The Blissful Opiate of the Masses
For the authors of the new book, God's Brain, religion is the cure to the twin diseases of nihilism and cold enlightenment.
June 20, 2010 - 12:16 am
“The prospect for complete nothingness after death appears to be bewildering and unendurable to many people,” write the authors. “So an antidote arises.”
The antidote is religion: a comprehensible human narrative meant to “fill in the incompleteness of experience.”
For the authors, religion — or more precisely, the reinforcing triad of religious belief, socialization, and ritual — is the cure to the disease of cold enlightenment.
“At least 80% of the adult world professes religious affiliation and a large proportion of these people actually engage in observable religious behavior,” they write, citing behaviors like prayer, church attendance, wearing a cross or other religious insignia, naming yourself a member of a church or mosque, or any time spent visualizing the afterlife.
Here are the facts: about 2.1 billion human beings are self-identified Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims, and billions more adherents to the other 4200 cataloged religious groups on Earth. From art and architecture, to governance and war, religion has been a driver of human behavior across all societies throughout history, right up to our current era of tottering postmodernism.
The authors warn early that we ”need both a zoom lens and a microscope to see religion,” thereby reducing human behavior — and the mind itself — to a consequence of biochemistry.
Leaving aside any direct criticism of religion — which the authors are scrupulous to avoid — it is nevertheless clear that Tiger and McGuire err firmly on the side of the secular, even to the point of its defense: the human brain “imagines and believes things for which there is no hard evidence. What else could produce such astonishing ideas as the existence of life in other galaxies, gods, a designer of life on earth, animals with human motivations and personalities, an afterlife, hell, heaven, witches, demons, angels, and the certified sin of pride?”
But here is where the authors commit their own certified sin of reductionism. Should readers believe the premise that religiosity is entirely reducible to an evolutionary survival trick? By this standard, virtually any human institution — including science — must also be reducible to the level of a neurochemical event.
Which takes us away from anthropology and into the realm of physics.
The Greek philosopher Leucippus is widely credited with developing the first theory of atomism. In his vision, there were two kinds of essential states: one was solid, and the other was space. As it turns out, his idea — for which there could be no scientific proof for another 2500 years — was eerily close to the truth.
Leucippus contemplated atoms, while Moses contemplated God. If atoms can be discovered first in the mind of a man, perhaps God can be as well.
But the authors offer no such succor to the symbol-starved bipeds of the postmodern world. God’s Brain is over-populated with trees, but contains no discernible forest.
God’s Brain is a fun read. Tiger and McGuire have done a fine job of presenting the materialist facts of neurochemistry, and the curious case of religiosity as a survival technique. I recommend the book for its powerful microscope, but don’t expect to find a telescope here.