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Figuring out religion in God’s Brain: great interview with Lionel Tiger

One of the commenters on Maclean’s Interview with Lionel Tiger writes, “Gosh this is depressing. Believers, the delusional mob will continue to infect all cultures.”

I’m not so sure.

Seems to me that Lionel Tiger is on to something with his analysis of the religious impulse – or God’s Brain, as his book (with Michael McGuire) describes it. Tiger is an anthropologist (and prolific author), McGuire is a neuroscientist (who figured out the role of serotonin in the brain); together, they’ve come up with a theory of religion that makes sense to me (a full on skeptic and basic atheist).

Maclean’s interview with Lionel Tiger covers all the key questions to give the reader a good overview of what to expect from the book (which I haven’t read, but wouldn’t mind putting on my reading list).

One question in particular struck me, as I’ve been turned off by the religious undertone of some environmentalisms. The interviewer asks (on page 2), “Despite increasing secularization, especially in the West, most people have not become flat-out rationalists. Do you think that for many environmentalism is a religion?”

To which Tiger answers: “That’s absolutely right, and that’s interesting because it is finally the fruit of pantheism, a very, very old religious idea. For many people, not using more than four sheets of toilet paper is an act of moral purification.” [emphasis added]

To my mind, there’s a link in Tiger’s remark about the allowable number of toilet paper sheets to OCD and other neuroses that compel people to act in certain ways: something about the behavior soothes the brain. Unfortunately, that same impulse creates anxiety in mine, which is why some meetings with those who wish to save the earth make me want to run screaming from the room. I just don’t get it when it gets all …um, oceanic and communitarian.

That said, it’s not the case that hard-core atheism is much better, and Tiger’s work has stepped on toes in that camp, too. With regard to hard-core, sometimes you have to wonder if being benighted is like a two-sided coin. That is, one side is as dark as the other, and reduction to “black and white” just leaves everyone clueless.

Q: From the outside, then, it’s not religion’s strangeness you see, but its naturalness?
A: I’ve been on panels a couple of times with Richard Dawkins and invariably we come to the point where Richard will go on about how terrible religion is, and I’ll say, “Richard, are you a naturalist?” And he says, “Well, of course I am.” And then I say, “Would you agree, as you’ve in fact argued in your books, that over 90 per cent of people have some religion?” and he finally says, “Yes.” “How can you be a naturalist and assume that the great majority of the species is not natural? That doesn’t make any sense.” As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this. (source)

The underlying fact of life is death, and that healthy people normally do not want to die. Heck, most of us have a hard enough time with growing old, since aging turns into a series of announcements about the final curtain call.

In more recent years, we’ve soothed ourselves with the idea that there are other planets out there and that we’re not alone. Now it turns out that the Earth may indeed be, if not unique, at least nearly unique in the sense that there’s nothing else quite like it within a gazillion light years around us. What a scary thought – and what a waste if we trash this planet.

Then we all die!

Oops, that was the original scary part – except now, it’s not just as an individual, or a clan, or even a species, …but cosmic. Like, totally cosmic.

No wonder religion is on the rise, even as we learn more and more that traditional religions are not to be trusted.

Tiger and McGuire offer a scientific and anthropological explanation that finally makes sense of the religious impulse, without flattening either those who believe in religion or those of us who question it. The drive to religion is powered by our basic dislike of death – death creates stress and anxiety for our brain, religion soothes it. Given the potential we have today for collective death (in war, in environmental disaster) – and therefore our potential for collective religious silliness – maybe God’s Brain can help us move toward more rational solutions. Failing that, we can just keep praying.

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