Can Bacteria Help Us Understand Religion? Part 1: The Brain-Changing Power of Religious Belief

nerve cells with immunoflourescentTo progress toward a better future, humanity desperately needs a better understanding of religion. Maybe microbes can help.

Religion is one of the most powerful forces in human society. Before the rise of America’s Christian Right and before Islamists turned planes into bombs and started beheading people on social media, many Americans thought of religion as a relatively benign institution or, at worst, one that was toothless and doddering. Sure, religion may once have had the power to burn libraries and infidels or rouse armies of crusaders, but that all seemed like distant history. In modern popular vernacular, that’s not very Christian of you simply meant not very nice, and Islam was said to mean peace rather than its other root: submission.

But as a psychologist and former fundamentalist, I have always had a healthy regard for the power of religious belief.

During my years in Evangelical Christianity, I heard the story of Nicky Cruz, a New York gang member whose life had been transformed by Jesus; the story of Chicago’s Union Gospel Mission that turned alcoholic bums into sober Christians; the story of missionary Elizabeth Elliot who dedicated her life to saving the souls of Amazonian headhunters after they killed her husband.

After I left Christianity, I heard stories of lives transformed in bad ways by religious belief—adults plagued by panic attacks from childhood threats of hell; families torn apart when one member restructured his or her life around religious scripts or, alternately, deconverted and was disowned; and devout parents who followed the Bible’s parenting advice, beat your son with a rod, to the point that they killed their children. I read letters from missionary believers who fantasized torture and death for anyone who blocked them from seeking converts on, say, public school grounds or military bases. I will pray The Word that our righteous Lord and Savior will smite you . . . First on the list: Pray the Lord to have Mr. Weinstein watch Mrs. Weinstein burn alive in a car accident.

Religion, like almost no other human enterprise, arouses a surprising percent of people to such heights of passion that they abandon all else and devote themselves to the propagation of religion itself—even when that means giving up their own life or taking the life of another. Even more moderate belief can drive people to do things that are shockingly altruistic, like taking in a homeless stranger, or shockingly cruel, like throwing their queer child out onto the streets. (These actions can also be shockingly at odds with the rest of their character.)

Some Christians say that we humans are, all of us, “utterly depraved” and that without religion—or rather Christianity specifically—the world would descend into End Times anarchy. Outsiders sometimes argue the opposite, that religious belief prompts fundamentally decent people to do horrid things they wouldn’t do otherwise. U.S. physicist Steven Weinberg put it this way: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

“Is it a mental illness?” Because I am a psychologist, people sometimes ask me, quite seriously, whether religion—or at least religious fundamentalism—is a psychopathology. After all, most religions seem somewhat crazy from the outside. If someone were alone in believing that his child was going to be tortured forever unless they prayed a certain prayer—or if someone were alone in believing that a supernatural being cares whether you wash plates that have touched milk and those that have touched meat in the same dishwasher—or if someone were alone in believing that God wanted all women to walk around in black sacks with their faces covered—we might suspect that person was schizophrenic. But schizophrenia is caused by a breakdown of neurological systems within the individual, and religion is not.

Religious beliefs, however incredible they may be to outsiders, are held by millions of people who find their own bizarre convictions intuitively resonant and perfectly reasonable–and who are otherwise quite sane. Also, peculiarities aside, religions seem to bring out the best in some people, perhaps by enhancing altruism or providing community support for acts of generosity and compassion, or by disinhibiting wonder and joy. So, for years, I said, no, not a psychopathology.

But some similarities nagged at me. Take paranoid schizophrenia for example. Whatever the precise biological mechanisms may be, the person has a set of peculiar and powerful experiences which the mind seeks to explain. Over time, a whole plotline gets fabricated, with actors and motives and perceived relations between events that become self-confirming and utterly impervious to rational disconfirmation. Any attempt to challenge the story provides further proof that it is true.

