When the secular becomes religious
- Published on 29 May 2011
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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Along with artistic expression and a scientific curiosity about the environment, religion evolved in humans during humanity’s earliest years. Religious cave paintings from ancient cultures attest to the early evolution of religion and the centrality of religion in the culture. Fast forward to the present day, and religion no longer holds the central place in the common culture as it once did. Yet, those parts of the brain attuned to religion remain. The result? As BBC presenter Alex Riley found out, commercial products such as Apple can trigger the “religious” parts of the brain in their devotees.
Riley’s television program, Secrets of the Superbrands, intended to investigate what makes a brand name popular. The first episode looked into technology, analyzing the popularity of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple. A visit to one of the Apple stores in London led Riley to suspect that much more than a mundane shopping trip was occurring. As he describes it, the opening of the Apple Store seemed “more like an evangelical prayer meeting than a chance to buy a phone or a laptop.” The Apple employees shouted and clapped, stirring up the crowd waiting for the store to open. The crowd cheered exuberantly, as the employees began to high-five the frenzied customers-to-be. At this point, Riley decided to see how neurologically deep this religious moment brought upon by Apple goes.
He consulted British neuroscientists who agreed to scan the brain of an Apple devotee in order to test the hypothesis that the devotee does in fact undergo a religious experience, as opposed to merely being in an excited state. To a very large extent, neuroscientists have studied the brain when one mediates or has what one would describe as a religious experience. They have documented religious practitioners from both Eastern and Western religious traditions. With the neurology of religious experiences fairly well understood, the neuroscientists would be able to spot one if one appeared.
The next step was to find someone likely to have a religious-like experience over an Apple product. Riley found “World of Apple” editor Alex Brooks, who agreed to participate in the study. Brooks claims that his devotion to Apple is so high that he thinks about Apple 24 hours a day. The team of neuroscientists placed Apple products and non-Apple products before Brooks in order to see how he would react. They captured all of Brooks’s reactions via MRI. Sure enough, the neuroscientists found that the Apple products triggered the “religious” parts of Brooks’s brain. Brooks’s devotion to Apple can, neurologically speaking, be described as religious, as well as his experience of Apple products.
It appears, then, that despite the warnings of the end of religion, the search for meaning is alive and well. Religion, among other functions, gives its adherents meaning. When people fall out of religion, they apparently do not cease looking for meaning in their lives but look for it elsewhere. For someone like Brooks, it may be in a particular brand of technology. Others may try to find meaning in a political cause, patriotism, a vision of the future, or a fictional universe such as Star Wars. If Brooks’s case can be generalized to the population at large, and obviously with only one such case discovered so far there’s no guarantee that it can, then the yearning for meaning and religious fulfillment will live on regardless of what happens to religious institutions. Humanity has evolved to be religious, and nothing short of serious genetic engineering will change that.
Of course, some may worry about the religious health of someone whose religion consists of Apple or some other commercial product. Even if Brooks’s case does not generalize to the broader populace, at least some people (such as Brooks) do hold to their commercial products religiously. Inevitably, a theological discussion will emerge over the religious healthiness of this newfound meaning that may very well repave the way to more classical religion.
For more, see “Apple causes ‘religious’ reaction in brains of fans, say neuroscientists” in Digital Trends, as well as Riley’s documentary Secrets of Superbrands (may not be available outside of Britain).