Did Temporal Lobe Epilepsy Cause The Birth Of Monotheism?

Via New Scientist, a new theory claims that a specific form of genetically-inherited epilepsy among several generations of Egyptian pharaohs is responsible for the sun-inspired visions that led to humanity’s belief in a single supreme god:

Tutankhamun’s mysterious death as a teenager may finally have been explained. And the condition that cut short his life may also have triggered the earliest monotheistic religion, suggests a new review of his family history.

Tuthmosis IV had a religious experience in the middle of a sunny day, recorded in the Dream Stele – an inscription near the Great Sphinx in Giza. But his visions were nothing compared with those experienced by Akhenaten. They encouraged Akhenaten to raise the status of a minor deity called the “sun-disk”, or Aten, into a supreme god – abandoning the ancient Egyptian polytheistic traditions to start what is thought to be the earliest recorded monotheistic religion. If Hutan Ashrafian’s theory is correct, Akhenaten’s religious experiment and Tutankhamun’s premature death may both have been a consequence of a medical condition.

“People with temporal lobe epilepsy who are exposed to sunlight get the same sort of stimulation to the mind and religious zeal,” says Ashrafian [at Imperial College London].

“It’s a fascinating and plausible explanation,” says Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. However, the theory is almost impossible to prove, he adds, given that there is no definitive genetic test for epilepsy.

13 Comments on "Did Temporal Lobe Epilepsy Cause The Birth Of Monotheism?"

  1. kowalityjesus | Sep 14, 2012 at 12:56 pm |

    This discovery is an interesting and remarkable idea, but incredibly flimsy as a scientific theory.  This is as worthy of discussion as debating whether Newton got the idea of gravity from an apple falling on his head; it doesn’t matter because his theory makes sense.

    Were any practice (religio-philosophical or practical) shown to consistently be without merit or result, it would not last long let alone persist for thousands of years.  Madness dies with its progenitor, unless by definition it is not madness but of some worthy design.

    • ive also heard other stories of Moses and Einstein having temporal lobe epilepsy.

      • Calypso_1 | Sep 14, 2012 at 8:08 pm |

        I have temporal lobe epilepsy, and never has any of its effects compelled any degree of monotheism. In fact quite the opposite. Certainly a push for mysticism as well, which I had to determine was not self driven but pathogenic to a degree. I would not presume to speak in einstein’s case, but as for me i have intene OBE like experiences of very interesting non-euclidian spaces…. Weeeee down the rabbit hole!

        • Aren’t auras a wonderful experience? Quick! try to explain it to someone.

          • Taan Maat | Sep 15, 2012 at 11:56 am |

             you’re the type of person who annoys me, just had to let you know.

          • Calypso_1 | Sep 16, 2012 at 2:32 am |

            Are you sure man?  If it gets to rough you can call:

          • Calypso_1 | Sep 16, 2012 at 2:28 am |

            Well sir I did that once…during a lecture I had to give in a rounding series while I was working at an epilepsy center– kind of a coming out moment if you will. Some of the older, kindlier docs/researchers looked like they were enjoying a nice cognac; others more like I had escaped from the psyche ward or had dosed the coffee w/ acid. I gained a few admirers that day, mostly avoiders.
            It’s like the writer spoke about talking about the privilege of neurotypicals vs. atypicals, being able to tell your boss – coworkers that your mind is different. Not many people would think too much of telling those in their work environment they are diabetic. But if your brain is different…. You might think there would be a little more sympathy or understanding in the medical field but since the prevailing model is to eradicate the disorder there is not much in the way of the psychonaut spirit.
            The big rewards for me though are the patients and families I have been able to reach who have never had anybody else who can relate to their own experiences.

          • Damn, that must’ve been an interesting experience, I wouldn’t know how to describe it, especially in terms that most could understand.

          • Calypso_1 | Sep 16, 2012 at 11:40 am |

            So I take it you have TLE? Or some other aura producing sydrome?

          • i have had an un-diagnosed series seizures in the past, so i’m not entirely sure, but they were not convulsive, all mental. But whatever the cause, they havn’t happened for years now.

          • Calypso_1 | Sep 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm |

            There are such a wide variety of seizures, much of which would not even be recognized by the general public as such.  Though there are quite a few with some abnormal motor involvement, most remain localized and never cross hemispheres to become a generalized convulsive seizure.  There are also similar symptomatologies of psychogenic origin which unfortunately are usually termed ‘pseudo-seizures’, which has almost become pejorative.
            I can understand that if you had them for a limited time how difficult it would be to acquire a descriptive vocabulary.  Strange enough as they are, they also like dreams with a retrograde amnesia.  It took me a long time to build up a picture of the experience. 

  2. Liam_McGonagle | Sep 14, 2012 at 3:12 pm |

    Either that, or Tuthmosis beat Machiavelli to the punch by a few thousand years by realizing that it’s easier to run up the score when you don’t have any opponents.

    I think the real question has to be why it took so long for monotheism to emerge in the first place.  And the most likely answer is agricultural engineering.

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