Schizophrenic delusions tend to have some special features that are a consequence of how schizophrenia itself works (the person’s beliefs need to account for experiences like visual hallucinations, thought insertion, or hearing voices). But otherwise, the end product is not unlike many widely-held conspiracy theories and some forms of religious belief. The primary difference between a schizophrenic’s delusional system and a conspiracy theory or system of fundamentalist theology is that in schizophrenia the plot structure is triggered by a biological malfunction, is idiosyncratic (meaning that despite common themes it differs from person to person), and lacks social validation.

So, the causes are different, but the products are oddly similar; and over the years, the more I thought about it, the more I came to wonder if religious belief might be best construed not as psychopathology but as something related that I called a socio-pathology. By this I meant a delusional system that has its root not in a biological malfunction but rather in a malfunction of social information flow.

I now think that hunch was only partly right. To explain, I need to delve into the nature of the human mind, the nature of ideas, and the nature of religion—with a little help from bacteria.

Part I in a 4-part series. Read Part 2 here. This series was abridged as a single article in The Humanist – A magazine of critical inquiry and social concern. May/June 2017 issue, p. 16-21.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at



About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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6 Responses to Can Bacteria Help Us Understand Religion? Part 1: The Brain-Changing Power of Religious Belief

  1. godfreydebouillon says:

    “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
    And how is it that evil people at least start to do good things? Does anything else work as well as a relationship with God, or a Higher Power, whatever we call it? The syllogism is incomplete without that last part–unless, of course, all you O.S.E.P.s (Oh So Enlightened People) have already given them up as unredeemable and not worth bothering about unless they get too troublesome, which will be the time to mow them down wholesale. That might be necessary, but how hard are we trying to bring them around? And if we try, will anything work as well as what I just wrote? Seriously.


  2. john powell says:

    Mr. DeBouillon, yes, there is something that works as well and BETTER THAN a self-deluded “relationship” with a god or higher-power which doesn’t exist. That something is Reason. Self-reflection. Self-assessment. Self-accountability. Intensive consideration of the harmful consequences of perpetrating “evil”.

    Beliefs in higher-powers and gods require one, and cause one to configure one’s thoughts and emotions in such a way that allows one to deceive oneself into thinking that the “evil” which one engages in can be blamed on a “devil” or “demon”, and can be covered-up by conducting mental conversations with the imaginary being, conversations in which the being is imagined to pronounce forgiveness and exoneration, the result of which is the believer becoming conditioned to think he/she can continue engaging in occasional “evil”, so long as he/she (in his/her thoughts) continues assuring himself/herself, and assuring the imaginary being, that “the devil made me do it”, followed by the imaginary god’s voice assuring the doer of “evil” that he/she is forgiven and will continue receiving “salvation/redemption/blessing” in exchange for his/her promise to try to do better at resisting the “devil” or “demon”, next time.

    That whole mental process going on in the believer’s mind, is NOT effective at permanently transforming an evildoer into a doer of good, because it provides the believer with an excuse for doing “evil”. The excuse is, “The devil/demon is strong, and I am only a weak and wretched sinner.”

    With that excuse in their pockets, the believers remain comfortably, confidently ever-susceptible​ to “backsliding”, and ever-free to “fall” into pursuing the committing of “evil”, without the restraint imposed by his/her powers of will, self-accountability, and the sense of presence in the real world, where there are no valid excuses/nobody else to blame for the “evil” he/she chooses to do.

    The god/higher-power belief actually obscures and diminishes one’s powers of self-will and self-accountability. The god/higher-power belief very significantly obscures and diminishes one’s sense of presence in the real world of real consequences. The god/higher-power belief gives license to a confident, delusionary self-deception in which one imagines that he/she is present in a separate world, a “spirit” world, where he/she has instant access to “divine” forgiveness, exoneration, and imaginary “divine” assurance that one will continue being blessed and accepted by the god/higher-power, no matter what “evil” one does, so long as one confesses to the imaginary god (in his/her imagined meetings with the god/higher-power), and promises to do better at resisting the imaginary “devil”, next time.

