The Blissful Opiate of the Masses

The iconic image of the "self-righteous" religious believer is a cliché of postmodernism. Dogmatic clerics in the Middle East smile with satisfaction while they denounce the infidels. Cable TV preachers wince ecstatic eyes to heaven, praising God all the way.

The famously self-righteous Jerry Falwell smirked with conviction that the 9/11 atrocities were "divine retribution" for America's sins.

It's a notable mien among true believers of any faith: a self-contented look of homemade rapture that stinks suspiciously of George Clooney's Southparkian smug.

But now I get it. Smug actors and smiling preachers are brainsoothing.

In a new book called God's Brain, anthropologist Lionel Tiger and co-author Michael McGuire provide the evolutionary and neurochemical narrative that may explain something of Rev. Falwell's bliss.

The story goes like this: About one hundred and fifty thousand ago, some unwashed human sat at the mouth of a cave on a moonless night and peered for a long time into the uncertain darkness. Listening intently, and no doubt worn from the mortal losses of everyday living, he (or perhaps she) made a profound realization.

Death -- that took your mother, your father, your children, your mate, and everyone else in the whole hard world -- would someday come for you, too.

The thought unfolded in a wave of neurochemical changes passing through the posterior medial frontal cortex, where decision-making and cognitive uncertainty are managed by the human brain.

A depressing thought, to be sure.  And,  as this was the first person ever to consider it, it made him quite lonely and sad.

In fact, the thought might have killed him much sooner than if he had just not had it in the first place. If it lingered, such a hopeless and depressing idea might actually cause harm. The neurotransmitter norepinephrine would be effected. Brain serotonin levels would drop. There is a good likelihood that concomitant loss of social status would reinforce the depressive state.

It's easy to imagine how this sort of phenomenological realization might actually lead to personal extinction. The dimmed prospects for reproduction alone suggest nature would select against such a cognitive insight.

But, as the authors point out, the brain is unhappy with ambiguities and uncertainties. It likes to know what lurks in the tall grass. And also beneath the still waters of death.