“Religion is one of the things that sets humans apart,” Dr. Donald M. Braxton, the J. Omar Professor of Religion at Juniata College, said at his presentation titled “Hacking the Religious Minds: Turning Religion into a Plug-and-Play Activity” on Wednesday, Feb. 25.
Braxton explained that religion is notoriously difficult to define. Cognitive science gives the definition that religion happens in any society when the mind is exposed to the idea of supernatural agents. Additionally, cognitive science delves into the different behavioral outputs and mental effects religion has on the individual.
Another aspect that makes religion difficult to define is that there is no one aspect of it that identifies something as a religion. “Religion has no essential ingredient,” Braxton said. “Religion really is a cultural soup.” He explained that if someone would take an ingredient out of a soup recipe, it would still be identifiable as soup because the overall makeup of the soup is what makes it identifiable rather than one specific part.
“We find that there is no unique machinery being employed by you to follow religion,” Braxton said. The brain activates in a rather casual manner when performing religious actions. Baxter explained that the brain does not function much differently than it would playing a video game or standing in McDonalds. No particular area of the brain is activated by religious activities that cannot be activated by other activities.
Braxton identified “Theory of the Mind” as one things essential to our understanding of religion. Mentalizing, which focuses on the mental perception and thought processes and looks at special classes of minds, is one particular example of this. He said that mentalizing is very common among humans because they are hyperactive readers of the social environment. “It’s one of the things that make us so successful as a species,” Braxton said.
He said that this distribution of mentalizing is not split evenly among the population. For instance, individuals with schizophrenia over-mentalize social events, creating false positives that deviate from social norms, such as hearing voices in the wind. On the other hand, those with autism are characterized by deviating from social norms in being too apathetic and unaware of others’ minds. Braxton said that individuals are more likely to perform religious acts depending on mentalization and societal norms. “Religion is something we can do given the minds we have, but it’s not something we have to do,” Braxton explained.
He then posed the question of whether humans have the ability to turn off or on certain kinds of religious behaviors. Transhumanists strongly encourage gamification of neuroscience and encourage experimentation with religion in various ways. Technology is being released or studied that can stimulate the brain through simulation, such as recreational EEG machines and Microsoft’s HoloLens. These machines focus on creating a virtual reality that help people to feel the emotions commonly associated with various activities through activating brain functions.
Braxton added that all normal human minds mentalize. Humans suspend disbelief easily because they are survival machines. He proposed that religion is not an adaptation, however, it has adaptive advantages that can aid those who follow it or participate in various sessions.
Juniata College will be hosting a conference on transhumanism, which Braxton is on a promotional tour for. The conference will pair promising high school students with college students and professionals in technological fields to promote networking among the groups.