLTHEART
construal, the human belief evaluation system func- 2000) yields gradually to a broader framework of
tions properly when it functions the way we want it two general factors that are implicated in the forma-
to function. Once again, the believer has an easy tion and maintenance of delusions (DAVIES et al.
move here. The believer need only posit happiness 2001). In general, the ﬁrst factor accounts for the
and solace as ends in order to secure a nonpatholog- content of a delusion, including consideration of
ical construal of religious belief. If we want to feel what perceptual anomalies might lead to a certain
that our fears are allayed, that a benevolent Provi- delusory hypothesis being generated. The second
dence is looking out for us, then our belief evalua- factor, by contrast, explains why a certain delusory
tion systems will be functioning properly if they hypothesis, once generated, is then adopted and
compliantly form beliefs that provide these assur- maintained in the absence of appropriate evidence
ances. for that hypothesis.
A proponent of the “FREUD-and-MARX Com- Whereas the earlier “second deﬁcit” idea viewed
plaint” might argue, however, that there is a third the relevant component of belief evaluation as an
possibility—a construal of proper functioning not all-or-none ability that most people had but that
considered by PLANTINGA in this article. Under this some people could lose through brain damage, the
third construal, the belief evaluation system can be current “second factor” seems rather to consist in
considered to function properly when it forms be- being at the extreme end of a belief evaluation con-
liefs that most accurately reﬂect objective reality— tinuum, either as the result of ordinary variation
when it functions so as to best discern truth. Under (the continuum being normally distributed for peo-
this construal of proper functioning, belief forma- ple with intact brains), or as a result of brain damage
tion systems that do not function so as to produce (which would result in a person’s position on the
beliefs that are, in the ﬁrst instance, true, are patho- continuum being radically shifted).
logical. The phrase “in the ﬁrst instance” is impor- The precise nature of the dimension implicated
tant here, for it may well be that true beliefs pro- here is still open to debate. One alternative is that
duced by the system provide other beneﬁts in the dimension is gullibility or credulity. Individuals
addition to yielding truth—they may provide so- high on this dimension would then tend to be ex-
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 9 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
cessively misled by untrust- plausible two-factor account
worthy sources of informa-
Author’s address of such beliefs. This account
tion when forming beliefs. recognizes that mystical ex-
Ryan McKay, Macquarie Centre for Cognitive
They would thus be vulnera- perience can be conceived as
Science (MACCS), Macquarie University,
ble to accepting (or failing to P.O. Box 79, Waroona WA 6215, Australia. ﬁrst-factor perceptual aberra-
reject) false beliefs. Another Email: email@example.com tion, whereas the presence or
option is that the dimension otherwise of the second fac-
constitutes the ability to eval- tor is conceivably what dis-
uate the likelihood that a potential belief is true, in tinguishes atheists from believers.
the light of all relevant doxastic input. In trying to make the case that religious belief is
I would like to suggest that the two-factor model reﬂective of intellectual dysfunction, the account
be modiﬁed by introducing motivational factors as given here adopts a speciﬁc alethic-based construal
an additional source of ﬁrst-factor doxastic input. A of belief pathology, and invokes the FREUDIAN argu-
two-factor account of religious belief as delusion ment that religious belief has motivational origins.
would identify the ﬁrst factor with whatever sources Sensitivity to the genetic fallacy, however, and rec-
of information suggest a religious belief. Such ognition of the fact that atheistic belief can also be
sources may include the perceptual aberrations that construed as motivational in origin, requires that a
neurotheology has identiﬁed, but may also include further element be introduced in order to secure an
testimonial sources such as the assertions of our par- alethic-based account of religious belief as patho-
ents and church leaders, along with a range of defen- logical. This element is OCCAM’s principle of scien-
sive suggestions and desires. Individuals with the “sec- tiﬁc parsimony. From an evidential perspective,
ond factor” would tend to be misled by such atheists can be construed as proposing a “negative
untrustworthy sources of information. They would existential” (God does not exist), whereas believers
thus be prone to giving undue weight to question- posit a “positive existential” (God exists)16. It is con-
able sensory information, apt to uncritically accept ceivable that both propositions are motivated, but
the testimony of others, and liable to having their be- OCCAM’s razor requires only that the latter be scien-
lief-formation systems derailed and overridden by their tiﬁcally justiﬁed17. In the absence of compelling ob-
motives. jective evidence for God’s existence, therefore, reli-
gious belief is, alethically speaking, pathological
and, by two-factor standards, delusional18.
