Contemporary Issues Religion Reptilian Mind

Why Religion Doesn’t Encourage Us to Become Human

The New York Times recently ran an article with the following in bold type: “Modern life is ugly, brutal and barren. Maybe you should try a Latin Mass.” This line caught my eye because the quadrune mind model has a lot to say about exactly why people would turn to Catholicism or Orthodoxy or other religions based in ritual during inhospitable times. 

What “religion” means depends on what mind we are trying to feed. However, as it is most commonly practiced, religion is designed to appeal primarily to our reptilian and old mammalian minds by employing ritual and emotion, respectively. And in the case of Latin Mass, it is a perfect fit for the reptilian mind. 

The author of the article, Tara Isabella Burton, argues that people are turning to more traditional, ritual based forms of religion. She notes that, while the overall number of Catholics has declined, attendance at Catholic parishes that hold Latin Mass is up. Some evangelical churches are even incorporating liturgy. She says young Christians, disillusioned by “political binaries, economic uncertainties and spiritual emptiness” are finding “solace in a decidedly anti-modern vision of faith.” She mentions the “anachronistic language and sense of historical pageantry” found in these services. 

The reptilian mind is so named because we see reptile-like behaviors from those who are dominated by it. Some key reptile behaviors include ritual (they do the same thing, the same way, every day) and responding to displays of bright color and adornment. The strict structure and pageantry of a Latin mass fit well with the behavioral cues that the reptilian mind responds to. It is worth noting that even the use of Latin, a language that does not mean anything to most American service attendees, plays into the reptilian mind. Meaning can only be understood by our new mammalian mind, but ritualistic speak devoid of meaning is quite appealing to our reptilian mentality, which cannot comprehend meaning tied to language. 

For those recoiling from uncertainty (which can only be accepted by the Human mind) and fear (which can be avoided by living from a pre-old mammalian/emotional mind), ritualism and pageantry makes sense. It feels right to our reptilian mind, and if we are fleeing the growing pains involved in progressing to a higher mentality amid the additional pain of living during a pandemic, it’s a comforting place to rest. 

As Burton notes, traditional Christianity is quite popular among the far right and reactionary individuals, who see it as a path to a pre-modern (i.e. homogenous) world. What they are really seeking is a reptilian world. The world to a reptilian mind is knowable, predictable, controllable, and black and white. Of course, these are all things that the real world is not.  

Burton writes, “As the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns throw the failures of the current social order into stark relief, old forms of religiosity offer a glimpse of the transcendent beyond the present.” 

However, the quadrune mind model would take issue with the fact that she says that ritualistic services are providing transcendence. In the model, what they are actually providing is security that appeals to our most primitive mind. Security stemming from ritualistic behavior can seem like transcendence to the reptilian mind because it feels perfect in a way that the day-to-day world, full of surprises, doesn’t. However, it is actually regression from the one mind that can give us true transcendence. (In the same way, the emotional release of religion can feel transcendent to the old mammalian mind, or the new mammalian mind can think that intellectual revelation is transcendence.) 

Another reason religious ritual seems to allow one to transcend the present is because the reptilian mind does not live in time. Reptiles follow the same habitual routine day in and day out—past, present, or future has no meaning to the reptile or the reptilian mind. 

However, in the quadrune mind model, true spirituality comes from fully understanding and embracing reality, not trying to escape it. And true transcendence—meaning overcoming the narrow view of selfhood to become an integral part of the universe—is only possible through the Human mind. In fact, this is the very definition of living from a Human mind: to transcend survival based on instinct, the herd, or our own ideology in order to love and care for all beings and the earth.  

The difference between the “transcendence” felt in ritualized religious services and true transcendence is that the latter is not reassuring. To the Human mind, transcendence involves feeling unsafe, feeling unmoored. 

I do want to clarify that individuals who predominately interact with the world from their Human mind may be able to engage in religion from that mind, if their religious practice focuses on doing good in the world for all people. The definition of the Human mind is, after all, reducing suffering and increasing healing for all, and some religious figures have succeeded in living that practice.  

However, religious rituals do not encourage the development of the Human mind. If the only spirituality or community or charity one ever engages in is within the strict structure of a religious service, it would be quite difficult, according to the quadrune mind model, to grow into a Human-minded individual. Almost by definition, being a member of any religious group involves practicing certain traditional behaviors by rote at prescribed times (appealing to the reptilian mind); identifying with the group itself and feeling certain emotions as a group (appealing to the old mammalian mind); and/or believing wholeheartedly in the religion’s ideology (appealing to the new mammalian mind). 

But we need exposure to the unexpected, the unknown, people far different from us, and ideas far removed from our own in order to grow. And growth, because this is an evolutionary and developmental model, is essential to becoming more Human. 

Because development is a progression that relies on taking one step after another, religious services such as the Roman Catholic Mass that appeal to the reptilian mind may be appropriate for some during a time of crisis and trauma. We do need support to grow, and there may be periods in our life when our environment is so chaotic that growth is not possible at that time. 