    So, Mr. DeBouillon, you have failed to notice the very well-known flaws in your easily-disproven, and long-disproved, thesis. Seriously.

    For accomplishing permanent, authentic transformation of evil doers into devotees of doing good, NOTHING is more effective than reason, intensive self-reflection, intensive self-assessment, self-accountability (no escape to blaming a “devil” or “demon”), and intensive consideration of the harmful consequences of doing “evil”.

    That’s the fact of the matter, in the real world.

    Millions of prisons around the world are filled with believers in the imaginary god/higher-power. The overwhelming majority of the prisoners are repeat doers of evil. Repeatedly, the imaginary “devil” or “demon” lured them to commit the “evil”, and repeatedly the imaginary god/higher-power (their own thoughts) assured them that they are forgiven, exonerated, and will continue being blessed and given chance after chance, after chance, but then, they got caught, by the real world.

    Do a Google search for the percentage of Atheist prisoners/evildoers in U.S. prisons. When you see that percentage, ask yourself if what you’ve been reading here tells you why Atheists are almost completely absent in the U.S. prison population.

    If you are honest with yourself, you will be happy to have the only correct answer.

    Good luck.


    • Buddy says:


      Foreword — Daat Emet
      In this article R’ Bar-Chayim discusses the attitude towards “Gentiles” in the Torah and in the Halacha and comes to an unambiguous conclusion:
      “The Torah of Israel makes a clear distinction between a Jew, who is defined as ‘man,’ and a Gentile.”

      That is to say, any notion of equality between human beings is irrelevant to the Halacha. R’ Bar-Chayim’s work is comprehensive, written with intellectual honesty, and deals with almost all the aspects of Halachic treatment of non-Jews. It also refutes the statements of those rabbis who speak out of wishful thinking and, influenced by concepts of modern society, claim that Judaism does not discriminate against people on religious grounds. R’ Bar-Chayim shows that all these people base their constructs NOT on the Torah but solely on the inclinations of their own hearts. He also shows that there are even rabbis who intentionally distort the Halachic attitude to Gentiles, misleading both themselves and the general public.

      For the English readers’ convenience we will briefly mention the topics dealt with in R’ Bar-Chayim’s article:

      Laws in regard to murder, which clearly state that there is Halachic difference between murder of a Jew and of a Gentile (the latter is considered a far less severe crime).
      A ban on desecrating the Sabbath to save the life of a Gentile.
      A Jew’s exemption from liability if his property (e. g. ox) causes damage to a Gentile’s property. But if a Gentile’s property causes damage to a Jew’s property, the Gentile is liable.
      The question of whether robbery of a Gentile is forbidden by the Torah’s law or only by a Rabbinic decree.
      A ban on returning a lost item to a Gentile if the reason for returning it is one’s sympathy towards the Gentile and compassion for him.
      The sum which a Gentile overpays in a business transaction due to his own error is forfeit; whether a Jew is permitted to intentionally deceive a Gentile is also discussed.
      One who kidnaps a Jew is liable to death, but one who kidnaps a Gentile is exempt.
      A Jew who hurts or injures a Gentile is not liable for compensation of damage, but a Gentile who hurts a Jew is liable to death.
      One who overcharges a Gentile ought not return him the sum that the Gentile overpaid.
      A Gentile — or even a convert to Judaism — may not be appointed king or public official of any sort (e. g. a cabinet minister).
      One who defames a female proselyte (claiming that she was not virgin at the time of her marriage) is liable to neither lashes nor fine.
      The prohibition to hate applies only to Jews; one may hate a Gentile.
      One may take revenge against or bear a grudge towards Gentiles; likewise, the commandment “love your neighbour” applies only to Jews, not to Gentiles.
      One who sees Gentile graveyards should curse: “Your mother shall be greatly ashamed…”
      Gentiles are likened to animals.
      If an ox damaged a Gentile maidservant, it should be considered as though the ox damaged a she-ass.
      The dead body of a Gentile does not bear ritual impurity, nor does a Gentile who touches the dead body of a Jew become impure — he is considered like an animal who touched a dead body.
      One is forbidden to pour anointing oil on a Jew, but there is no ban on pouring that oil on a Gentile because Gentiles are likened to animals.
      An animal slaughtered by a Gentile is forbidden, even if the ritual slaughter performed was technically correct, because Gentiles are deemed like animals. (Daat Emet does not agree that this is the Halachic reason for invalidating a Gentile’s ritual slaughter — but this is not the place to delve into the subject).
      Their members (genitals) are like those of asses” — Gentiles are likened to animals.

