Friday, September 4, 2009

Religous Cults And The God Gene--Not Exactly Compatible

Pillars of light, burning bushes, horse issues on the Road to Damascus, it maybe the God gene that lets us experience these things which totally change and transcend our world view.

I keep going over the same question in my head. This happens especially after I post on right wing Catholic cults. I keep wondering why did so many of them have their start up in Spanish fascism? Why are so many of them so successful at preying on well meaning Catholics whose desire is to find a more meaningful and spiritual expression of their faith?

The thought struck me that their leadership may have learned from what I see as Communism's really fatal mistake. Communism tried to drive out man's sense of religion, seeing it as a failing that left people open to manipulation by religious authority. Since communists weren't interested in a competing authority, they really went after religion. They saw religion as a power issue. Their mistake was confusing man's drive for spiritual meaning, which seems to be innate, with religious expressions of that drive. They may have stamped out the external expressions of spirituality, but they made no headway with the spiritual drive itself.

Seeing this, Spanish right wing religious leaders may have decided that the old ways are the best ways. Instead of working against the spiritual drive, they co opted it for their own purposes. They went right back to a medieval version of monastic Catholicism with it's stress on piety, ritual, and obedience, while adding a good dose of Vatican I infallibility. This allowed the word of charismatic leaders to be confused with the word of God. For good measure they added a huge dollop of fear.
They've been successful in putting very tight boundaries on a human experience which operates in the exact opposite direction. Unfortunately, when people leave these cults, they have pretty screwed up and thoroughly conditioned neuro chemistry. It's far more likely to pump out the adrenaline of fear than the peace of the transcendent relationship with God they sought.
The neuro chemistry of spirituality moves one to experience fewer boundaries around the perceived sense of self and towards experiences of more connections outside the self. Coercive religious practices work against this by rigidly controlling personal expression and focusing followers to strive to achieve spiritual progress by pursuing the permission of the leadership. They are taught spiritual progress is never something one accomplishes on their own. That's where the devil will get you.

Recent research from the National Institutes Of Health seem to have isolated a gene, VMAT2, which is very active in spiritually oriented people. This gene produces specific monoamine neuro chemicals which effect perception and emotion. (Another monoamine family member that most people would be familiar with is serotonin.) People experiencing the release of these specific neuro chemicals lose a sense of self, experience a sense of exalted peacefulness, and feel connected to the entire universe. They permanently drop the older more rigid boundaries of their perceived self and world. They never return to them. They and their brains are changed.

Here's an explanation from Dean Hamer who wrote the book "The God Gene". This is part of a more extended interview.

"So basically this VMAT2 gene, which you have been able to isolate, affects those brain chemicals--which in turn, you feel, affect people's sense of spirituality?

Exactly. That's the theory. The best interpretation is that the monoamines are affecting higher consciousness. By higher consciousness, I mean the way that we perceive the world around us and our connection to it. We see all of these sites and sounds and smells and data coming in. We make it into sort of a coherent picture like `that's a person', `that's a building', etc. Furthermore, we're able to place ourselves precisely in that picture at all times. We know where we fit and we know that we're the same person that we were yesterday. We know that we'll be the same person tomorrow. There's never any discontinuity in who we are. We never think we're somebody else.

Yet there are stories of holy people who do feel like their own personalities have evolved or changed.

Exactly, changed. Or they feel like they're not on Earth anymore or they feel like they've reached Nirvana, if you're more of an Eastern type.

All of those are examples of people's consciousness changing, and I don't mean that in a flaky way. I mean it very particularly. Their relationship to the universe is somehow changed, and that's a very deep spiritual experience. I would say that every great religious leader had that type of experience. (And additionally, their perception of themselves and how they relate to others also irreversibly changed. Once you have these spiritual experiences you are incapable of going back to the old self. If you try, in some vein effort to conform, you put yourself in a great deal of psychological trouble.)

Jesus went to the desert, Muhammad had all these flights, and Saul on the road to Damascus became Paul. Moses talked to the burning bush. Buddha spent a long time under a tree, contemplating. That's really the heart and soul of spirituality, changes in consciousness. Monoamines play a very important role in the brain, in connecting ourselves to the world around us."

A lot of the rules and rituals used by most cults prevent adherents from experiencing this sense of transcendence. Some push the notions of obedience and a form of scrupulousness. These will focus a follower on their subjective sense of self, and how they relate to the leadership and rule. This is great for the cult, but the truth is real spirituality strives for the loss of self, not an obsessive focus on the self. Losing a sense of self takes a different set of tools. While obedience and scrupulousness may be paths to religious success, they are not good paths to spiritual transcendence. This can be seen in the difference in how Jesus related to the world as opposed to how the Pharisees related to the world.

To finish this, the VMAT2 gene is all about acting from the spirit of the law, not necessarily obeying or enforcing the letter of the law. I guess you could say VMAT2 is not a gene which enables one to engage in blind obedience or adhere strongly to a particular religious identity. From the standpoint of religious authority, it's not user friendly. But from the standpoint of Jesus's teachings, it's probably what He was trying to activate.


  1. Interesting. I've just obtained a book from the library which explores these ideas from a Japanese perspecttive; Attunement Through the Body by Shigenori Nagatomo.

  2. Colleen thanks for the post. I think the neurochemistry that you talk about is very complicated and not yet scientifically known. For instance, eighty percent of all serotonin is released in the gut. (Some scientists are referring to the gut as our second brain) It is interesting that patients with a neuroendocrine cancer called carcinoid may develop a syndrome caused by the secretion of some thirty plus neuroendocrine hormones many of them mono amines and most of these patients have soaring levels of serotonin. It has been found that many of these patients have varying amounts of mania and difficulty concentrating. The worst part of this syndrome is flushing, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

    Sometimes one can learn from the pathological as well as the non pathological. It is further interesting that this disease is found much more often in high achievers who are usually A type personalities. A question might be weather these people are any more spiritual than others?

