All posts by Stuart James

Husband, Father, Christian (not the mentalist type), Mentalist, Blogger, and so forth. Gloucestershire UK Follow me on Twitter

Dr Gerhard Roth: Dark side of the brain where evil lurks, Grace and Neuroplasticity

A German neurologist claims to have identified a specific brain configuration within which he says ‘evil lurks”. Measuring brain waves on violent criminals whilst watching ‘brutal scenes’ revealed a “dark patch” in their frontal brain. This area believed to be responsible for compassion and sorrow, showed no activity.

Dr Roth’s research has led him to believe “that some criminals have a ‘genetic predisposition’ to violence.”

This strikes me as rather deterministic which seems to be the trend of modern neurology and Dr Roth cites a 66% probability of an adolescent with this brain anomaly going on to become a felon.

But then Dr Roth makes this observation:

Dr Roth believes that criminal mental decline “begins in the kindergarten”, but a positive parental environment and strong societal support can easily stop the child going on to offend.

Equally, a negative domestic situation could easily lead to a child otherwise moderately pre-disposed to violence, to become a hardened criminal.

This almost seems to contradict the earlier determinism.

Last year I spoke with a clinical psychologist on the subject of psychopathy and the observation that stood out most starkly for me was from her experience of psychopaths, the vast majority had experienced a childhood of extreme brutality and neglect.

With the growing understanding of Neuroplasticity or ‘Brain Plasticity’ within which physical brain changes in neural pathways and synapses can occur as a result of environment and behaviour changes, can we write anyone off as simply ‘genetic predisposed’ to violence?

As an relevant example of Neuroplasticity I read recently of soldiers suffering PTSD as a result of combat had evidence of neurological brain changes.

As with everything pertaining to the nature / nurture debate I suspect that physical brain abnormalities of ‘dark patches where evil lurks’ are as much a product of the environment as anything else. And it would seem that Dr Roth also holds that view with his comments on ‘positive parental environment and strong societal support’.

I assume that Dr Roth here is advocating an environmental buffer against genetic predisposition.

I don’t believe that any single person is beyond the pale of God’s grace. To accept that they are, is in some way, for me, to denigrate God, or undermine his salvific power.

There may of course be those so given to their evil inclinations they would reject the grace and light of God. But I would not view this as deterministic, but of self-will.

The question I would dearly love to have answered: Are there Neuroplastic changes when a person accepts faith in God? As this process can involve complete reversal in thinking and behaviour (and possibly environment), especially for the adult convert, could this precipitate positive neurological changes?

Just wondering……

UPDATE: Thinking on it would be interesting to compare the recidivism rates between criminal Christian converts and others. If the recidivism rate is reduced in violent criminal converts, then could this potentially be evidence of neuroplasticity in action?

I don’t know of any research of this type, but would be very interesting….

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Patriarch Kirill: Sow wheat among the web-tares

Last month Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill lamented Orthodox bloggers publicly insulting each other, which I can only imagine must be an Orthodox phenomenon as it doesn’t happen in Catholic or Protestant Internet circles:

…that the diversity of ideas inherent in church circles sometimes assumes absurd forms in the Internet environment.

“In the web space groups of church liberals and conservatives are appearing that are not looking for the truth, divine truth but a means of finding fault, stinging each other. This is a very sad tendency,” he said at a diocesan assembly in Moscow ahead of New Year.

He said that divisions and feuds within the church “are evidence of infantility, childishness in faith which sometimes assumes ruffian forms.”

It would now seem the good Patriarch is advocating the strategy of sowing wheat among the web-tares:

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia on Saturday lamented a high number of antichurch internet posts and said the Russian Orthodox Church he leads should be present in social networks to tell the truth to its audience.

“Blogs and social networks give us new opportunities for the Christian mission” at a time when the Church comes under attacks more often than before, the patriarch said. “Not to be present there means to display our helplessness and lack of care for the salvation of our brothers.”

“Now that social media shows a huge interest, although not always a sound one, in church life, our duty is to convert it for a good cause, to create conditions for young people to know about Christ, know the truth about the life of people inside the Church,” Patriarch Kirill said.

