Religion in the Brain – Privileged Player or Fellow Traveler?

Dr. Jane Holmes Bernstein is a neuropsychologist. While the topic seemed like it would cover familiar ground, in fact Bernstein did a great job unpacking how brains/minds work and why, with a special concern for the roots of religion.

At the outset, she disclaimed believing in “scientism” – the idea that science is the only valid path for understanding. Ethical questions, she said, are philosophical, not scientific. However, in my own view, this whole “scientism” business is a straw man concocted by people who actually want to evade what science has to say about things that are indeed legitimately the province of science. No scientist, or believer in science, adheres to the “scientism” caricature.

Turning to our brains – what drives them is one thing – sex! No, really. Because the only thing nature cares about is the survival of the individual and the species – indeed, more specifically, the replication of molecules we call genes. Everything about every organism is engineered by natural selection to serve this objective, and no other.

Not, for example, the search for knowledge. Nature doesn’t care if our thinking is faulty, as long as it’s good enough that we survive to reproduce. Our brains use a lot of “rough-and-ready” algorithms that enable us to deal sufficiently well with the world but don’t give us scientifically rigorous information. A key example is confirmation bias, which affects all our thinking. The scientific method requires that we overcome this and focus on disconfirming data.

So, the unpacking: what must our brains/minds do in order to see us through to reproduction? The first thing is obvious: to not die. Hence a terror at the idea of self-annihilation. You need self-awareness – the individual caring whether it dies or not. Then, when you have to navigate the natural world, you have to know stuff like what’s a possible mate, what’s food, and what wants you to be food – pattern recognition. And when you introduce other people into the picture, you get an urgent need to belong – that is, to know who’s in your group, and who is not. And you want aggression toward those who are not.

Add in language and the pattern recognition app goes into overdrive. It turns into a search for meaning – looking for patterns in things that are not survival related. (And, in the case of religion, in things that aren’t patterns at all.)

Religion exploits all these brain drivers. It fends off the terror of self-annihilation. It provides meaning. It helps you know who’s in your group, and who’s not. This is the way in which Dr. Bernstein casts religion as a “fellow traveler,” riding on the backs of the things that really drive us.

But, she maintained, the brain hasn’t stopped evolving – and the most remarkable development is the capacity for new ideas, which actually enables us to ever more break away from biology. While she did not think religion would disappear – “people won’t stop being born” (and fearing death) – religion will have to change its face to fit with our cultural evolution.


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