Religion and the Whole Brain

By Russell Osmond

It seems you can’t open a magazine or log on to your Facebook account without stumbling across yet another article about the flight from religion—those of the Millennial generation flying the fastest. Many theories have been advanced about why religion seems to be losing its relevance and allure. I have a theory of my own.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism,

Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.

Now I’m going to translate that passage into the language of the “whole brain” school of behavioral science. This school says that in order for a solution or organization to be successful, it must activate all four quadrants of the brain: the contextual, the logical, the action-oriented, and the emotional. Take a look at Chart 1.


The contextual quadrant asks “Why?” It wants to see the reasons why the organization or solution is even needed. And, of course, the answer needs to be one that addresses a compelling need.

The logical quadrant of the brain asks “What?” It is interested in the structure of a solution or organization. It wants rigor and principles.

The action-oriented quadrant of the brain asks “How?” It wants to see the way in which the goals of the concept or organization will be achieved. It wants a path to follow or a set of tools to use.

The emotional quadrant of the brain asks “Who?” It is oriented toward relationships and connection. It wants the organization or solution to strengthen and multiply relationships.

Each of these quadrants is essential to the success of a solution or organization. Missing one of them will lead, sooner or later, to a collapse.

Now let’s look at Herschel’s passage again using the “whole brain” lens.

Faith has been replaced by creed. Worship by discipline. Love by habit. The crisis of today by the splendor of the past.

Map the polarities on the whole brain quadrant map and see what pops up in Chart 2.


In each case, something that appeals to the right side of the chart (contextual and emotional) has been replaced by something that appeals to the left side of the chart (logical and action-based). “What” and “How” are sitting pretty, but “Why” and “Who” are gone.

Ignoring these two quadrants is a problem because doing so leaves us without two sources of motivation. Researchers in the quantitative measurement of human motivation have identified eight universally-shared motivations: dominance, analysis, practicality, structure, transcendence, humanitarian, independence, and esthetic.

As a person grows, these motivators find their way into a “firing order.” In other words, in one person, the first motivator to fire might be transcendence whereas in another person, the first motivator to fire might be practicality. The order these motivators fall into depends partially on a person’s neurological structure and partially on a person’s interactions during their younger years (usually until about age 13). This personal firing order essentially defines how a person deals with stress, surprise, uncertainty, and chaos throughout their adult lives (though, on rare occasions, exceptional events can re-sort a person’s firing order).

This may help explain part of the flight from religion. People whose motivational firing order is top-heavy with esthetic, transcendent, or humanitarian concerns can be turned off by a religion that focuses on dominance, analysis, practicality, and structure.

Perhaps religion has slid too far to the left side of the whole-brain map, focusing on creed instead of faith; discipline instead of worship; habit instead of love; the splendors of the past rather than today’s needs; authority rather than compassion.

Of course, a religion that slides too far toward the right quadrant is equally as unable to sustain its membership. The key is balance: addressing all of a person’s motivations.

This is the first of a series of columns that will examine religion from a “whole brain” perspective. As we consider the normally sticky matters of faith and doubt from a behavioral science point of view, we will see that they lose their divisiveness. For example, instead of labeling something like a faith crisis as good or bad, we will show how the different quadrants of the brain are interacting to produce the “crisis.”

I hope this column will give us new ways to talk with each other about Mormonism and our relationship to it.