“When a person makes a query on church life in an internet search engine, he finds a lot of lies, hypocrisy and hatred,” the patriarch said at a meeting of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Bishops Council in downtown Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

“These are the visible results of activity by the enemy of mankind,” he said.

This of course comes hot on the heals of the superb address given by the Pope on social media, which I think can be summed up as follows:

Go into all the digital world and preach the good news to all creation. (Mark 16:15 with slight modification)

The U.S God and sport

The U.S. is a baffling place at times.

Hot on the heels of the Public Religion Research Institute findings that nearly three in ten Americans believe God decides the outcome of sporting events, the Barna Group find that most Americans believe sports figures have a greater influence than do professional clergy or other faith leaders.

By more than a three-to-one margin, Americans believe professional sports players have more influence on society than do faith leaders. Overall, about two-thirds of Americans (64%) say they think pro athletes have more influence in American society today than do professional faith leaders (19%). Others say both (8%) have equal influence or are not sure (10%).

Of course, as the research goes on to say, Americans love a mash-up of sport and faith, with a whopping 83% of Americans aware of Tim Tebow; 73% feel favorably about his public discussion of faith.

Dawkins and Democracy

This is a post by Edmund Standing:

Here’s Richard Dawkins on the question of a referendum on EU membership:

In UK We elect MPs to decide complex issues [sic]. Why a plebiscite on, of ALL things, a subect [sic] as complex & hard to understand as EU membership?

This is a very revealing comment. First off, here’s where Dawkins is wrong:

In the UK, we have a representative democracy. The fundamental principle behind representative democracy is that we, the electorate, vote for the person we think best represents our views and our interests overall. We do not vote for an ‘expert’ who will ‘decide complex issues’ for us, but rather for one of our peers who we send to London to express our views in the House of Commons. Of course, we do not have the time to collectively undertake detailed studies on every issue that will be debated in Parliament, but we nonetheless work on the basis that our MP will do his or her best to approach those issues with the views of those who elected them in mind. We do not elect MPs to act as wise overlords who take away the need for us to think or have an opinion. MPs are public servants – they serve us, they do not dictate to us.

Dawkins’ argument is fundamentally elitist and is arguably only a few steps removed from an assault on the notion of democracy itself. After all, if the electorate cannot understand ‘complex’ issues and need others to ‘decide’ what is best for us, then what is the point in allowing the electorate to vote at all? Why not simply form a council of wise men and women who will decide what is best and leave us to follow whatever decisions they may make? If EU membership is too ‘complex and hard to understand’ then what right do we have to hold opinions on topics such as the economy? Why is EU membership any more ‘complex and hard to understand’ than education policy or energy policy, for example?

What this reveals, I feel, about Dawkins’ overall outlook is that he is thoroughly elitist and deeply contemptuous of the views of ‘non-experts’ on any topic. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the utter contempt he seems to show towards religious believers. Belief in God is not simply wrong in Dawkins’ eyes but is, rather, a delusion, a form of mentally disordered thinking. Once  you’ve happily accepted that the majority of the world’s population is in the grip of a kind of mental disorder, it is perhaps not such a leap to thinking that the majority of people do not have the right to an opinion on anything and should reverentially bow before their intellectual superiors instead.

Dawkins likes to talk about the need for rationality and evidence and claims that faith is ‘the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence’, yet at the same time he clearly suggests that for most people, thinking about and evaluating evidence is something that is far too ‘complex and hard to understand’. Why should it be that looking at the evidence for evolution by natural selection is something we are all capable of, yet looking at the arguments for and against EU membership is beyond most of us? In reality, I would argue that Dawkins actually thinks that most people are too stupid to do either. As a result, he thinks that scientists like him should be able to dictate the truth or otherwise of any and all statements regarding both the natural world and its origins (i.e. the things we should all believe about these topics) and that professional politicians should be able to dictate what we should accept as true when it comes to political matters. Dawkins claims to favour debate and rational thought, yet his statements on the EU and the dogmatic manner in which he promotes atheism both point to someone who actually thinks that debate is a waste of time and that what we lesser mortals should be doing is shutting our mouths and unquestioningly accepting the wisdom of higher authorities. Which sounds rather like fundamentalism to me.