      Between the Jews and the Gentiles — In the Aggadah, the Kabbalah, and in Jewish Thought R’ Bar-Chayim’s arguments and conclusions are clear, Halachically accurate, and supported by almost all the existent major Halachic works. It would be superfluous to say that R’ Bar-Chayim fully embraces this racist Halachic outlook as the word of the Living G-d, as he himself pointed out in the “Conclusion” of his article:

      “It is clear to every Jew who accepts the Torah as G-d’s word from Sinai, obligatory and valid for all generations, that it is impossible to introduce ‘compromises’ or ‘renovations’ into it.”

      On the other hand, we want to make it clear that Daat Emet — as well as any reasonable people who do not embrace Halachic laws as the word of the Living G-d — are repulsed by such evil, racist discrimination.

      In the Hebrew text we have abridged the second part of R’ Bar-Chayim’s article,
      “Between Jews and Gentiles — In the Aggadah, the Kabbalah, and in Jewish Thought,” because, in our view, the Halacha is the law which obligates every religious Jew while concepts of the Aggadah, the Kabbalah, and Jewish thought are not binding on anyone, as our rabbis have already written:

      “And so the Aggadic constructs of the disciples of disciples, such as Rav Tanchuma and Rabbi Oshaya and their like — most are incorrect, and therefore we do not rely on the words of Aggadah” (Sefer HaEshkol, Laws of a Torah Scroll, p. 60a); we have expanded on this issue in the portion of Vayeshev.


  3. David says:

    Beautifully written series, and for once very intelligent and thoughtful replies. I just wish to raise one rather personal observation, not about religious belief per se but pertaining to whether we are good at detecting bullshit and whether this has adaptive value. I really don’t think we are, at least in an everyday setting in western society. We take people very much at face value, trusting what strangers tell us (unless it seems really weird). The alternative would be paranoid, fact-checking every detail of a person’s supposed background. This is how confidence tricksters operate,and will always succeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Daniel Jereb says:

    A better direction for Tarico might be universal healthcare thwarted by religious non profits for the sake of empire. Humans will always need some god whether he exists or not. Religion causes lower case chaos, but in return keeps upper case CHAOS at bay. With religion the Apocalypse is always far away in the future. Let’s keep it that way.


  5. Jochen Becker says:

    This is another well written and argued article by Tarico. But her transition away from a religious fundamentalist stopped at being a moderate apologist. This is also the core of her analogy with the bacteria. She mentions Richard Dawkins and his “Selfish Gene”, but ignores his “God Delusion”, where he already proposes a virus analogy. He also compares the consolation quality of religion to the consolation of being drunk. The fundamental flaw of the bacteria model is this: we can not live without the beneficial gut bacteria, but we can live completely without religion. It does no harm to have a strictly non supernatural worldview. This even defines the difference between pre- and post enlightenment thinking, which American society still has not embraced fully. This might be a reason for Tarico’s soft, non-confrontational approach. But it is high time to expose the parasitic character of religion. The reason of religion was from the start exploitative (where the medicine man wanted some goat for pacifying the thunder god). The ‘spiritual’ (whatever that is) part is only seducing ideology for the narcissistic, megalomaniac ignoramus.


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