    Although I agree with so much of what you say and find your blog to be a blessing of the mind to read, there have been some things that I disagree. You continue to make this point in your writing, " the truth is real spirituality strives for the loss of self, not an obsessive focus on the self. Losing a sense of self takes a different set of tools." I am not at all convinced this is true. I think spirituality is more likely obtained when a person strives to find her or his true self. I think it is the borderline tendencies in all humanity to put up false selves to defend against the real challenge of spirituality or knowing more of God’s truth. I think your other idea of loss of ego is not exactly correct either. I think that it takes a lot of ego to print a blog such as yours. I think basically your ego is coming from a good place e.g.. a search for truth and meaning. So my take on spirituality is that it is more likely to occur in a person with a strong sense of a true self with enough tempered ego to express truth as one sees it.

    You went on to say, "While obedience and scrupulousness may be paths to religious success, they are not good paths to spiritual transcendence. This can be seen in the difference in how Jesus related to the world as opposed to how the Pharisees related to the world." Jesus brought a true self with enough good ego to give the world his teachings of love.

    I find it easier to critique something that I don’t exactly agree with than it is to write notes of praise, but I want you to know Colleen that this blog is valuable to me and others that read it. Please continue!

    Peace and continue to bring us more understanding,

    R. Dennis Porch, MD

  3. Dennis, it's kind of funny, but I was writing a comment on another blog and came to the conclusion when I use the terms 'loss of self' I really have never explained what I meant. Feel free to make me define my terms. I appreciate it.

    I basically mean losing the fear of death. Meaning that we stop fearing that the loss of our biological body will somehow mean the loss of our perception of self.

    The true self, as you eloquently describe it,is exactly what we need to uncover because that's the self that exists in eternity.

    You are correct that the neurochemistry is theoretical at this point, but the data is fascinating. The research on VMAT2which I didn't go into, involved comparing scores on Robert Cloninger's self transcendance scale with levels of VMAT2. They found a direct correlation. The higher the self transcendance score the higher the levels of VMAT2. The researchers found that this was independent of religious affiliation.

    This affirms what I've learned from other spiritual elders. It doesn't matter the religious route you take, if you can lose your fear of biological death and discover a sense of universal connectedness you change yourself in ways that they actually see.

    By this I mean their sense perceptual reality is quite a bit different in terms of the information they process and let through their perceptual filters. Because of that they have a very different view of the world and how it operates.

    When I first started finding orbs in digital photographs, I wasn't quite sure what was going on. Once I ruled out the usual suspects I was left with the obvious. My camera was photographing enormous balls of light which I couldn't see. Natives could though.

    One night a bunch of us were sitting up in the mountains and an elder woman said, take a photo of so and so. She has your 'orbs' all around her. She sure did, dozens of them. This went on for over an hour, where the native women would tell us where to photograph and there would be orbs.

    Finally the eldest grand mother said, "How do you think we know who is really with us and who is really against us. We see. We don't guess." Blew me away!

    Apparently there's a lot more going on in our brains than we are aware of and a lot more that we could let through our filters. In the final analysis though, no matter what is going on it still needs to be expressed electro and bio chemically.

    That's why Natives don't like zyprexa. It stops a lot of their 'seeing' and 'hearing'. By this they mean the good psychic stuff. Natives seem to deal somewhat better with the notion that their psychically gifted can also be psychotic as hell. I've heard it referred to as 'their mental illness gift' and the traditionalists are quite willing to take very good care of their mentally ill gifted.

    This is a fascinating time to be alive. Lot's of different world views are adding all kinds of information to the total human pool.

  4. Thanks Colleen,

    Yes, self has a different meaning the way many therapeutic traditions use it than the way you are using it. I like your reply and would agree with loss of the type of self that you refer is an entry into spirituality.

    I don't know why are not going into science and philosophy more in their collegiate education. Years ago, when I started college, business school was considered a technical education that helped one earn a living. I think that for more progress we it would be nice for more of our children to go back to Liberal Arts or Art and Letters no matter how a person wants to call it.

    I think when one believes he is educated with only a technical education, he or she tends to believe that he knows as much as the scientists and philosophers and when a technically educated person fails to understand scientific and humanistic observation, they get mixed up in the dogmatism of what they are supposed to know. This may lead to a religious person but does nothing for spirituality. It in fact often produces a false megalomanic self.

    Thanks for your post about the orbs, it was fascinating! There are some in medicine know trying to study and understand the electromagnetic flows of energy through our bodies. I must admit, although I have learned acupuncture and know in some cases it may work well, I do not pretend to know the reason. dennis

  5. I have a lot friends who do both Reiki and accupuncture but their explanations are more metaphorical than scientific. I believe what they say though, when they maintain it will never work like western medicine because it is dependent on changing variables. Those variables being the energy flows of the people involved. A depressed person will not derive as much benefit as they would if they were in a more neutral state kind of variable.

    I agree that this is the time we need our kids entering into educational disciplines which teach how to think and exposes them to different ways of breaking down information. For my daughter it just happened. She wound up with concentrated minors in Philosphy, Political Science, Theatre, and Theology. It all added up to one degree in General Studies, but avenues into all kinds of graduate degrees.

    The elders love her and she gets invited to all kinds of things which sometimes leave her very leary, but had she been a techno junky she would have been scared to death, trying very hard to put square pegs into round holes.