Religious Fundamentalism: A Side Effect of Lazy Brains?

Insights from neuroscience suggest that the brain tends to automatically accept rather than reject beliefs, oftentimes independent of how logical they might be.

09.14.15 5:00 AM ET

If there is anything that global news has shown us in the past couple of years, it’s that fundamentalism is on the rise and more pervasive than ever. Fundamentalist beliefs have driven countless beheadings, bombings, and execution-style murders by terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda in the last year alone. At a time when religious extremism is running rampant in large areas of the world, and steadily growing in virtually all others, finding effective ways to fight it at its core is in the interests of all free nations.

Although many complex causes of fanatical fundamentalism have been identified by a wide range of disciplines, a growing body of evidence from the field of neuroscience suggests one major contributing factor: Brains generally accept beliefs because they have to work much harder to reject them as false.

Beliefs and the Brain

Scientific research investigating the neural underpinnings of belief got its start as recently as 2008, when popular author and neuroscientist Sam Harris began a series of brain imaging studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. The concept was simple: How is the brain activated differently during a state of belief compared to a state of disbelief?

While in an fMRI scanner, participants were asked whether or not they believed in a number of statements. Sentences ranged from the very simple and fact-based (California is larger than Rhode Island), to the abstract and highly subjective (God probably does not exist). The data revealed activation of distinct but sometimes overlapping brain areas during belief versus disbelief conditions.

Additionally, the scans clearly showed something that was more straightforward. Brain activation, overall, was much greater and persisted longer during states of disbelief. This is important because neuroscience has long shown that greater brain activity requires more mental resources, of which there is a limited supply. A cognitive process that demands little mental resources, such as believing, is less work for the brain and therefore favored. This concept was summed up nicely in a 2015 NewScientist cover story on the science of beliefs, which stated, “Harris’ results were widely interpreted as further confirmation that the default state of the human brain is to accept. Belief comes easily; doubt takes effort.”

This finding has great implications for understanding the factors involved in human behavior and decision-making. We all know that our beliefs strongly guide our actions and shape our moral and political attitudes. Since the brain tends to accept ideas rather than reject them, those raised in cultures that promote religious indoctrination of children at a very early age—long before they are taught science, if taught science at all—are more susceptible to holding fundamentalist beliefs later in life.

Further evidence supporting the notion that the brain favors believing comes from classic psychology experiments with children. Many studies have shown the perhaps common sense idea that young children are prone to believe what they are told rather than reject it. The latter involves an evaluation phase that the former does not, which again places more demands on the brain’s limited resources. Suggestibility and gullibility, in a sense, come naturally.

For most Americans, our childhood years were spent believing in magical figures like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. All over the world, children have undoubted faith in whatever supernatural beings have been introduced to them by their family and reinforced by their schools and social networks. However, it is important to emphasize that the tendency to believe in ideas effortlessly and automatically is shared by children and adults alike. Although more pronounced in children, a bias toward the less-demanding process of believing remains throughout life.

Science-Based Solutions

Such data-informed insights may offer solutions to the problem of widespread fundamentalism that is fueling many Islamic terror groups in the Middle East and Western nations alike.

At present, in most homes around the world, regardless of the religion, mystical explanations for natural events are taught to children by parents from the time they are old enough to communicate. Even in progressive nations like the U.S. and England, courses on subjects like evolution and physics—that give well-established physical explanations for questions about our origins and how the world works—are not mandatory for all students in high school or even college. Given that ideas are easily accepted as true in early stages of life, great progress could be made if public schools provided children and young adults with a basic science education from the beginning of their academic career. Combatting the brain’s habit of taking the path of least resistance calls for change in legislation that places science subjects at the forefront of schools’ core curriculums.

Second, extremist ideals can be more effectively fought in the brain not only by introducing science topics earlier, but also by making those topics more interesting and accessible at all academic levels. Early science lessons should present complex ideas in ways that make them as easily digestible as religious teachings—and just as easy on the brain. To many scientists, “dumbing down science” is seen as blasphemous, but given that the battle between scientific and religious explanation is often a winner-takes-all scenario, a negligible loss of accuracy in certain Gen Ed science courses is well worth the gains. Public science advocates like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, along with many science awareness social media sites, have been very successful in this effort.

The hard truth of the matter is that for the human mind, believing is more of a reflex than a conscious, careful, and methodical action. Rather than looming over this somewhat disconcerting fact, we should use this information to change the conditions that allow fundamentalist beliefs and dangerous ideologies to flourish. We may not yet be able to go into the brain and change it to fit what needs to be learned, but we can certainly change what needs to be learned to fit the brain.