I just finished reading a book called God’s Brain by Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire. McGuire and Tiger are a neuroscientist and an anthropologist, respectively. The subject of the book is obviously religion, but the central question is this: why is religion so ubiquitous? There are 4200 religions in the world; every culture seems to have its own religion. Why? So the authors began to wonder what the common denominator here is. There are many and vast differences between religions. But there must be some underlying principle or mechanism to see them so reliably spring up in every culture on the planet. The answer that they inevitably arrived at is the brain, and that is the conclusion of the book: religion is a product of the brain and not of the divine. Put another way, the source of religion is biology rather than divinity.
Now, a caveat to this post. The authors of this book are not arguing that because the brain creates religion that there is no God. That is not the aim of the book, and the authors make it quite clear that whether or not there is a god is not dependent upon whether or not religion exists. After all, if you believe in god, then you must accept the idea that god existed before religion did; god’s existence does not hinge upon religion.
Moving forward, there are some biological and anthropological premises that we must set up. First, let us talk about religions as institutions. Nearly all religions have several things in common. Rituals are one of these things. Another thing is a supreme being who has a set of rules of laws that we must abide by. Another thing religions have in common are beliefs–a belief in a soul, an afterlife, in sin, etc. These principles will be important later on.
Let us now establish some biological principles. First and foremost, barring congenital anomaly/trauma/disease, all human brains behave according to the same principles. Barring those three exceptions, any brain we randomly select from the population will behave the same way as any other brain we randomly select. What is meant by this? All brains have the same basic functions:
1. To take in sensory information
2. To process and store that information
3. To make a decision based on that information and create a plan accordingly
4. To evaluate the effectiveness of its decisions and actions.
Case in point. I put my hand on a hot stove. My brain receives sensory information. It processes that information as “hot” and “ouch.” My brain decides that this is a bad stimulus, and plans to remove my hand from the stove, which I then do. My brain then receives new information that “hot” and “ouch” are gone, and sees this plan and action as having been successful.
Now let’s talk about stress. Stress is biologically bad for us. Stress depletes the neurotransmitters and hormones that make our brains and our bodies function properly. Stress also has profound physiological effects on our bodies. It can lead to decreased immunity, hypertension, etc. Accordingly, our brains will do their best to avoid or to rectify stress.
More on stress. Stress is unavoidable; everyone will experience stress throughout their lives. Moreover, there are two distinct kinds of stress. There is day to day stress: the bus was late, I was fired from work, my mother is experiencing a chronic illness, etc. This type of stress will eventually end, though: I will find a new job, the bus will be on time tomorrow, and eventually my mother’s illness will resolve. The other kind of stress involves ambiguity and doubt. This kind of stress involves questions or situations that have no resolution: what happens when I die? Why do I exist? Why do bad things happen to good people? And so forth.
This second type of stress is particularly important in the argument that religion is generated by our own brains. Think back to the basic functions of the brain. Its job is to evaluate information, formulate answers and plans, and evaluate its work. The brain cannot do this when it comes to matters involving ambiguity or doubt. This causes stress for the brain. And since stress has severe biological consequences for the brain and the body, the brain will automatically try to avoid this stress. The mitigation of stress is what the authors call brainsoothing.
So how does religion play into this? Religion answers questions that the brain cannot resolve, and thus religions become brainsoothing. Religion provides answers, complete stories, and order in a permanent way. They offset the stress generated by ambiguity and doubt, when the brain receives incomplete information or cannot find information to answer a question. But there are specific features of religion that affect the brain in such a way that the brain comes to rely upon it. Consider reciprocity.
Human beings are social creatures, and you cannot have a functioning society without reciprocity. Reciprocity is how we develop trust in other individuals, and involves a mutual exchange that benefits both parties. In practice, I may bake a loaf of bread for someone who then reciprocates by repairing my shoes. This display shows both individuals that they can trust each other and that this trust will generate a positive outcome. We tend to see people who reciprocate as “good.”
This also extends to religion. The relationship between a deity and its worshipers is a reciprocal one: you follow the rules of the deity, and in turn the deity reciprocates by granting you an eternal afterlife, answering a prayer, etc. Thus, you see the deity as good and trustworthy. Reciprocity pops up again in religion, especially in light of the fact that the human brain mirrors the emotional states of those around it. So when we see people at the Sunday church service who are familiar and who are happy to see us because we all follow the rules and rituals and are trustworthy, our brains are flooded with stress-relieving chemicals. Reciprocity is a brainsoother. When we trust people, we are eliminating doubt and ambiguity surrounding that person, and thus we have alleviated stress. And, crucially, we have formed a positive chemical association with a specific set of actions.
Religion also brainsoothes because it is a social equalizer. Outside of a church, you are unequal to people. There are people who have more authority than us, more money than us, people who are smarter than us, people who are faster than us, taller than us, considered better looking than us, etc. But religion mitigates that inequality by stating that as long as we all follow the rules, god will reward us equally. God does not look more favorably upon those who are more physically attractive or faster or smarter, etc. We are all equal in the eyes of a deity so long as we again follow the rules and stick to the rituals. This equalization is also a form of stress relief, and it is also a form of reciprocity, which the brain likes.
Studies have also shown that people with higher social status have higher levels of serotonin, and that when people change social statuses, so too changes their levels of serotonin. In the context of religion, all members are equal, and your social status rises. You may also be treated differently by people who outside of the religion are superior to you in some way, and when they confer upon you their status within a religion, you also get a serotonin bump. And the brain likes it when we get serotonin increases.
