The origin of religion-7: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities

What has been discussed so far is the origin of prototypical religions, the early forms that consist of vague beliefs in supernatural forces and the afterlife. At various points in time, these became crystallized into concrete religions some of which are still extant, each distinguished from the others by their rituals and the specific forms that their beliefs take. This post will look at the originators of those religions. What distinguishes those who create specific religions (and those who follow them) from the rest of us?
Religions like Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, and Buddhism all seem to have had charismatic leaders, as do the more modern cults. This suggests that an important factor in the creation of relatively modern religions (by which I mean those that originated within the last three or four thousand years) lies in the qualities of the founders and this is the angle that neurologist Robert Sapolsky has investigated. He looks at the people who started these religions and what made them so effective at convincing others to adopt and propagate their ideas. He takes a Darwinian view and suggests that religious leaders had traits that enabled them to succeed that arose as a byproduct of selection for other features. It also explains why even now we have charismatic cult leaders regularly springing up (like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Charles Manson are some names that immediately come to mind) who are able to persuade others to follow them even to death.

Sapolsky thinks that charismatic religious leaders may have evolved traits over time that, despite their evolutionary disadvantages, survived due to other factors. This process can be understood by comparing it to diseases like sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Tay-Sachs, all of which, in a naïve Darwinian view, should have died out long ago because the bearers (due to incapacity or early death) tend to leave fewer offspring than people without the disease. The reason they persist is that even though the full-blown form of the disease is disastrous to the bearer, a partial or milder version of the disease actually confers advantages, and this more than compensates for the destructiveness of the full disease. Sickle cell anemia in its mild form, for example, confers protection against malaria.

So what might be the trait that the founders of religion could have had that can provide benefits in a milder form while in its full-blown destructive form it should have been selected against to extinction? Sapolsky thinks it is schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia has a genetic component and the full-blown disease creates “disordered thought, disconnected socialization, hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, a 50% rate of attempted suicide”. It is clearly evolutionarily maladaptive and by itself should die out. So why is it still around?

It turns out that there is a milder version of schizophrenia called a ‘schizotypal personality’ that is found among the relatives of schizophrenics (though not in all of them). Sapolsky suggests that the originators of our religions (and many of their followers) seem to display all the signs of being schizotypal. In a talk he gave on the subject, Sapolsky describes the identifying traits:

What is schizotypal? It’s a more subtle version of schizophrenia. This is not somebody who’s completely socially crippled; they’re just solitary, detached: these are the lighthouse keepers, the projectionists in the movie theaters. These are not people who are thought-disordered to the point of being completely nonfunctional; these are people who just believe in kinda strange stuff. They are into their Star Trek conventions. They’re into their astrology, they’re into their telepathy and their paranormal beliefs, they’re into — and you can see now where I’m heading [laughter] — very, very literal, concrete interpretations of religious events.

What you find with schizotypals is what is called metamagical thinking, a very strong interest in new-age beliefs, science fiction, fantasy, religion, but in a very concrete, literal form, a very fundamentalist style. Somebody walking on water is not a metaphor. Somebody rising from the dead is not a metaphor; this is reported, literal fact.

Now we have to ask our evolutionary question: “Who are the schizotypals throughout 99% of human history?” And in the 1930s, decades before the word “schizotypal” even existed, anthropologists already had the answer.

It’s the shamans. It’s the medicine men. It’s the medicine women. It’s the witch doctors.

It’s the shamans who are moving separate from everyone else, living alone, who talk with the dead, who speak in tongues, who go out with the full moon and turn into a hyena overnight, and that sort of stuff. It’s the shamans who have all this metamagical thinking. When you look at traditional human society, they all have shamans. What’s very clear, though, is they all have a limit on the number of shamans. That is this classic sort of balanced selection of evolution. There is a need for this subtype — but not too many.

The critical thing with schizotypal shamanism is, it is not uncontrolled the way it is in the schizophrenic. This is not somebody babbling in tongues all the time in the middle of the hunt. This is someone babbling during the right ceremony. This is not somebody hearing voices all the time, this is somebody hearing voices only at the right point. It’s a milder, more controlled version.

Shamans are not evolutionarily unfit. Shamans are not leaving fewer copies of their genes. These are some of the most powerful, honored members of society. This is where the selection is coming from. What this shamanistic theory says is, it’s not schizophrenia that’s evolved, it’s schizotypal shamanism that’s evolved. In order to have a couple of shamans on hand in your group, you’re willing to put up with the occasional third cousin who’s schizophrenic. That’s the argument; and it’s a very convincing one.

Western religions, all the leading religions, have this schizotypalism shot through them from top to bottom. It’s that same exact principle: it’s great having one of these guys, but we sure wouldn’t want to have three of them in our tribe.

“[T]here are multiple deities”, “[T]here is but one god and he is Allah”, “I am who I am,” any version of this — is an awful lot like schizotypalism. Who is it that invented the notion that virgins can give birth? Who is it who first came in with the extremely psychiatrically suspect report about hearing a voice in a burning bush? In most of the cases we don’t know much about the psychiatric status of these folks. In the more recent historical cases, we certainly do, and schizotypalism is at the heart of non-Western and Westernized large theological systems.

But while this may describe the founders of religions, what is it that attracts people to these schizotypals among us, to become their disciples and proselytzers, and create the religious insitutions that we now have?

Next: What traits make people susceptible to becoming religious followers?

POST SCRIPT: If Jesus and his disciples lived in a frat house

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