ON THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF SIN: AN INTERVIEW WITH ARCHBISHOP LAZAR (PUHALO)

abp.lazarQuestion: You wrote the book On The Neurobiology of Sin. What motivated you to write it?

Archbishop Lazar: The question of depression was the original motivation. I had read an article by a Protestant minister who suggested that depression does not really exist, that it is only a demonic temptation. At about the same time, an Orthodox priest stated the same thing. Since depression can be the first symptom of a serious illness, and since there is a segment of the brain that has a depression/despair loop, the Brodmann area 25, I thought it was necessary to say something about this.

Depression can, of course, be caused by the circumstances of life, but it can also be the first symptom of a brain tumour, Wilson’s disease, or several other even life-threatening conditions. There is also clinical depression which, if not treated, will cause the hippocampus to atrophy. So I thought I should make a response to that.

Question: Your book turned out to be rather controversial, did it not?

Archbishop Lazar: I was not really aware of any controversy, and I was not concerned about it. I have no idea how controversial it was. It seems there was more controversy about my editorials than about the book.

Question: The chapters on human sexuality seemed to have caused some consternation. What motivated you to write those chapters?

Archbishop Lazar: The first thing that I came upon was the question of transgender. It is easy to write it off as a form of dysphoria which continues beyond puberty. I had talked to a transgender person who was in their 30s, and had some idea that there was more involved. Then it turned out that I read about some very serious persecution of these people, and some bullying that had caused a couple of high profile deaths.

When some situation is driving teenagers and preteens to kill themselves, one has to take an interest. I am adverse to anecdotes and ideological stories, and I respect solid science even when it is searching for an answer that it hasn’t yet found. So I began to research the question, realizing that one of the reasons people are pushed to suicide for being transgender, or gay, for that matter, is because it is considered to be a sin in some quarters. I researched it and read a vast number of studies. I went to the gender clinics at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Hospital, and did interviews with the medical profession that was involved in studying and treating transgender. I found quite a number of papers. In the end, in my book I gave the best scientific information that I could garner.

Question: Some people claimed that your recognition of transgender as something that occurs in the fetal stage was tantamount to heresy.

Archbishop Lazar: That is very unfortunate, because it is more of a religious ideology than a reasonable response. I know that some people assured me that God personally engineers each fetus and oversees its development, but that is a completely untenable suggestion. It would mean that God is personally responsible for things like Down Syndrome and cystic fibrosis, for retinoblastoma and every other illness that children are born with.

There is a large number of variations that can take place in fetuses, and that has to be recognized. One can deny it only on ideological grounds and not from reality. It is easy to respond with anecdotes, particularly if one is taking a close-minded ideological view of this question, but anecdotalism just will not do. While science has not reached an ultimate conclusion about this matter, there is already sufficient science certifying transgender as an authentic condition with which one is born. If one wishes to argue against this, they must do so with solid, properly conducted scientific studies. Again, anecdotes will not do.

Question: You also included a chapter about homosexuality and the possibility that it is something people are born with, not something they develop later. It seems this was even more controversial than the chapter about transgender. What motivated an entire chapter about this subject?

Archbishop Lazar: I had not thought of saying much about it in the beginning. I was disturbed, however, by the number of suicides among young people, and the number of kids living on the street who are thrown out of their homes by Christian parents. When we see that thousands of people—literally thousands—who are gay are absolutely certain that they have made no choice about this, and that they have been aware of it from the earliest years, we really have to take a sober second look. And this has to be done without the preconceptions of religious ideologies. We cannot base our conclusions on stories which, in all likelihood, have a taint of mythology. We also cannot simply retain taboos that were formed in a pre-scientific era.

neuroI wanted to examine this precisely because it has caused a great deal of bloodshed and numerous suicides, and has placed thousands of vulnerable young people on the streets. This is another area where anecdotes will certainly not do, the more so since human lives are at stake in this.

The answer to the question as to whether people are born homosexual or not has not been definitively answered by science, although the evidence certainly leans toward it. The fact that we might have thousands of people denying that they made a choice in the matter certainly carries weight, and unless one can disprove this in a very concrete, well documented research project—which is peer-reviewed, uses proper methods, and is free from ideology—we certainly have no reason to doubt the testimony of these people. In our society and our system the burden of proof is on the accuser in any case, and we do not judge anyone until they have a hearing in a court of law and are proved innocent or guilty—guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There is reason to say that their innocence is beyond doubt, not their guilt.