And what about rituals? Why are rituals found throughout every religion? Because rituals are brainsoothers, mitigating stress. For one, they provide a sense of order instead of chaos. They also let us know who we can and can’t trust; people who follow our rituals are more trustworthy and our brains do not need to stress about whether or not this person poses a threat. Rituals are safe, reliable, and predictable, and those are all things that the brain likes. Rituals also increase social interaction. Rituals like baptisms, bar mitvahs, etc. bring people together, which increases our levels of oxytocin and serotonin.
Much in the same way, religious beliefs are important because they are also brainsoothing. They chart the unknown (death, creation) and the future (I believe I will go to heaven, etc)–the main causes of doubt and ambiguity. Religious beliefs allow the brain to complete its four primary functions, and thus relieve stress, which the brain will seek to avoid at all costs. And this, ultimately, explains a lot about why religious belief is so stalwart. Why, when faced with evidence contrary to belief, religious people will do all sorts of mental gymnastics to dismiss the evidence. Their brains literally will not let them do it because to do so would reintroduce ambiguity and uncertainty, and thus reintroduce a profound and chronic stress. Therefore the brain has no choice but to reject any new information–that is literally the easiest and most powerful way to mitigate the stress that the brain actively seeks to avoid or remedy. There is also something to be said about the fact that once the brain makes a decision–that there is a god in this case–there is a biological incentive for it to then totally buy into that belief. If the brain did not 100% buy into the answers that it generated, that might lead to risky behavior and death.
“The brain strongly prefers certainty over uncertainty, resolution over open-mindedness, and balance and symmetry over imbalance and asymmetry,” the authors state. These words ring true. People will more often than not choose the certain thing over the uncertain thing because the brain is risk averse; aversion to risk is a basic survival instinct. We certainly prefer balance and symmetry. People with more symmetrical features are seen by the brain as more attractive. And to be open-minded is to not embrace any one solution, which is a form of ambiguity. And remember, ambiguity = stress.
So, what are we to conclude from all of this? Well, we can conclude several things which lead to a chain of events. We can conclude that the brain does not like stress, and uncertainty causes stress. When the brain is faced with a situation for which it cannot find an answer, in order to mitigate that stress, it will literally make up an answer. And since there is nothing in the physical word for the brain to use to formulate an answer, it will jump to a metaphysical answer, one that it cannot disprove and thus one that permanently alleviates stress. This is most likely why religions develop and why they are so common. Aside from providing certainty, religions also incorporate things like rituals which create positive chemical changes in the brain, which further cement the brains decision to accept the answer that religion creates. And for all of these reasons, that is why it is incredibly rare for someone to leave a religion or to change a religion–because to do so would cause a doubt or ambiguity that the brain could not resolve.
Now for my own two cents. I think that there are several important things to take away from this. First of all, this not an indictment of religion. The purpose of this book isn’t to say, “Well religions are all made up and so they’re pointless.” The book emphasized that there are more positives than negatives to religion, certainly in biological terms. But also social terms, like charity. The Catholic church, after all, is the biggest supplier of education and healthcare around the world. So the purpose of this book and this post is not to denigrate religion or to incite people to abandon their own beliefs.
Nor is this an indictment of believers. I think that non-believers should take great care to avoid associating religious belief with intelligence and more importantly with intent. If this theory is true, religion is not the byproduct of a feeble mind, but rather the natural tendency of a completely normal one. In light of this theory, I would hope that the vitriol and animosity between the two camps would subside. Much more empathy is deserved on behalf of the believer when he or she is presented with and rejects science; the religious person’s inclination to distrust or dismiss science is not a willful act of spite or ignorance, but rather a natural reflex of the brain.
In this sense, religious followers are not “choosing to be ignorant,” as many non-believers would claim. I think there’s a strong propensity for us to look at religious people and say, “How can you not believe that?! You can see it with your own two eyes!” This theory, though, would provide an adequate explanation for the phenomenon of rejection of sensory experience and direct observation. They are not choosing to be ignorant; rather their brains are generating a conclusion which eliminates biological distress. Certainly, people can feel “charity” highs because of empathy and mirror neurons, and this would seem to extend to religion as well. There are chemical processes created by certain things pervasive in all religions which create a positive feedback loop of sorts. And since one of the brain’s functions is to evaluate the success of its decisions and actions, this positive chemical response would create the evaluation of, “Yep, religion was the correct solution!”
So why, then, do some people not require religion? Why do some people leave religion? The authors did not really cover this topic, since that isn’t what this book is about. The book isn’t about why people don’t believe, it’s about why they do believe, and why so many of them believe (80-90% of the world, by the estimate of the authors).
I would postulate, though, that we non-believers aren’t somehow “above” the believers. After all, if this theory is correct, our brains would be subject to the same stress aversion to the same questions. We just get our brainsoothing in a different way. I suppose to us, science is the brainsoother. Science doesn’t necessarily provide instant answers, but it offers the promise that all questions do have answers and that we are capable of finding those answers. In this sense, we have soothed the uncertainties of our brains: we may not have an answer, but the acknowledgment that there is a tangible answer somewhere to be found is soothing. Hope, it seems, is central to believers and nonbelievers alike: believers hope that by following the rules and rituals that they will be rewarded with answers to their questions, and nonbelievers hope that there is an objective answer to every question. At the risk of drawing ire from the skeptical community, I suppose in this way religion and science really are alike. They both satisfy the same biological need in our brains.