Sapolsky, Shamans, and Quakers
Robert Sapolsky is a famous neurology professor at Stanford University. I recently watched his lecture on “Biological Underpinnings of Religiosity” and felt the need (unfulfilled) to drink a few beers to get through it—not because it was a terrible lecture but because it could be taken as a cogent criticism of religion in general and Quakerism in particular.
Sapolsky argues that the origin of religion can be linked to schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Since the obsessive-compulsive facet is mainly confined to ritualistic religions like Catholicism, I won’t discuss that aspect. Schizophrenia, however, is relevant to Quakerism.
There are schizophrenic Quakers. I know one gentleman who attends Quaker meetings and claims that alien civilizations have instantaneous internet access throughout our galaxy. His speech is sometimes an incomprehensible “word salad.” I don’t know whether he’s ever spoken in meeting, but I can imagine his delivering a message that is pure delusion.
However, Sapolsky is not focused on full-blown schizophrenia. As an evolutionary biologist, he does wonder why a genetic basis for the disease has survived through the ages. If an illness is catastrophic—like schizophrenia—evolution and natural selection weed it out of the genome. In fact, schizophrenics do have fewer children than average. The schizophrenic genes should almost disappear as fewer and fewer people carry them. Yet, historically, and today, schizophrenia consistently afflicts about two per cent of the world’s population. What is the hidden evolutionary advantage that allows schizophrenia to survive?
The answer? Sometimes the schizophrenic gene complex is only partially expressed, and people often carry only some of the multiple genes (largely) causing the malady. Such people may be perfectly normal; but others display, in attenuated form, some schizophrenic traits. They may be abnormally shy and withdrawn. Their logic and reasoning may be faulty or at least “creative.” They may hear voices and see visions but not in the literal and commanding way of true hallucinations. Such people find a place in society. Their presence is advantageous.
In primitive societies these are the shamans, who cast spells, see the future, and heal with magic. In advanced societies they are the religious innovators like George Fox. Of course, Fox is known for his visions. In 1652 he climbed Pendle Hill and saw “a people in white raiment, coming to the Lord.” On another occasion the vision was an ocean of darkness and death overlaid by an ocean of light and love. Fox came to experience this Light within himself, identified the Light with Jesus Christ, and heard the Light “speak to his condition.” Before long, he was speaking in meetings and passing on to Friends the messages given him by his Inward Light. And modern Quakers continue the practice.
But are our messages from God, or are they the products of a disordered mind? Friends have evolved a process to help individuals tell the difference. We consciously try to discern whether a message is inspired by Spirit or simply an emanation of the personal ego. Naturally, there is the risk that we may discern wrongly. We may even speak out of neurosis or psychosis. Nevertheless, we have faith that God exists and still speaks to us today.
For those interested, Sapolsky’s lecture can be found on YouTube HERE.
~ Richard Russell
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