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Free Inquiry

Volume 18, Number 2
Spring, 1998

The following articles are from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 2.

`God Module' Discovered in the Brain - Not!

by David Noelle

A presentation to the Society for Neuroscience gained international attention last October for its claim that scientific evidence had been found for a brain system dedicated to religious belief. This report of a neurological "God module," boldly titled "The Neural Basis of Religious Experience" by the neuropsychologist V. S. Ramachandran and his colleagues, swept through the news media, appearing in the Los Angeles Times and Britain's Sunday Times and on NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. Some took this discovery as proof of divine influence.

A careful examination of this work, however, shows that it provides no solid support for this position. The goal of this research was to show that some people with a particular brain disorder, called temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), exhibited emotional arousal particularly tuned to religious concepts. For many years, clinicians have reported hyper-religiosity in a fraction of the TLE patient population, but some researchers believed that this was just a sign of general emotional sensitivity. The study announced in October suggested that these people did indeed experience more emotional arousal when reading religious words than when reading words involving sex or violence. In comparison, healthy control subjects responded most vigorously, on average, to sexual words. These results, however, should be considered preliminary since only three TLE patients were examined.

What's more, it would be premature to argue that this experiment reveals the existence of an innate "religion module" in the temporal lobe of the brain, which is unusually active in TLE patients. Actually, this study provided no real evidence that this sensitivity to religious notions is "hard-wired" in the brain. Instead, it may be the case that the emotion-mediating systems in the temporal lobe learn - from life experience or cultural indoctrination - to respond selectively to religion in the same way that the brain's visual system can learn to recognize a crucifix. While this research, along with other work on religion and the brain (e.g., that of Michael Persinger; see Free Inquiry, Winter 1996/97), may come to show that certain brain circuits are regularly recruited to process mystical ideas, this does not imply that these circuits evolved for that purpose.

In short, the degree to which our genetic heritage influences our religiosity, or our lack thereof, is still very much an open question. To date, claims of a "religion instinct" are simply a leap of faith.

Christian Coalition May Reinvent Itself

by Matt Cherry

Do you think the Christian Coalition has too much power in U.S. politics? You ain't seen nothin' yet. According to inside sources, the Coalition has set out to reinvent itself as a more powerful political pressure group, but it may have to give up its tax-exempt status and become a Political Action Committee (PAC) to do so.

The planned changes are not entirely voluntary. The program for renewal has been forced on the Coalition by a sharp decline in membership and donations, and by damaging revelations of its illicit political dealings.

The plans to increase the Coalition's political power were first revealed at its "Road to Victory" conference last fall. At a closed-door meeting, Coalition founder and chairman Pat Robertson outlined a precinct-based political strategy for electing federal, state, and local officials. Robertson's talk was secretly taped and made public by watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Robertson's remarks seriously damage his claims that the Christian Coalition is a nonpolitical religious organization.

Comparing the Coalition to other infamous political machines, he said, "If we have that basic core and we have identified people, this is the power of every machine that has ever been in politics." Robertson also bragged, "I told [Coalition President] Don Hodel when he joined us, `My dear friend, I want to hold out to you the possibility of selecting the next president of the United States, because I think that's what we have in this organization.'" During the speech he called separation of church and state "a distortion of what the framers of the Constitution intended."

Since its foundation in 1989, the Christian Coalition has operated under 501(c)4 tax-exempt status. This status confers many financial benefits to an organization, but also bars it from endorsing candidates or engaging in political campaigning as its main activity. The Christian Coalition has long been accused of contravening its charitable status. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has refused to make the Coalition's tax-exempt status permanent, and the Federal Election Commission has sued the Coalition for coordinating its campaigns with Republican candidates in 1990, 1992, and 1994.

While the Christian Coalition would probably survive a change in its tax status, a more serious threat is on the horizon. The IRS is reportedly concerned by the role of churches in distributing voter guides. The Christian Coalition uses the guides to advise church-goers of candidates' policy positions. If the IRS was to judge distribution of voter guides as a violation of the tax-exempt status of churches, the Christian Coalition's power would be gravely undermined. However, with the tax agency under fierce attack in the Christian Coalition controlled Congress, the IRS might hesitate to make such a politically charged decision.

Surgeon General Nominee Survives Political Fracas

by Andrea Szalanski

By a 63-35 vote the Senate has voted to confirm Dr. David Satcher as United States Surgeon General. His appointment comes over the opposition of conservatives, whose lobbying has kept the post vacant for three years.

Satcher, who has headed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 1993, was nominated in the fall of 1997 and encountered little resistance in Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearings. The Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition enlisted presidential hopeful Senator John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) to be the architect of Satcher's defeat, in part because Satcher supported President Bill Clinton's stand against legislation that would ban so-called partial-birth abortions.

The 56-year-old physician and former president of Meharry Medical College is highly regarded for boosting childhood immunization rates by almost 50%, creating an early warning system for detecting food-borne diseases, and improving the Centers' response to infectious diseases. His nomination was supported by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians. As Surgeon General, and Assistant Secretary for Health, he planned to promote healthy diet and exercise and campaign against smoking and teen sex.

`Clearing' Johnny to Read

by Andrea Szalanski

Scientology - familiar to wealthy and famous individuals with lots of time and money to spend on self-improvement programs - is going mainstream with forays into education and parenting issues.

In recent months, media all over the United States have received prepared public service announcements that offer Scientology's "Study Technology" as a solution to adult and child illiteracy. Other press releases criticize the prescription of the stimulant drug Ritalin for children with Attention Deficit Disorder, again plugging study technology as the solution.

Most immediately, millions of American school children stand to be exposed to Scientology due to its work developing materials for public schools. Bridge Publishing, the Church of Scientology's publishing arm, has produced a five-volume series of books and submitted them for approval as supplemental classroom texts to the California Department of Education. The books use "study technology," which Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard has described as "the bedrock on the subject of learning a subject."

Press releases from Applied Scholastics International (a Scientology organization) tout study technology as a "tested and proven solution to illiteracy" worldwide. The sorry state of education in the United States is described, and distinguished humanist John Dewey is charged with being directly responsible for the functional illiteracy of 24 million schooled people.

Things were fine in the early 1900s, according to writer Rosemary Duncan, when everyone who attended school was literate. But Dewey changed all that, she writes, with his "progressive" ideas that "a child's social development was paramount." Never mind that in the early 1900s only a small percentage of the American population attended school, as opposed to today when nearly all children do. The rate of success is bound to drop.

The texts now being considered in California have run into opposition, but not mainly on religious grounds. They are being judged on less stringent content grounds than are textbooks, but have still failed to meet the state's standard for depicting characters that reflect California's diverse population.

A citizen's review panel specifically objected to the portrayal of people with disabilities and people of color. The Church of Scientology is reworking the texts.

The panel found no religious content to object to, however. The Southern California American Civil Liberties Union isn't so sure - at the very least the books use terms and concepts, including study technology, found in other Hubbard works. For example, a press release notes that study technology "provides a precise method for correctly clearing a word" (emphasis added) so that students can expand their vocabulary. "Clearing" or "getting clear" are terms prevalent in Scientology metaphysics.

If the texts are accepted, they will be listed in a Department of Education Catalogue, from which schools are allowed to buy with state funds.

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