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I’ve always known I was fundamentally flawed

It’s true, I have always been painfully aware that my personality is fundamentally flawed. In response to this I spent many years carefully observing others and trying my hardest to clone their behvior in a poor attempt to appear ‘normal’.

When I was heavily ensconced in the Charismatic world I felt I must have been walking around with an invisible (to me) sign on my forehead: “Pray for me”.

Folk literally couldn’t wait to lay their grubby hands on my head and pray for me to be ‘healed’ and ‘stable’ and know the love of God in my heart, etc etc.

I never asked for their prayers by the way, it was almost as if I was on some secret Charismatic list under the heading ‘troubled, needs prayer’.

When this didn’t work, it was insinuated that I had sin in my life. Bloody right I did and that got me thinking that perhaps I was the only one. Horrible.

The truth is they perceived my mental and personality instability as something that must be cured by God. Something evil.

It’s taken me many years to turn this thinking on its head.

God made me as I am. If I take away those aspects of my personality and cognitive processes that have been with me since I can remember, then I would no longer be me. I would be someone else. How could I possibly wish for that? I wouldn’t know what it would be like and what kind of person I’d be.

The truth is, my mental problems frequently bring me low, embarrassed and humbled, and I no longer view this entirely negatively.

God has me exactly where he wants me, there’s a work to be done, that’s for sure, but he will do it through me using my warts and all.

As today is the feast of ‘St. Paul’s conversion’ I must turn to his words for comfort.

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

A thorn in the flesh denotes to me consistent pain. It doesn’t come and go, just like my mental problems.

I have finally turned it all upside down.

The Grace I have received through being weak and flawed is staggering.

May I never be ‘healed’, but may I know him more fully through my weakness.

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Is human nature essentially good or bad? Let’s ask babies.

Lesley over on Heretics Anonymous fears there are two Christian Churches divided by fundamental beliefs. Whilst Lesley highlights four beliefs, I want to focus on the following:

On Church views humans as ‘essentially fallen’ whilst the other as ‘essentially good’.

Lesley is entirely correct in this observation. I would posit this difference is a product of theology and that perhaps there is room in the one church for fundamentally different perspectives, but that is another matter.

I used to be in the ‘essentially fallen’ camp derived from a hyper-Calvinistic and somewhat pessimistic view of humanity, but now incorporating and taking on board Catholic teaching, view humans as ‘essentially good’ as a by-product of being made in the image of God.

And it looks like some recent research supports this.

The best way to get under the bonnet of human hard-wiring is to conduct research on those of us with the minimum of cultural influences, and that of course is babies.

At this point I’d like to direct you to a blog post on this issue over on Mind Hacks, detailing a fascinating experiment which indicates babies not only infer motive, but have an in-built preference to towards ‘good motives’.

Is The Christian Concept of Gay Conversion Therapy Fundamentally Flawed?

Following my earlier post on an upcoming Christian seminar pushing the validity of ‘Reparative Therapy’ or ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’ I received the following Tweet:

This set off a lightbulb within me and a chain of thoughts.

If Christians regard homosexuality as a spiritual issue – and the practice as a sin – then why turn to ‘gay conversion’ psychological therapy.

Is it that some Christians believe homosexuality to be a mental disorder that can be treated? This explanation is the only reason I can think of to advocate psychological therapy.

If not a mental disorder, then continuing this line of reasoning, if psychological therapy is appropriate for this particular ‘spiritual problem’ then why not all spiritual issues?

Why is psychological therapy not advocated for all sinful temptations?

Could it not be equally argued that all sinful temptations are environmentally produced – as opposed to hard-wired – and in need of rectification through psychological therapy, as is posited for sexual orientation.

If sexual orientation is a mental disorder to be ‘cured’ through therapy, can we confidently even consider the practice of homosexuality as sin any longer?

Are sexual orientation temptations in some way qualitatively different to any other temptations of the flesh?

Of course, the irony is that those Christians pushing for Conversion Therapy are usually to be found most ardently in the anti-psychology camp.

These thoughts have only just occurred to me and so I’m thinking on the fly.

Feel free to chip in.

