Weird Weekly Claim: “Atheists use less brain function”

atheist brainSo for this week’s weird claim we have a Christian Web site called AmericanVision that cites a study to prove that not believing in a god requires less brain power, and yes, it is not a satire site, he is being very serious. It is actually a posting published back in Oct 2015 and so the reason I’m highlighting it today is that it has just popped up in my FB feed.

The author, a Dr Joel McDurmon, writes without a hint of any shame the following …

This has to be embarrassing . . . if you’re an atheist. A new study performed at the University of York used targeted magnetism to shut down part of the brain. The result: belief in God disappeared among more than 30 percent of participants.

That in itself may not seem so embarrassing, but consider that the specific part of the brain they frazzled was the posterior medial frontal cortex—the part associated with detecting and solving problems, i.e., reasoning and logic.

In other words, when you shut down the part of the brain most associated with logic and reasoning, greater levels of atheism result.

You’ve heard the phrase, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”? Apparently we can now also say, “I have too many brains to be an atheist.”

… and what then follows is the usual patter … bla bla bla … Darwinism … bla bla bla (bible verse) … more babble … (bible verse), etc… and finishes with this truly weird assertion …

Reason and logic exist because the God of the Bible exists. What this study proves is not that any hijacking took place, but that a tremendous suppression is taking place: of that which must be presupposed. Without the God of the Bible, reasoning would be impossible. Thank you to Izuma and Holbrook for showing us this strong relationship between the two. Christians can further rest content understanding what we’ve believe all along: the existence of God and the use of logic and reasoning are hard-wired and inseparably intertwined in the brains of every human being.

What is his actual source for all this?

The peer-reviewed science journal that he cites as his source for this claim is the UK’s Daily Mail … (you can insert your stunned silence here) … and they in turn point to an actual study but (surprise surprise) grossly misrepresent it in order to spin a good story out of it.

So did Dr McDurmon actually bypass the Daily Mail and check to see what the actual study really is all about?

Heck no, that would spoil his claim and we simply can’t have little things such as facts intrude on a fantasy, that would not do at all. It might also require the deployment of logic and reason, but apparently he has used all that up doing his believing.

So what is the actual Study about?

The study itself has been written up within the paper “Neuromodulation of group prejudice and religious belief” within Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. So let’s take a look to see what it is really all about.

Oh wait, there are a few terms you may need to become familiar withfirst …

OK, on to the study, You can find it here, and discover that the publicly available abstract explains what it is really all about (I’ve underlined the key phrase there for you) …

People cleave to ideological convictions with greater intensity in the aftermath of threat. The posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC) plays a key role in both detecting discrepancies between desired and current conditions and adjusting subsequent behavior to resolve such conflicts. Building on prior literature examining the role of the pMFC in shifts in relatively low-level decision processes, we demonstrate that the pMFC mediates adjustments in adherence to political and religious ideologies. We presented participants with a reminder of death and a critique of their in-group ostensibly written by a member of an out-group, then experimentally decreased both avowed belief in God and out-group derogation by downregulating pMFC activity via transcranial magnetic stimulation. The results provide the first evidence that group prejudice and religious belief are susceptible to targeted neuromodulation, and point to a shared cognitive mechanism underlying concrete and abstract decision processes. We discuss the implications of these findings for further research characterizing the cognitive and affective mechanisms at play.

Yes there is a pay wall there, and if that should happen to be a problem … well they do want $40 for you to access the full paper for just 1 day, so I guess I should not tell you that if you keyed the title, “Neuromodulation of group prejudice and religious belief” into it will then give you a free downloadable copy.

So this was their idea …

we hypothesize that when problems involve conflicting ideological values, or insoluble dilemmas such as the inevitability of death, pMFC mechanisms may invoke relevant belief systems. Specifically, we predict that participants confronted with their own mortality will “solve the problem” via pMFC mechanisms that facilitate amplifying their belief in God; likewise, participants confronted by an out-group member’s critique of their group’s values will more intensely derogate out-group critics. Participants whose pMFC has been experimentally down-regulated via TMS should therefore display less religiosity following a reminder of their own mortality and less derogation of critical out-group members.

In other words … measure, then use TMS on the pMFC and measure again and see what happens, and by doing so they demonstrated that their hypothesis was correct and that the posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC) is indeed a mediator of shifts in ideological commitment.

Why would the researchers explore this?

Well it does all lead to some very interesting conclusions …

History teaches that investment in cherished group and religious values can bring forth acts of both heroic valor and horrific injustice. Understanding the psychological and biological determinants of increases in ideological commitment may ultimately help us to identify the situational triggers of, and individuals most susceptible to, this phenomenon, and thereby gain some leverage over the zealous acts that follow.

The present findings suggest that the pMFC integrates processing distributed across interconnected brain regions to augment adherence to high-level ideals upon detection of relevant conflicts (e.g., criticisms of group values trigger strengthening of investment in group values; reminders of death motivate enhanced belief in a pleasant afterlife).

The results provide evidence that relatively abstract personal and social attitudes are susceptible to targeted neuromodulation, opening the way for researchers to not only describe the biological mechanisms undergirding high-level attitudes and beliefs, but to establish causality via experimental intervention.

Lastly, these findings illustrate the economical manner with which the brain utilizes common conflict-resolution mechanisms to achieve shifts in both concrete behavior and adherence to abstract beliefs.

Now that is all very much many orders of magnitude far more interesting than the daft fictitious apologetics manufactured by Dr Joel at American Vision that attempted to dishonestly hijack it.

2 thoughts on “Weird Weekly Claim: “Atheists use less brain function””

  1. Just as much spin in their conclusions as there is in the simpler word constructions used by the other.

    Without siding with either set of interpretive conclusions, I simply remind myself of the misery and death our modern day progressive atheists in positions of public power have unleashed- nay, invited and welcomed into Western civilization.

    • Thanks for reminding us of your silly fantasies regarding atheists. Meanwhile, theists are ACTUALLY causing misery and death and oppresion around the world.


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