Social Question

evegrimm's avatar

Is there a biological basis for zealotry?

Asked by evegrimm (3695 points ) October 24th, 2009

I was wondering if there was any research done, specifically on the brain, that shows or hints at the difference between a zealot and a normal person.

It seems to happen across all religions, so that also made me wonder if it was something that could be turned on/off by something in a person’s environment. (Is it possible to be zealous about something that isn’t related to religion?)

Does it have any similarities to some medical conditions that can be observed or predicted by chemical levels in the brain?

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20 Answers

Shuttle128's avatar

I would think it has much less to do with a persons predisposition and more to do with how they were brought up to think about the thing they are zealous about. It’s possible that there are those who are predisposed to it, but most genetic attributes do have environmental triggers so it could very well be that it is turned on by something in a person’s environment. (environmental triggers only have a one way switch and that switch only goes into the on position)

It is perfectly possible to be zealous about things other than religion. Politics are a perfect example. I think zealotry has a lot to do with strong opinions that are shared by a large group of people. When people see that they share this opinion with others it could help to strengthen their position.

milla101's avatar

Genetics or Society, Nature vs Nurture, It’s unresolved and the debate goes on.

virtualist's avatar

From the zealot’s perspective, “I am normal, alert, focused, directed and all these other folk are slugs to be disposed of.”

PET/CT and fMRI are providing some data specific to schizophrenia and dementia. I would not propose that ‘zealots’ have symptoms of either.

YARNLADY's avatar

There are ‘zealots’ in every form of opinion, raising children, eating habits, science, and so forth.

BhacSsylan's avatar

As has mostly already been said, it’s really an ongoing debate of nature vs. nurture (vs. choice, in my own opinion). In general, it does seem that there are Zealots of every form. Most people have something that will get them very riled up. Sometimes it’s harmless, like very strong opinions on random issues, like raising children and eating habits, as YARNLADY said. Other times they manifest in ways that lead to trouble, and more obvious zealotry, like religion and sports (god, football riots, anyone? I’d say that’s pretty strong zealotry).

So, the main reason it happens across all religions is that it happens across almost every person. Some people can be apathetic about everything, but it’s quite rare to find someone who doesn’t have an unnaturally strong opinion about something, just takes some time to find out what that something is. The usual case is that it’s just a matter of how it manifests. If it’s a typical social thing, you mostly wouldn’t notice it as zealotry, just someone with a very strong opinion.

But, it seems that when this is echoed very strongly in other people, it tends to amplify itself (which happens frequently in social experiments). In sports, you get people yelling and screaming and flipping cars. In religion, you get people setting themselves on fire and blowing themselves and others up. It just happens to be easier to notice.

whatthefluther's avatar

I don’t know if some are somewhat more predisposed than others to becoming a zealot, but I think the result has much more to do with conditioning than predisposition.
See ya…Gary/wtf

nebule's avatar

Would zealotry not be wrapped up in fight or flight emotional responses, in that environmental influences force those specific neural connections to be made…i.e. people have to be zealous about something because it enables them to cope with ‘normality’ My counsellor is often talking about black and white thinking…zealous people cannot find the grey area… I’m sure that there is a lot of psychological research in the this area but I’m not an expert and wouldn’t know where to find it. As Jill Bolte-Taylor said… we are feeling beings that think, not thinking beings that feel…

CMaz's avatar

“zealous people cannot find the gray area”

I am in a burning building. Do I stay or go? Hmmm
I guess I will sit in the hallway. :-)

Life is left and right, up and down. If you want to take the scenic rout to get to point “B” that is cool. Call it a gray area. But you will still end up where you were going.
You might even want to call compromise a gray area. Compromise is a decision, an absolute of conclusion. You just made a right turn instead of a left.

nebule's avatar

@ChazMaz I think you’re mistaking pure plane old decision making with zealotry… I think they are different. You can still choose the grey area and walk out of a burning building…that really doesn’t (for me anyway) have anything to do with the subject.

CMaz's avatar

You said, “zealous people cannot find the gray area”.

Do zealous people have a different gray area then non zealous people?

nebule's avatar

I’m not really sure what your point is at all. It’s not about ‘different’ grey areas… grey area is a metaphor for being able to find a balance whilst still holding beliefs…not about decision making. Non-zealots see the in-between and don’t take things to extremes…which is what zealotry is about.

CMaz's avatar

“Non-zealots see the in-between and don’t take things to extremes”

That is a rather zealous statement.

Zuma's avatar

William James in “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and in some of his essays toward the very end of his life makes a convincing case that a person’s basic philosophy is largely a matter of inborn temperament. Religious absolutists, for example, tend to be rigid and black and white in their thinking. Zealotry can be viewed as a strategy for maintaining fixed ideas against the encroaching doubt posed by counterfactual evidence. So, yes, zealotry can be a matter of inborn temperament. (That said, there is always the possibility that this could mellow out with maturation.)

PandoraBoxx's avatar

This question drove me to google “Lemmings”

nebule's avatar

@ChazMaz got something against me? what’s your problem? What are your religious…or non-religious views…incidentally… I wonder….what have you got against NON-zealots

BhacSsylan's avatar

He’s just debating you, because you’re currently the most talkative on the thread, and he disagrees. I wouldn’t take it personally.

and if anything, i think this strengthens my argument that anyone can be a zealot about anything

CMaz's avatar

@lynneblundell – Yes. It is nothing personal. :-)
Just debating the subject. :-)

@BhacSsylan – GA

nebule's avatar

lol :-) cheers guys… xx feeling a little sensitive obviously this week

DrMC's avatar

We are what we are.

Genetics define many aspects of us, and effect the probability that we will invade the philistines as Joshua did, or put our arms up in salute of Hitler along with the Nazi’s.

Dogs are intrinsically different from cats. Dogs pack, and cats can’t be shepherded.

When wolves howl – is it so different than than a roaring mob?

There is a reason for these things. Dogs group hunt. Their actions are intellectually and emotionally tied passionately to achieve their tasty goal.

Humans do so much more.

Today fluther. Tomorrow the world

Nullo's avatar

You can find zeal in every area that Man has ever applied himself. It is, quite simply, “eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something.”
Hobbyists are zealots. People who memorize sports statistics are zealots. The loanword otaku might be translated as “zealot.”

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