There is another factor. One might argue that same-sex sexual relations are a sin, but when one says that homosexuality itself is a sin, we may be talking about someone who has been virginal all their lives, never had any form of sexual relation, but they are still homosexual. What we are saying in that case is that their very being, their very existence, is a sin. This is untenable. It is also irrational.

Question: What does one do about those “sins” that are “evolutionary artifacts,” as you say?

Archbishop Lazar: There are such things, and we need to struggle against those as well. The fact that something is an evolutionary artifact does not make it positive or acceptable. They are nevertheless sins and we need to struggle against them. Self-discipline and self-control are basic in the faith. That is what fasting should be aimed at, self-discipline and self-control. There are elements in the human personality and in human nature that we need to rise above, that we need to struggle to control. The Orthodox faith is essentially ascetical, and requires spiritual struggle to overcome certain elements of our human nature.

Question: What were some of the other motivations for the book?

Archbishop Lazar: This latter subject was not in my mind when I started out. I had to think also of how many times somebody is pressed into a corner about something considered “sin” in a moralistic fashion that does damage to their personhood—I would say self-esteem, which is very important, although some people rather ignorantly argue that self-esteem is something negative.

We need to know what motivates people to do certain things, what kind of mental illnesses, what kind of motivations are generated by specific conditions, in order to really come to grips with people’s actions.

Actually sin is not the problem, it is a symptom of a problem. That problem is not only alienation, which is the central problem, but the rest of the problem is the fact that we are human beings. At least some of the Roman Catholic seven deadly sins are simply evolutionary artifacts. Some of these things were necessary for survival during the hunter-gatherer era of human development. As a village system developed with the agrarian epoque, many of those actions which were once necessary for survival became “devalued,” and were reclassified as sins because they were incompatible with a settled, agrarian community. I intend to write something about this in the next edition of the book, if God gives me strength to finish it.

It remains, however, that my principal concern at the beginning was a very dangerous doctrine being put forth about the nature of depression by people who didn’t even know that there is a Brodmann area 25 in the brain, and what its implications are. Clinical depression often leads to suicide in addition to often being prodromal to some serious illness. There is a serious issue and those who are anti-science, and particularly those who are against medical science, can be responsible for real tragedies.

Faith is one thing, religious ideology is quite another. Throughout the history of Christianity tens of thousands of people have become human sacrifices to the religious ideologies of institutions. It was not just the inquisitions, but the fact that 40% of the population of Europe perished in the 30 Years War between Christian religious bodies. There have been other massacres as well which have been motivated by religious ideologies. These things have been so contrary to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ that they must be called unchristian, even anti-Christian.

Christianity over the years has been a persecutor of others, and now some Christians are complaining that they are being persecuted when their right to bully and persecute others is being challenged. They are crying out that they are being persecuted, that their religious rights are being infringed because they are not allowed to persecute and denigrate others. This is as ironic as it is hypocritical. I did not have the intention of addressing this matter when I wrote the book, but it certainly occurred to me when I read the criticisms of it, although I read only very few and I was not involved in the controversy about the book. I didn’t respond to critiques of my editorials on some of the subjects.

Question: Do you have the intention of producing a new edition of the book, with some additional information?

Archbishop Lazar: If I have the time and energy, since I am not very well any longer, and I have no idea how much time I have left in this life. I had planned to enlarge the book, but it requires a huge amount of research. I took several courses in neurobiology before I began to write the book, and I read massive studies and did a great deal of research over five or six years before I felt I could write it. Any addition to the book will need sound research as well, and I just don’t know if I have the energy or even the time left in this life to complete it.

I do hope that what I have written in the book so far will be of help to at least some people. One thing that I find troubling among so many of our leaders is the abject lack of genuine, pure curiosity about what we have discovered, what we have learned over the past 2000 years, and about the deep realities of human existence.

Sometimes, certainly in the past, Christianity has committed what we now consider crimes against humanity. This is a historical reality which we cannot evade or escape from. It does occur to me that some of Christianity still commits crimes against humanity in small ways, in ways which are not so dramatic but which cause bloodshed nonetheless. I would like to contribute something toward a more just society and toward more justice, understanding, and compassion in the Christian world.

Archbishop Lazar’s On the Neurobiology of Sin is available from Amazon.

Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo) is a retired hierarch in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and founder of All Saints of North America Monastery in Dewdney BC, where he resides. In October 2017 the monastery organized the conference “A Sacramental Approach to Ecology,” co-hosted with the Department of Geography and Environment and the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University. (See Ron Dart’s report here.) 

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2 thoughts on “ON THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF SIN: AN INTERVIEW WITH ARCHBISHOP LAZAR (PUHALO)

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