However, what we must not do is get stuck in a place of tradition and ritual once we have begun to heal. When we are living from a predominately reptilian mindset, the next step is to recognize that emotions will not kill us and that taking actions that benefit our group, even if it means sacrificing a little self-interest, is good. Once we can live from our old mammalian mind, the next stage is to see the value in morals, ideals, and ideas.

But too often this is where we think we should stop—we have values, and if we live our beliefs, isn’t that being a good person? But if we are dogmatic about our beliefs, we are stuck in a pre-Human, new mammalian mind. In this way, even religious individuals who feed the poor and give to the needy every week may not be living their best Human life if they are engaging with those in need based on ideology and not because they recognize them as fellow human beings

Only the Human mind understands that all people deserve the best we can give them, not because a religious tenet tells us to serve them, but because the interconnectedness of life means we must care for all as an essential component of being alive. After all, universal love, awe, and art can all be experienced outside of religion, no matter one’s professed faith, because the Human mind does not identify with a certain group or a certain belief.

Community in the U.S. has been falling apart for a while as we seem to move from an old mammalian-minded society to a new mammalian-minded one obsessed with science and technology. I understand why young people, disenchanted with the growth of ideology at the expense of community cohesion, would want to return to a comfortable world of Latin liturgy, ritual, and reliable traditions. 

But to get stuck in a place that feels safe to our pre-Human mind is to sacrifice the fulfillment, beauty, and love that only comes from living from our Human mind and treating others in a way that encourages them to do the same. When we are overwhelmed by uncertainty, it may be developmentally appropriate to seek temporary solace in ritual or our group until our afflictions can start to heal. But venturing into the unknown, engaging with people holding different beliefs, and accepting discomfort must be our ultimate goal. Only by going through discomfort can we hope to reach a place of true spirituality, which is living from our Human mind. 

Postscript, July 9, 2020: Although this blog focused on why Roman Catholic mass is attractive to the reptilian mind, individuals attracted to “weird Christianity,” as described by the New York Times article, may seek it out to satisfy a new mammalian mentality. 

For those dominated by a new mammalian mind, it is the ideology of a religion that draws them in. The article describes a student at Manhattan College as follows: “Raised as a ‘standard suburban upper-middle-class’ Catholic, he had gone to Catholic school, where he had been exposed to a Christianity that he felt was simplistic, full of dumbed-down doctrine and ‘pitched far below what most people my age were capable of thinking about.’ He left the church in eighth grade, only for other ideologies to capture his attention. He got into Marxism for a while. Then, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, he had a brief flirtation with far-right politics, doing work for Breitbart. During that time, he followed a reactionary Catholic account. Which brought him, in turn, to Weird Catholic Twitter.’ 

Note that the student is attracted to ideologies, a hallmark of the new mammalian mind. This “demanding” form of Christianity may appeal to new mammalian-minded individuals seeking a complex ideology to assuage their desire for learning and intelligence. Many so-called “weird Christians” do seem to give preference to new mammalian values over the repetition, pageantry, or emotion of the religious service (which would appeal to a reptilian or old mammalian mind). 

However, a religious ideology is still not the ultimate goal. Note that the student did not seem too concerned about how his different ideologies—Catholicism, Marxism, or Breitbartianism—affected actual people. For the Human mind, the question is always how any action, emotion, or belief affects others and the world in actuality.

Postscript, February 15, 2023: Bivins, J. C. (2018). Thinking about Religion and Violence (Course No. 4105). Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company. From the course overview:

“In his 24-lecture course, Thinking about Religion and Violence, Professor [Jason C.] Bivins takes you on a global, historical, and multidisciplinary investigation of religious violence. Delivered with honesty and sensitivity to the diversity of spiritual beliefs, he examines the roots of this phenomenon and guides you toward more informed ways of thinking about it. You’ll consider how faiths like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism view concepts like human sacrifice, martyrdom, penitence, and means of violence; the ways religious violence can be directed toward specific races, genders, and cultural groups; the connections between violence and other religions, including Mormonism and Native American faiths; concepts like heresy, demonology, and witch-hunting; and more. Blending history, theology, psychology, sociology, and other fields, Professor Bivins helps you get to the heart of a complex problem that’s broader and deeper (and more optimistic) than you might have thought….

“You’ll also explore sacred texts to see what they have to say about the spiritual purposes of violence, and how their meanings may have been misconstrued and manipulated over time. Some of the fascinating books you’ll explore include not just the major religious books—the Old and New Testaments, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita—but also lesser-known texts including the Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous and widely used witch-hunting manual of the 15th century….

“Despite the troubling nature of the subject, Professor Bivins doesn’t take a pessimistic or clinical approach to the material. Rather, he’s a charming and engaging on-screen presence with a fierce curiosity and open-mindedness to the varieties of religious experience.

“He’s also fiercely optimistic about what we can learn from a comprehensive study of religious violence, and devotes his concluding lecture to ideas of what can be done to mitigate the impact of religious violence—at the international level, the local level, and the individual level.” [TFS].