ReligionSkepticism

is religious fervency hormonal?

I don’t mean this as a joke, but as a serious question. One of the big turning points for me as I was leaving religion, was realizing that the times I felt moved by the sermons in church were usually when I had PMS. I realized this during a period of time when I was struggling because I couldn’t find a church that was meeting my emotional and psychological needs. I was probably outgrowing my need for religion, but I wasn’t aware of that yet. Here’s a bit I wrote about that memory, and some further thoughts on the topic:

A couple of my friends went to Cleveland Christian Fellowship a few miles south of town. I was, by now, fed up with the internal politics at New Life Bible Church, and had visited Cleveland Christian a few times in the past, so I decided to go there for a while. 

It was the most cheerful church I’d ever attended. The worship team led the congregation in upbeat songs with snappy tunes and the band played background music filled with bright major chords. Electric guitars, a synthesizer, and drums made the meeting feel more like pop concert than a church service, and with their big hair and shoulder pads, the worship leader and backup singers looked as if they’d stepped out of an MTV video. Usually the worship leader segued into one or two slow songs, ballads about Jesus or the Holy Spirit, before ending with one last burst of joy and praise. Sometimes there was special music before the sermon, and someone from  the congregation sang a popular Christian song accompanied by a karaoke-like recorded arrangement. 

When the pastor finally came out onto the stage to speak, everyone was in a great mood, warmed up by the music, ready to be inspired for the week. The sermon was usually upbeat, too. None of fire and brimstone of Calvary Baptist, none of the quiet introspection of Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, none of the intense self examination of the house churches I’d attended, none of the serious study of New Life. Sometimes it seemed to me like this church was not much more than a social club. But I had nowhere else to go.

A couple of months after I started attending, I surprised myself by starting to cry at the end of the sermon, when the pastor asked us to give more of ourselves to the Lord—to pray more, to read the Bible more, to witness more, to praise God more. Whatever I did, it was never enough. I always failed in my attempts to maintain my devotion. I was slipping away again, letting the cares of the world distract me, falling into sin. A tear dripped down my face, then another, then another. I closed my eyes and turned my face up toward heaven to pray, letting the tears flow freely, even though I knew my mascara and eyeliner would run. I needed to find a way to restore my relationship with the Lord and start over once again.

When the service was over, I stopped in the ladies room before driving home and was glad that I had a tampon in my purse from last month. As I took the tampon out of the wrapper, it hit me. I was crying because I had PMS, not because God was speaking to me. Had this happened before? How many times? Had all of my spiritual awakenings been the result of hormone fluctuations? I didn’t want to think about it, but I couldn’t stop myself.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been feeling an interest in spirituality again (although not in Christianity or any other religion), as I have begun to go through menopause. It makes me wonder if, at least for many women, these feelings stem from hormonal changes. It’s always been comforting to me to realize when my bad moods are tied to physical causes, and it would comfort me now to realize that these feelings I’m having can be dealt with medically. It seems to me that many more women than men are involved in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches and other spiritual movements, or at least is is the women who usually start getting involved and the men often seem to go along to keep the peace in the bedroom. I wonder if any studies have ever been done about this.

Cross posted on The Atheist’s Way.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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19 Comments

  1. I want to send this to my mom, but our arrangement is that I respect and defend her church membership, and she respects and defends my choice to be an atheist.We can have conversations about our differences, but she would view this as an assault on her faith altogether.

    The few times I went to church, I just felt very out of place, very awkward, and I don’t like music and am aware of why it’s used like this, so I just felt manipulated and resentful. And that was when I was a christian.

  2. I think it’s pretty likely that any kind of change in the normal hormonal functioning of the brain can result in an increase or decrease in religious feeling.

    I know there was a study that indicated an increase in dopamine associated with ritual and prayer. Increased dopamine would almost certainly offset some of the negative effects on a woman’s mood other hormones are causing during PMS and menopause.

    I imagine it is what we call “spirituality” and not religion specifically, that’s associated with the increased dopamine. Ritual and meditation can take all sorts of secular forms, and I think those can be just as fulfilling as any religion.

  3. @writerdd: You were deliberately manipulated to feel that way. When I read the above account, it reminded me exactly of the way a well-planned, well-financed rock concert or stage show is run. The same way that the current “megachurches” are run.

    It’s blatant emotional manipulation. Your hormones may well make you more susceptible to it, as you theorized. However, the entire service was (and is) a setup.

  4. Anytime I see electric guitars and synthesizers and there’s no goth music being played, I become disappointed.

    Actually this reminded me of the one two or three times I attended the Life of Faith night services for the under 18 set. It featured all of that and all I could remember was how irritated it made me feel.

  5. I think it’s definitely possible hormones had something to do with it, for you at least. you’re maybe a natural skeptic and it took hormones for you to feel this way about religion. many others seem to have the ability to be into 24/7 rather than a few days out of the month. If you’ve seen “jesus camp” you know what I’m talking about. I think born-agains as pictured in the documentary find ways to CONSTANTLY keep up the emotional excitement, for if they stop for even a moment, they might think.

