Patrick McNamara

The Motivational Origins of Religious Practices

Review by Benjamin Samuels, 2008

Patrick McNamara. “The Motivational Origins of Religious Practices.”  Zygon 37:1 (March 2002): 143-160.

Does religion make people good? Is human civilization better or worse for the preponderance of religion? In an age of religious violence and ongoing debates about societal values, this question is arguably central to the human enterprise. In this important article, Patrick McNamara applies his expertise in neuroscience to the sociological and psychological study of religion. Although the context of his inquiry is quite narrow, its implications are far reaching and aspire to answer even these questions of ultimate concern.

Sociologists have documented that religious devotional practices, like prayer and meditation, correlate with better mental health. Religiosity itself has been shown to negatively correlate with depression and risky, impulsive behaviors, while positively correlate with higher levels of socially healthy and responsible behaviors, such as empathy and moral insight, as well as the self-regulation of emotions and impulses (143). While psychologists of religion have long concerned themselves with motivations and rewards, McNamara goes further than his predecessors by examining the underlying neurobiology of such psychological and sociological manifestations. In doing so, McNamara provides an evolutionary explanation for the near-ubiquity and persistence of religion throughout human civilization, as well as conjectures as to the motivations for and rewards of religious practice.

Inspired by recent brain-imaging studies that have indicated frontal-lobe activity during devotional prayer and meditation, McNamara hypothesizes a new motivational origin for religious practice – namely, the activation of the frontal lobes. Frontal lobe activity is both intrinsically rewarding and conducive to the interpersonal and personal aims of religion. McNamara’s formal argument goes like this: Religious practices, such as praying, induce religious experiences that are seated in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is central to the reward and pleasure system of the brain, and thus its stimulation through religious practice is intrinsically rewarding (146). However, not only does religion make us feel good, it actually helps make us good and virtuous because social intelligence – that is, how to act like a mature, responsible and compassionate human being, are likewise linked to the frontal lobes of the human brain (147). Religion may actually make us good in one further sense. It makes us good at whatever we choose to do. In other words, religion may help us actually become more successful in life, not only because it helps us develop social skills, but because executive cognitive functions that help us plan, initiate, creatively generate, and support goal-directed behaviors also find their center in these same prefrontal brain areas (147, 154).

McNamara admits that as of yet he does not have hard empirical support for these conjectures (144, 148). However, he believes that there is enough circumstantial evidence to develop his hypothesis and justify a research program. First, there is indeed evidence that religion can facilitate the development of certain social skills and executive cognitive functions. McNamara thoroughly surveys this evidence and reviews its fields of study (149-54). He compellingly explains the psychologically salubrious necessity of executive cognitive functions and social skills, such as prosocial behaviors of empathy and moral insight; empathy and perspective taking; will, planning, goal directedness, optimism and hope; theory of mind and attributions of agency; self-awareness, autonomy, identity and memory; belief-fixation and meaning construction, as well as brings in studies that link failures at these executive cognitive functions and social skills to brain injury and/or dysfunction of prefrontal cortical areas of the human brain. Second, McNamara cites some suggestive empirical data that the frontal lobes are physiologically activated by religious practice and experience (154). In fact, it was preliminary indication that there is greater blood-flow and anterior activation values in brain-imaging studies during prayer and meditation that inspired McNamara’s thesis. However, the crucial assumption that religious practices preferentially activate the frontal lobes needs considerable shoring up through testing and research experimentation if McNamara’s thesis is to survive. Finally, McNamara cites studies in the psychology of religion that indicate that religiosity is associated with better acquisition of executive cognitive functions (155).

McNamara ends his essay by considering objections to his hypothesis. He cites three. First, he cites the challenge that there are non-religious individuals whose frontal lobes function just fine. Second, there clearly must be other ways beyond religion to stimulate and cultivate the social skills and cognitive function discussed heretofore. (As a minor quibble it should be noted that this is really just an extension of the first objection). And third, some may ask why McNamara dismisses the traditional ascription of religiosity to the temporal or parietal lobes (155-56). McNamara speaks to these objections sufficiently to justify the further investigation of his hypothesis, without fully undermining any of these objections. McNamara does not question when and why religious practice may sometimes fail to fully develop social skills and executive cognitive functions.

In his introduction, McNamara recognizes that although his research hypothesis identifies the beneficial effects of religious practice for individuals and society, and thus explains its evolutionary advantage, he also acknowledges that religionists have frequently exhibited religion’s dark side through fanaticism, intolerance and violent behaviors. McNamara fascinatingly suggests that this too can be explained by the stimulation of the prefrontal cortex by religious practice and experience. Since the frontal lobes are central to the pleasure and reward system of the brain, repetitive stimulation of the frontal neuro-circuits through devout religious practice may induce addictive patterns of thought and their attendant, potentially negative behaviors. Unfortunately, McNamara leaves this part of his hypothesis as a mere suggestion and fully undeveloped (145).

This provocative article stands as a wonderful example of the new frontier of multidisciplinary study and brings with it great explanatory power as it links neuroscience and evolutionary biology with the sociological and psychological study of religion. McNamara ably puts forth an intriguing hypothesis. Empirical study and evidentiary support await.