Can science 'cure' religious fundamentalism?

An Oxford University researcher claims that, in time, deep-seated, extreme beliefs may be treated as a mental illness, rather than a product of free will.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read
Kathleen Taylor in 2007. 2007 MTA/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

This is an era in which science is finally imposing its supremacy on the lily-livered species that is man.

We've tried our emotion-based way of life for a little too long. We talk of love and God as if they are tangibles.

But if a scientist can't see it, touch it, analyze it, and alter it, then it isn't real.

Thankfully, we will soon all be wearing Google Glass and behaving like automatons. Life will become rational and predictable. Safe, even. We need no happily-ever-afters because we will simply keep on living in a timeless space. Until the food runs out and the planet melts.

There is still a little work to be done before we reach Nirvana, so how can we begin to adjust some of the extremities of human behavior that plague our daily lives?

Oxford University researcher Kathleen Taylor believes that neuroscience can begin to affect -- with a view to, perhaps, curing -- human beings of their most extreme beliefs.

She gave a presentation this week at the U.K.'s Hay Festival -- the same festival in which Google's Eric Schmidt warned that teenagers' mistakes would live forever, thanks, in part, to Google.

As the Huffington Post reports, Taylor thinks that there are certain beliefs that might soon be treated as illnesses.

She said: "Someone who has for example become radicalized to a cult ideology -- we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance."

In her view, certain beliefs cause "a heck of a lot of damage."

She referenced not only religious fundamentalism -- specifically that of Islam -- but also behavioral mores such as spanking children.

On hearing her words, some might venture that so many other seemingly irrational (to some) beliefs -- such as Apple fanboyism or the idea that wearing socks with sandals is somehow acceptable -- can be altered through neuroscientific manipulation.

This is where the moral gradient becomes treacherous.

Who decides which beliefs are really doing "a heck of a lot of damage"? What if those in power decide that everyone should now believe something entirely different from their previous beliefs?

Taylor has been studying the ramifications of brainwashing for some time. She refers to the brain as "that lump of blood-infused blancmange" that is every day impacted by elements of persuasion.

She recognized this in an earlier article for the Huffington Post: "Techniques created to heal can also be employed for other purposes, and the ability to get data from living brains is a holy grail for many interested parties other than neuroscientists and doctors."

It's often quite startling to see people alter their beliefs radically.

It might be a right-wing politician who suddenly supports gay marriage because he discovers his own child is gay. Perhaps it's someone who survives a serious illness and turns to religion in a far more committed manner.

Sometimes, we simply encounter people who change the way we see the world because somehow their view makes a little more sense than ours.

The things we hold dearest can be beliefs that have simply been passed down to us through generations.

The things we hold dearest might also (or, even, therefore) be the result of a pathology, as much as an essence of our very being.

Part of the problem with attempting to cure us of some of our fundamental(ist) beliefs is that we'll know it's happening. We'll know that someone thinks there's something wrong with us.

And we all get very, very touchy when someone thinks we're not all there, don't we?