I have long pondered the question: Is there such a thing as a religious mind? What predisposes a given individual to take on a non-rational belief in an invisible omnipotent being? Is the brain function of these individuals different to that of the atheist or is it just a matter of a psychological need ?
Recent brain research points to a neurological basis for a belief in a transcendent being. Given the right circumstances, the brain areas responsible can be accessed by us all and act as both a focus and anchor for any extant system of beliefs such as Christianity.
Researchers in America and Canada found a “religious” hot spot in the temporal lobe of the brain. When this area was stimulated in volunteers even individuals who considered themselves non-religious often reported a feeling of spiritual transcendence. There were various reports of a strange presence, images of Christ and visitations from God.
This area of cerebral activity is probably activated when we think of attractive individuals of power, talent or beauty, and we often couch our feelings concerning these individuals in religious terms.
Otto Rank saw romantic love as a substitute religion - a cosmology of two, as he put it. The lyrics of love songs, “angel face”, “I’m in Heaven”, etc. betray it as such and we can add to this our modern gods and goddesses of the stage, screen and sports field. Banners declaring a certain sportsman to be God are now very common at sports stadia , and the fans bow and kowtow as soon as their heroes step out onto the field.
I believe we can trace this predisposition to the period when the hominids (the line of apes leading to man) left the forest and began hunting and scavenging on the savannah. In the forest a warning cry would have been reacted to individually, because each ape would have been in a specific position in respect to the nearest escape route. Out on the savannah this all changed - there was nowhere to go and a panic scattering of the troop would have made it easy for predators to pick individuals off.
Ground dwelling primates are usually led by a single experienced alpha male. This makes sense, because instead of reacting individually to a warning cry, the members of the troop become an effective and coordinated unit by by looking to the alpha male, and following his lead,
Being the focus of the troop’s safety, not to mention its reproductive power, the absence of the alpha male would have caused great anxiety within the hominid troop until he returned or was replaced by another male.
It seems logical that such a system of control would have various areas of the brain dedicated to its development and maintenance. This would entail a unique connection between the areas of the brain that processed the image of the alpha male and the attendant feelings of fear (awe) of his power. This fits perfectly the concept of the old awesome Hebrew God in the light of whom all other fears were banished.
As we evolved, physical power was to some degree overlaid by intellectual power, and it is not hard to see how the system described above gave rise to more abstract ideas, including the concept of the perfect being (be it God or the “god” or “goddess” one falls in love with)
The Hebrew father’s and Moses’ genius lay in their deification of this instinct in the form of the unassailable single God; a concept which helped to unite the Hebrews during their "wanderings in the wilderness".
It is hard not to draw a parallel between the alpha hominid’s role in the frightening wide open spaces of the savannah and God’s role in our intellectually grasped, and awesome, infinite time and space.
Two further points:
The backers of Dictators (and even some more benevolent rulers) are very smart when they flood their countries with images of the leader. With the concept of their power and their images fixed securely in the minds of their subjects, for many “love” and dedication naturally follow.(The over reaction to Princess Diana’s death is a good example of the ability of the press, through images and reports, to produce an effective but psuedo- presence of an individual)
Finally, from a psychological point of view, the behavior of people at a Billy Graham rally was no different to that of the German people at one of Hitler’s little get-togethers.