  6. @rdriley: Good point. I wonder how we can encourage the non-religious experiences or at least make them more readily available so people are aware that there are choices about how to explore “spirituality” (or whatever this part of human experience should be called).

  7. Don’t use this as a reason to reject the Church, Donna. Instead, have your place of worship embrace the experience. Celebrate Yeaster. Joyously sing the old-timey classic hymns like “Give Me That Kotex Religion” and “Amazing Cramps.” Have the priest intone “Body of bloat…body of bloat…body of bloat…” as he places the Midol wafers on the communicants’ tongues.

  8. Yes, I do believe that spirituality is hormonal. Consider, I have been calling my cock, Gawd, for years. The cock is the driving force for so many things I do in life, I arrange my day so as to have time to spend with the cock, I make purchases designed to please the cock, and quite often i get on my knees before the cock. Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention the urges! There is something powerful and supreme about those urges that I simply must obey, call it testosterone if you like, I call it Divine!

  9. Religion is a human experience. Hormones affect human experiences. Therefore …

    If TAM or another skeptical meeting had upbeat music and a worship … I mean … doubt leader with good looking back up singers, would we attribute skepticism to hormones? Hey, is that the Reverend Phil Plait and the Skepchick Singers? Swoon.

  10. I’m a skeptical atheist. I was raised a fundie, but a more honest reading of the bible lead me to believe I couldn’t call myself a christian unless I obeyed ALL of the bible, so I became a Pentecostal Zionist. I spent the last couple years I was a christian doing things like going into bad neighborhoods and trying to cast devils out homeless people.

    I studied the things I did and asked questions that other Christians didn’t because I believed the truth of God was more important than how I feel about it. I still believe that. It’s why I am atheist.

    But when I was Christian, when I was living in the inner city, and when I was “casting out devils” and fasting, and seeking “visions from the Lord” I did it out of love. All those stupid manipulative things I should have not put other people through, I did because I love truth, and at the time I though it was truth. Try not judge individual Christians too hard. Yes, the culture they produce is evil and dangerous, and some of them are as well, but most of them are sincere. They aren’t getting into religious frenzies because if they don’t they might have a chance to think. They think a lot, within their own limits. Most of what I learned about critical thinking I learned from the church, in studying how to determine false doctrine. (I took it much farther than my teachers intended obviously)

    They get into religious frenzies because they think it is good. It makes them feel good to be in love and to love. It makes everyone feel good to be in love.

    Honestly, I miss “prayer furnaces” a lot. I know now research has shown when you “speak in tongues” the language part of brain actually idles down, and the emotive part ramps up. I know what I felt was contrived.

    But what that feels like when you pray in tongues for someone is amazing. You lay your hands on someone’s shoulder or head and you start praying for them. You’ve never met them before, but you feel like you know them. You fall in love with them. You feel “God’s heart” for them. You weep with abandon or yell at past harms in righteous anger. You lose all track of time. It’s everything you like about the feeling of being in love. It’s pure ecstasy.

    Is it God? No. Is it contrived? Absolutely. Is it meaningful? If you make it so, yes. Did me praying for homeless people give them a home? No. But feeling so good about it wired my brain to give a damn for them, which ultimately did help them get a home.

    Don’t assume that just because you can explain something (neurochemicals) and that the normal explanation is false (god’s power) that the experience is per say pointless. A meaningful spiritual experience is a good thing, even if it happens when you are ragging and surround by a bunch of non-critical thinkers playing sappy ballads to a deranged man who has been dead for 2000 years.

  11. I was brought up in the Salvation Army. I was about 11 or 12 when I noticed a pattern to the bursts of extreme religious fervour that would occasionally take hold of almost everyone at Sunday evening services. I remember being fascinated by it and being a bit of puzzle to everyone because I never got caught up in it. I can’t remember what I noticed about it first, but one early observation was that it didn’t matter how emotional and apparently totally saved someone got during the service, they would behave exactly as before the next day and subsequently.

    I found there were several things that were involved in triggering these mass frenzies. A visiting preacher wouldn’t always trigger it, but it rarely happened without, and it helped if he (always he) was charismatic but appeared unaware of it.

    But there was one factor that was an absolute requirement, and there wouldn’t be any outbreak of religious hysteria without it. It had to be a hot, still summer evening with high humidity.

  12. @truthwalker: I agree. I have recently gotten in touch with some of my old Christian friends and have remembered a lot of things I had forgotten because I was so angry over the past 8 or so years. And my experiences were definitely real. It was just a shock to me when I first realized that they might have natural causes!

  13. @Trevor: We always said it was because only the most dedicated came to Sunday night services. The lukewarm people who only came to church on Sunday morning kept the power of God from manifesting fully in our midst. Anyway, these things do fascinate me.

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