I am an Israeli-American with undergraduate degrees in physics and philosophy, as well as a master’s and a PhD in culture studies. My dissertation concerned the evolution of the human capacity for fervor, as well as the ability to undergo religious conversion. As part of my participation in the Open Minds Foundation I have been asked to write a short essay about what I do. The short answer would be that I am currently writing a book about how human evolution made it possible for us to express religious psychology. Before coming to the conclusions of my research, let me tell you how I came to study this subject.

The journey began in 1997, when for no particular reason the topic of Scientology came up in a conversation. I remembered a friend in high school showing me some Scientology pamphlets, but I was not sure what that was all about. I was an internet user, so when I got home, I searched for information about Scientology. I found a number of sites including the excellent Operation Clambake (xenu.net), and immediately became fascinated with cults in general and Scientology in particular; I have been following them ever since.

A few years later, I found myself in a graduate seminar given by Professor Eva Jablonka, a cutting edge evolutionary theorist who is very knowledgeable in a diverse array of subjects (I highly recommend her highly-accessible book with Prof. Marion Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions). I asked the professor her opinion of a book I had recently read about the evolution of consciousness and religion (Julian Jeynes’s 1976 The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). She asked to borrow it. Two days after lending her the rather large book she gave it back telling me that it was a good read, but that it was contradicted by research from the 80’s regarding “theory of mind”. It was this comment, coupled with my interest in cults, which put me on a path researching the evolution of religious psychology under the supervision of Professor Jablonka.

Early in my research I found that most recent books about the subject described religious psychology in a way which was in complete disagreement with what I knew from looking into Scientology and other cults. Books in the new field called the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), such as Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, were concerned with offering an evolutionary explanation of why people believe in the factually mistaken tenets of “regular” religions. They disregard motivations, emotions and fervor, especially the extreme cases of these exhibited in cults. While ignoring emotions has been common in cognitive science (they are improving at this) and ignoring extreme cases is considered legitimate in the psychology of religion, any evolutionary analysis must examine extreme cases closely, no matter how rare they are. For instance, even one case of a cat speaking English should make us re-evaluate the evolution of all cats. The rareness is not as important, for an evolutionary discussion, as the fact that it is possible.

Another fundamental difference I have with most people in the Cognitive Science of Religion is due to disagreement regarding evolutionary theory. I am operating under a paradigm called Evolutionary Developmental Theory (‘evo-devo’), which has been revolutionizing evolutionary biology, while the CSR still relies on a framework, developed by Dan Sperber, called the Epidemiology of Representations. My own theory needed to be compatible both with the scientific worldview of evo-devo as well as with what I knew about cults.

A couple of years ago, I finally submitted my dissertation and received a PhD. The text was extensive and complicated since it involved various fields including evolutionary theory, complexity theory, psychology, neurology, sociology, anthropology, as well as religious and cultic studies. Over the last few months I have been converting my dissertation into a book suitable for general readership.

The working title of the book is The Religious Ape: What Cults and Fervor Can Teach Us About the Evolution of Religion. It relies on an up-to-date interpretation of evolutionary theory, tackling questions regarding how our species has come to exhibit the capacities to be religious, to have fervor, to undergo both sudden and gradual religious conversions and to experience awe. I argue that these aspects of religious psychology primarily came about as the result of the human capacity for symbolic language interacting with aspects of psychology associated with love and family.

Considering the psychology of love, we see that it can be divided into an emotion, a state, and an establishing event. The emotion is “love” (and related emotions), the state is being “in love”, and the establishing event is ‘falling in love”. Each of these manifests somewhat differently in the romantic and parental forms of love. I contend that the evolution of symbolic language interacted with the psychological mechanisms of love, resulting in a new set of emotion, state and establishing event. The new emotion is awe (and related emotions), the state is fervor, and the establishing event is conversion. Let us very briefly look at how falling and being in love correspond to their counterparts in religious psychology.

I maintain that sudden conversion corresponds to a sudden falling in love, an event seen when people ‘fall in love” with their baby as they become parents, and in romantic “love at first sight”. Both falling in love and undergoing a religious conversion include a very strong emotional experience. They are more common in teenagers and young adults, but can occur at any age. Such events allow a person to fundamentally change his or her life, including changing habits and breaking other relationships; they establish a long lasting commitment which is irrational in the sense that it is not dependent on cost-benefit considerations; and they result in strong feelings, moods and motivations towards the new child, romantic partner or faith. These manifest in the person being either in a state of being in love or in having fervor, both being states that need to be maintained over time through emotional experiences.

Love, being in love and falling in love resulted in various traditions and institutions which we collectively call “family”. I propose that in a similar fashion, the psychology relating to awe, fervour and conversion, resulted in the emergence of diverse cultural traditions and institutions we refer to as “religion.”

So far I have been pointing to commonalities between being in love and having fervor, yet these are different in an important sense. It is clear that being in love includes a commitment towards the object of one’s love. But fervor also includes a commitment toward a specific worldview being true (which is why symbolic language, on which the concept of truth depends, needed to evolve before we could have fervor). This means that in the case of fervor, in addition to a commitment to a figure such as a deity or a leader, one’s commitment includes a belief that a certain set of ideas is true, that some of these are “great truths”, and participation in an emotional regime that determines what emotions are appropriate in various situations.

My characterization of religious psychology highlights the need to reevaluate our approach to cults and cult members. If my assertions are correct, the way a cult manipulates a person is related, in an evolutionary sense, to the ways that a child “manipulates” a parent. If we consider Scientology, for example, we can say that a member tends to view Hubbard as a father figure; but regarding his or her relationship with the group, the member takes the role of a parent who needs to protect and help advance the cause of the group, which in his mind takes the role of the child.

If they think their child’s wellbeing is at stake, parents will be willing to give up their possessions, work long hours, and even act immorally and illegally in an attempt to help their child. Similarly, cult members are likely to act in these ways on behalf of their cult. Both are likely to be deeply offended when their child or their group is insulted. Both resist even considering damning allegations against their child/group. Parents are likely to see even the most demanding and abusive child in a positive light; likewise, cult members tend to judge their group positively, even in cases where the cult is abusive. Parents are devastated when losing a child, no matter how abusive or demanding the child was. And similarly, cult members are shattered when they leave or are kicked out of an abusive cult.
Accepting the similarities between cult members and parents of demanding, abusive children, points to a great injustice in our culture. The parents of a demanding and abusive child are supported by society and are to some extent forgiven for immoral acts they did on behalf of their child. Some even admire such people for following their hearts and sticking by their child no matter how horrible that child is. Even a serial killer’s parents might be forgiven or at least understood for supporting their child. Unfortunately, such empathy is not extended to people who are, or have been, in cults. Far from being supported, cult members are often viewed by society as being stupid, gullible or weak. It is tragic that without understanding the influence the cult had over them, even cult survivors can view themselves in such a way.

On a more personal note, if the person reading this is an ex-member of a destructive cult, I would like to tell them to forgive themselves, and view the involvement with the group as something that could happen to anybody capable of parental love. Don’t view your cult involvement as a failure of your character or intelligence, view it as you would stepping in dog doo: you were unlucky, and you might have stunk for a while, but it doesn’t mean much about who you are.

In conclusion, I am writing a book in an attempt to make my dissertation more accessible. Still, anyone interested in reading the dissertation itself can email me and I will send them a copy. In addition, I am about to start recording a regular podcast which will be accessible from the Open Minds website. In these podcasts, I will discuss a broader array of topics than I do in the book. These will include a criticism of the “new atheists” and of the theory of memetics, my assertion that Hubbard suffered from a specific type of epilepsy, and more.

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