- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010



By Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire

Prometheus Books, $25,

256 pages Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

“The brain evolved to act, not necessarily to think.” That sentence, repeated several times in different variations throughout, is not the thesis of Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire’s new book, “God’s Brain.” Rather, it is a sine qua non, a necessary premise atop which the argument of their book is built. If it is false, then they are wrong and the whole house of cards collapses spectacularly.

We’ll get to that, but first, a few words about this unexpected collaboration. Mr. Tiger is an anthropologist from Rutgers University. Mr. McGuire was a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles and is currently president of the Biomedical Research Foundation. Both men are distinguished authors and scholars with access to heavy-hitting media outlets.

Either man could have published a book of this or some similar title and expected decent book sales and, likely, higher royalties, because he wouldn’t have had to split them two ways. Readers are fortunate they did not do that. The joint effort is impressive. It manages to bring the experience and energy of both men together in one pithy, provocative package.

The authors open by noting examples of how religious structures texture the world’s landscapes - from the splendor of the Vatican to more austere New England chapels to quiet Shinto shrines in Kyoto, Japan, to rowdier “Sunday-service slum storefronts” in countless cities. Religion, they say, “generates remarkable action, countless events and numberless provocative artifacts. Yet what factual phenomenon except perhaps slips of ancient holy paper underlies and animates one of the most influential and durable of human endeavors? We’ve an answer.”

Their elevator explanation is this: “Shivers in the moist tissue of the brain confect cathedrals.” Many scientists who try to explain religion’s origin and persistence look at the evolution of groups. The explanation goes that the things religion encourages gave some groups advantages over their competitors, and so religion proved itself fit enough to survive into the modern world. Mr. Tiger and Mr. McGuire think they have a far simpler explanation: Religion is what the brain needs and craves.

When Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses,” he really had no idea. He couldn’t, because scientific understanding of the human brain at the time was mostly guesswork. Now we know much more about the brain and are discovering more every day. Where does religion fit into this? In the authors’ explanation, religion is something more like the oxygen of the masses.

Life is stressful, “aversive” and uncertain for every human brain. The brain seeks to counter this tumult with aggressive efforts to “brainsoothe,” and religion is uniquely effective at helping it along in that process. It offers explanations for our otherwise unexplainable wonderings. By subordinating all believers, including the leaders, to some higher power and sending them constant positive signals, religion maximizes the production of certain helpful chemicals.

At religious gatherings, Mr. Tiger and Mr. McGuire write, “We are in Shangri-la, if only temporarily. We share a common resistance to threats from non-members. As analysts, we can use this perspective to see churches, among other things, as serotonin foundries. Even outdoors, as in Vatican Square at Easter and Christmas, the collective ritual becomes a private reality made concrete by the potent, silent chemistry of the brain.”

All of that is great, but is there a God? Is religion true? Both authors write as unbelievers (Mr. Tiger as a lapsed Jew, Mr. McGuire likely as a lifetime unbeliever) but not scoffers, who “concede a simple inability to provide an answer to the question, Why religion? which at the same time provides its own answer by denying the need for the question in the first place.”

They say, “Belief, no doubt, is the brain’s default” and that the vast majority of religious believers are not crazy and indeed are fairly well-adjusted folks who derive rational, demonstrable, needed benefits from their religions.

Let’s come back now to our earlier question. The authors are arguing that religion is good because the results of religion are useful - indeed, nigh indispensable. But the claims of the various faiths are often disputed and serve as the basis for conflicts and bloodshed. Religion exists, in part, to answer big questions to the believer’s satisfaction. But if the purpose of the brain is, first, to act and thereby to survive and reproduce, why does it have need of such explanations and such questions?

For that matter, why do those questions prove so nettlesome and produce a small but significant minority of the world’s population who profess to believe in no religion? One is tempted to propose a cheeky follow-up volume for the authors to take up next: “The Atheist’s Brain.”

Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author, most recently, of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency” (Thomas Nelson, 2008).

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