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Most Americans are Concerned About Restrictions in Religious Freedom

Intriguing findings from Barna Group:

Many Americans express significant angst over the state of religious freedom in the U.S. Slightly more than half of adults say they are very (29%) or somewhat (22%) concerned that religious freedom in the U.S. will become more restricted in the next five years. As might be expected, those who are religious are more concerned than those who aren’t—particularly Christians more so than those adherents to other faiths. Practicing Protestants (46% very concerned) are more worried about this prospect than others; yet, 30% of practicing Catholics are also concerned. Barna-defined evangelicals, who meet a series of nine theological criteria, are among the most likely to be concerned about such restrictions (71%).

Not only are most Americans worried about the future of religious freedom, many feel the restraints have already started. One-third of adults believe religious freedoms have grown worse in the last decade. Among practicing Protestants, nearly half (48%) say they perceive freedom of religion to have grown worse in recent years. Three out of five evangelicals (60%) perceive religious freedoms to have grown worse.


UK Christians lose three out of four discrimination cases at the European Court

I’m not going to clog up this blog with all the hefty details, but if you are interested, I’m covering this over on eChurch.

Christianity and Mental Health: Have We Lost Our Faith?

Continuing my recent theme of Christianity and therapy (Here, here and here) I noticed a relevant article the Christian Post entitled: Christianity and Mental Health: Have We Lost Our Faith?

Studies within the past eight years, have recorded an increase of Christians who are utilizing mental health services in lieu of religious tools to achieve mental stability and balance. Have Christians begun to jump ships on their faith for a quick fix?


The concern of mental health in the body of Christ has become a huge topic of discussion in churches. Many churches have recognized the need and have proceeded with calls of action to address mental illness by hosting health fairs and seminars facilitated by local and national psychologists and psychiatrists.

The article goes on to cite fundamentalist concerns:

Yet, not all parishioners are sold that therapy and pills are not just another gateway for the devils entry into a Christian lifestyle.

“Our faith is our connection to God. Once we break that connection, there is no faith,” says Alexis Ritvalski a mother of three from Texas. “Why do Christians feel a need to seek the advice or help of another person, when Christ should be all that we need? We don’t need psychiatrists to fix us or depression medication to relieve us. There is deliverance in the Word of God. There is breakthrough in the Word of God. There is healing in the Word of God. Every situation that we endure, there is a word for us. To seek out these other methods is to not trust God.”

Oh dear.

On aside, I wanted to make note of a strange phenomena that I have blogged about in the past, and to which nobody seems to able to offer an explanation:

I had occasion to be in a psychiatric ward not so long ago and there was a seating area for patients. I would say that there were 10-12 patients and roughly 7-8 of them were reading bibles. Now, I don’t mean the standard Gideon bibles that were in their rooms, but their own personal Bibles.

It transpired that 3/4 of the patients on that ward, at that time, were Christian.

I have asked many folk their opinion and have never received a satisfactory answer as to why the proportion of mental health patients on this unit were Christian.

A real strange one, which still perplexes me.

My protagonists have used this to assert that a person must be prone to mental illness to accept the Christian narrative. My response is:

It is either that Christianity is the religion of the mad, which I’m happy with, or Christians are for some reason more prone to mental problems. Or perhaps Christ came for the sick…..

1 Corinthians 1:27

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Since writing these words I have again witnessed an unusually large proportion of Christians on a Psychiatric ward.

Obviously my observations are anecdotal and not scientifically verifiable, but I’d love to hear you thoughts.

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A few good links

I’m in the habit of posting a few links I found interesting, normally on a Monday. I try for an eclectic mix and have to admit that just because I link, it doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with it.

So here goes and as always, comments welcome:

Think Theology – Why the New Athesits are winning

The Jubilee Centre – Christianity: the true humanism by Jon Thompson

Huffington Post: Charles J. Reid, Jr. – Against Apocalypticism

Believer’s Brain – Flat-Pack Furniture and the Body of Christ

Accepting Abundance – Unmoved Mover for Unmoved Doubters

The Alethiophile – A christian response to trolling, Part 1: Trolls and what Peter said – (Part 2)

Epiphenom – In Mauritius, religious locations increase generosity

Black White and Gray – The Top 11 from ’12: an Exceptional Year of Religious Research Studies in Sociology

Science and Religion Today – Why Do We Tend to Exaggerate How Much Liberals and Conservatives Differ Morally?