Food For Thought #16: Monotheistic Religion – A Product Of Epileptic Episodes?

Being an atheistic, agnostic evolutionist I’ve always been intrigued with explanations about how religions were created.  Two individuals who probably define my position on religiosity best would be David Attenborough and Arthur C Clarke.

When asked whether his observations of the natural world had given him faith in a creator, Attenborough generally responds by making making reference to the Loa loa parasitic worm in terms of:

“When Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things.  But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’s going to make him blind.  And [I ask them], ‘Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball?  Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy’.

Attenborough is of the view that the evidence all over the planet clearly shows evolution to be the best way to explain the diversity of life.  Asked if he at any time had any religious faith. He replied, “No”.  He has also said “It never really occurred to me to believe in God”.

Arthur C. Clarke’s view of religion (“The City and the Stars.” 1968. Pub. Victor Gollancz Ltd.) goes like this:

 “While still a young man, he had been forced to leave his native world, and its memory had haunted him all his life.  His expulsion he blamed on vindictive enemies, but the fact was that he suffered from an incurable malady which, it seemed, attacked only homo sapiens among all the intelligent races of the universe.  That disease was religious mania.

Throughout the earlier part of its history, the human race had brought forth an endless succession of prophets, seers, messiahs, and evangelists who convinced themselves and their followers that to them alone were the secrets of the universe revealed.  Some of them succeeded in establishing religions which survived for many generations and influenced billions of men; others were forgotten even before their deaths.

The rise of science, which with monotonous regularity refuted the cosmologies of the prophets and produced miracles which they could never match, eventually destroyed all these faiths.  It did not destroy the awe, nor the reverence and humility, which all intelligent beings felt as they contemplated the stupendous universe in which they found themselves,  What it did weaken, and finally obliterate, were the countless religions each of which claimed with unbelievable arrogance, that it was the sole repository of the truth and that its millions of rivals and predecessors were all mistaken.

Yet though they never possessed any real power, once humanity had reached a very elementary level of civilisation, all down the ages isolated cults had continued to appear, and however fantastic their creeds they had always managed to attract some disciples.  They thrived with particular strength during the periods of confusion and disorder, and it was not surprising that the Transition Centuries had seen a great outburst of irrationality.  When the reality was depressing, men tried to console themselves with myths.”

It would now seem, at least in the latter case, that there is some argument for the viewpoint expressed by Arthur C Clark in that religions are, in reality, just constructs of the mind – an incurable malady.

In New Scientist recently (8 September, 2012 pp 10) a hypothesis was offered proposing that Tutankhamun’s untimely death, as well as those of some of his (4) genetically related pharoahs, was related to a genetic disorder, namely a heritable form of temporal lobe epilepsy.  This form of epilepsy, with seizures beginning in the temporal lobe, is known to induce hallucinations and religious visions, particularly after exposure to sunlight.  There’s evidence of visionary experiences by Thutmosis IV and Akhenaten, the Pharoah that moved Egypt from polytheistic worship to the monotheistic worship of the sun as the supreme god.

While there is a view that the hypothesis is speculative, and probably almost impossible to validate it is of more interest what is said by the various commentators with regard to the mind and religion.  I leave you with these little snippets:

“People with temporal lobe epilepsy who are exposed to sunlight get the same sort of stimulation to the mind and religious zeal”.  Hutan Ashrafian, surgeon at the Imperial College of London and the proposer of the hypothesis.

Orrin Devinsky, neurologist at the New York University Langone Medical Centre.  “The exact timing of Akhenaten’s religious conviction is not so clearly documented, and most cases of sudden religious conversion are not due to epilepsy.  Monotheism could be related to epilepsy, or bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or drug intoxication from a fungus . . . . .”

So perhaps, some 44 years ago, Arthur C Clarke hit the nail right on the head in his succinct and accurate view of religiosity, that homo sapiens has an incurable malady called religious mania.  Evidence that religions are just constructs of the mind – and damaged one’s at that – seems to be growing!.  And that really is food for thought . . . . . . . .!


About deknarf

Australian born and bred who has spent most of his working life in R&D and IP management with earlier forays in the newspaper industry and martial arts. Fortunate enough to be living in one of the best countries in the World, even though I might get grumpy with it from time to time.
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2 Responses to Food For Thought #16: Monotheistic Religion – A Product Of Epileptic Episodes?

  1. gold price says:

    Many of the experiences in temporal lobe epileptics involve phenomena such as deja vu, jamais vu, memory recall, and visual and auditory hallucinations.(Palmini 1992, So 1993). Feelings of religious ecstacy (Williams 1956) and double consciousness, meaning the simultaneous experience of one’s ordinary consciousness and the perception of another reality are again linked to right temporal lobe epilepsy.(Mendez 1996). Religious conversion is also described. (Dewhurst 1970). Finally, Morgan (1990) makes a direct correlation between the religious ecstasies reported in the works of Dostoyevsky and seizures caused by a right temporal lobe astrocytoma. The latter involved feelings of detachment, ineffable contentment, visualizing a bright light recognized as the source of all knowledge, and seeing “Jesus Christ”.


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