The vast majority of us who find comfort in our spiritual beliefs and philosophical contemplations, often hang our heads in shame when associated with the venom of hate-filled fanatics. But it seems the nature of extremist belief, may have more to do with neurological disorder than a devoted understanding of scripture.
Leading Oxford University neurologist Kathleen Taylor has posited in her new book The Brain Supremacy that religious fundamentalism may soon be an identifiable "mental disorder” — and curable as an illness.
Discussing the positive developments she anticipated in neuroscience in the coming years, Taylor predicted that radicalized ideologies may soon divert from the category of personal choice or free will, and be recognized as the mental disturbance they truly are. She didn’t limit her scope to fundamentalist Islam or cults, but included outlier credences as well, like the belief that beating your children is acceptable.
She hopes to fully understand how certain people devote themselves so counter-intuitively to beliefs that cause such massive social harm. That said, Taylor recognizes the potential moral hazards of developing technologies that enter the mind and manipulate the brain: "They cannot be morally neutral, these world-shaping tools; when the aspect of the world in question is a human being, morality inevitably rears its hydra heads … Technologies which profoundly change our relationship with the world around us cannot simply be tools, to be used for good or evil, if they alter our basic perception of what good and evil are."
One of the most surprising and confusing aspects of the recent acts of brutality by Michael Adebowale in London and the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, is that none of their friends or family recognized any signs of brewing malice within them. Much in the same way serial killers are often described as charming or soft-spoken, it seems that certain people’s nature simply veers towards violence and sadism.
Perhaps religion, like politics, patriotism, or other broad social platforms, allows people to act out their "Us vs Them" fantasies. It creates an outlet for people’s insatiable desire for conflict. The psychosis of Christ or Mohammed is not so much about the spiritual teachings within their books, but more about the ability to give your sadism authority.
Philip Zimbardo, who partook in some of the most famous psychological experiments regarding the nature of evil, gave a wonderful TED talk on the psychology and circumstances of evil acts. In it, he suggests circumstances play a stronger factor in determining evil actions:
Perhaps Taylor is correct, and we will soon discover the region of the brain that acts on evil impulses. Perhaps Zimbardo is correct, and the social structures around us will always influence our malleable nature. If we look at the animals around us, we see a natural order of violence and dominance playing a part in wildlife's harmony. If we look at the stars above, we see more darkness than light.
There is an argument to made that "good" and "light" may in fact be the rebellious new ideas, defying the tranquil abyss of darkness that dominates the universe.