The two-factor model of COLTHEART and colleagues
explains delusions in terms of the combination of
two factors—the ﬁrst a neuropsychological deﬁcit Thanks to Tim BAYNE, Drew KHLENTZOS and Steve
which gives rise to an aberrant perception of some LOVELL for helpful discussions regarding an earlier
kind, and the second a dysfunction in the machin- draft of this paper. This work was supported by a
ery of belief evaluation. This paper has used the Training Fellowship in Psychiatric Research from The
two-factor model to assess the claim that religious New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry.
belief is delusional, by attempting to sketch out a
Notes according to PETERS, the most problematic aspect of the
1 These two figures are often credited as originators of the 4 Monothematic delusions are simply delusions that are spe-
religion-as-pathology perspective. As PLANTINGA (2000) cific to a particular topic.
notes, however, the essence of these ideas is to be found 5 What PLANTINGA (2000) refers to as the FREUD-and-MARX
much earlier in the writings of the exact contemporaries Complaint.
Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU (who anticipated MARX) and David 6 See SEARLE (2001) for some doubts about the very notion of
HUME (who anticipated FREUD). a separate cognitive faculty of rationality.
2 Which are in any case the game pursued by M ARX and 7 From the latin entia non multiplicandum sunt praetor necessi-
FREUD. tatem (PLANTINGA 2000, p370). ***Shouldn’t it be: Entia non
3 Note that other aspects of the DSM-IV definition are also sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem***
contentious. PETERS (2001), for example, points out that 8 Alvin PLANTINGA (1996, 2000) denies that theistic belief is
many delusions are not firmly sustained, nor are they nec- ordinarily accepted as an explanans. With respect to reli-
essarily impervious to evidence or experience. Perhaps sur- gious experience, however, I think it fair to construe expe-
prisingly, the stipulation that delusional beliefs be false is,
Evolution and Cognition ❘ 10 ❘ 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1
rience-derived belief in God as an explanation of that 13 This argument turns back against the psychoanalytically
experience. inclined atheist the FREUDIAN view that, psychologically,
9 This is because the most parsimonious causal story involves God is nothing other than an exalted father (F REUD 1995,
two links in the causal chain: neural activity → experience. In p504).
the absence of a compelling reason to include God in the 14 For the theist there is no difficulty in speaking of the proper
causal story (intersubjective verification of His presence, for functioning of the belief evaluation system. According to
example), to do so is to add a superfluous link to the causal theism, human beings and their belief evaluation systems
chain. have been designed and created by God (http://www.lead-
10 Naturally there are believers who are, in fact, deeply reflec- eru.com/truth/3truth02.html). The belief evaluation sys-
tive about their religious beliefs. The philosophy of religion tem will thus be functioning properly when it forms and
is replete with subtle and ingenious arguments for the ex- maintains beliefs in Gods existence.
istence of God; arguments that, on the face of it, constitute 15 According to STICH (1990), belief-formation systems that
rigorous intellectual reasons for belief. Nevertheless, I am are maximally accurate (yielding beliefs that most closely
inclined to agree with Bertrand RUSSELL (and numerous oth- approximate external reality) are not necessarily those that
ers), who stated that I do not think that the real reason why maximize the likelihood of survival: natural selection does
people accept religion has anything to do with argumenta- not care about truth; it cares only about reproductive suc-
tion. They accept religion on emotional grounds (R USSELL cess (p62).
1957, p24). Furthermore, however ingenious the standard 16 Steve LOVELL has alerted me to the positive/negative exis-
philosophical arguments for Gods existence may be, few if tential distinction.
any even attempt to establish the existence of God as a 17 Because only the latter involves the multiplication of an
psychological being, someone who knows us, loves us, and entity.
attends to our prayers. As REY (in preparation) points out, 18 I want to emphasize that this conclusion is possible only
why should a perfect being, or an unmoved mover, un- under a specific construal of belief pathology the alethic
caused causer, or unexplained explainer have a mind? (p4). construal. One might object that the manner in which we
11 For FREUD, recognition of this fact constitutes a reason for construe belief pathology is essentially arbitrary, and that
giving up religious beliefs, a reason that undercuts ones applying scientific standards of truth discernment to hu-
reasons for so believing. In philosophical terms this fact is man belief formation is overly harsh. Thus whereas we
(for FREUD) an undercutting defeater for religious belief. might reasonably locate pathology in a science that con-
12 For this strategy to avoid committing the genetic fallacy cluded that God exists on the basis of religious experience,
would require the insertion of an extra premise such as All to locate such pathology in an individual who forms reli-
beliefs that result from wish-fulfillment are false, a premise gious beliefs on the basis of their personal experience is
that, as LOVELL (2003) points out, is manifestly unavailable excessively stringent. There is no space here to further ex-
(because wishes sometimes come true). plore this particular can of worms.
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