- Nov 17, 2007
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Lionel Tiger: Is the Supernatural Only Natural? - WSJ.com
By LIONEL TIGER
At least 80% of human beings, some five billion souls, are affiliated with one or another of the 4,200 religious organizations statisticians have identified. Most are confident of the singular superiority of their group. But where does the basis for religious conviction come from? Clearly, it depends more on the imaginative and deeply felt assertions of thinkers and advocates than on the kind of tough evidence, for example, required in a legal trial for fraud.
Yet as we've seen throughout history and in today's headlines, the interactions between groups defined by supernatural religion often provoke astonishingly harsh outcomes in the natural world: terrorist attacks, internecine wars, and even genocide.
What then is the difference between Sunni and Shiite, Baptists and Methodists, or Orthodox Jews and Hamas fundamentalists? Doctrinal differences loom large in the notions of decency and appropriate behavior of groups at loggerheads. These may range from majestic, as in the case of the Trinity, to petty, as in dietary laws about acceptable foods.
But they are always associated with membership in particular groups and their particular practices. Certainly there is an important element of private spirituality in the major religions. But the essence of religious identity is social.
What if it is discovered that the source and essence of this identity results not from theological commitment and texts but from operations of the brain? That religion is a product of neurophysiological engagement? The drastic view of Darwinism as a decisive disproof of human Godly origin has occupied intellectuals for a century and a half. But there are now more immediate, relatively friendly challenges to religious supernaturality from research on the links between the brain and religious experience in studies by such noted researchers as Claremont University's Paul Zak and the University of Pennsylvania's Andrew Newberg.
Are people religious because they find a particular theology convincing? Some converts might, though they are a tiny number of believers. Far more likely is that their faith emerges from the group with which they are affiliating and in which they are likely to have been born and raised. Religious groups are intensely social, and hitherto unexpected links between social behavior and brain chemistry are now almost routinely identified.
One such connection, identified at UCLA Medical School by Michael Mcquire, is between secretion of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the sense of status an individual possesseswhich for well or ill led to psychoactive drugs such as Prozac.
Other researchers, such as USC's Antonio Damasio and former University of Mexico faculty member Jay Feierman, have combined interests in neurophysiology and the sources of social cohesion to explore the fundamental nature of religion. And it seems morally responsible and scientifically necessary to do so without standing in the "Pro" or the "No" line.
There is little utility in the notion presented with varying acerbity and intensity by writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who announce that believers in religion are deluded or intellectually defective. This cavalier disrespect of the mass of humankind contains a biologically fatal if not foolish idea: that the vast majority of our species is somehow missing the boat of survival.
We're still on the boat, however rocky it is. In fact, there is a strange but durable connection between surviving in this world and contemplating another. There may or may not be such a world, but our sapient brain finds the idea easy to learn and entertain. Religion tastes sweet to the brainespecially the remarkable idea of an afterlife that holds people accountable for their sweaty and ambiguous earthly lives and rewards or deprives them elsewhere.
Any thoughtful answers to questions about the nature of religion must account for the fact that for centuries and everywhere human beings have created and sustained a set of ideas well outside the realm of daily experienceideas claimed as versions of that supernature that persists in the different flavors and textures of contemporary religions.
The scientific conclusion may be that religion is a natural system that replaces what we can call "brainpain," which everyone experiences, with its antidote, "brainsoothing." This can result from exercise or meditation or perfume or simply chatting with friends. The evidence of millennia is that it also can result from going to a house of worship on a regular basis and communing with the almighty and a group of fellow believers.
The stunning possibility is that religion will find its sturdiest roots in the natural, not the supernatural. Many people will reject this given the hectoring sense of their own perfection many religions have declaimed so loudly and so forever. Nevertheless, the increasingly convincing research concerning the moist meat in our skull suggests that it is so.
Mr. Tiger, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers, is the author, with Michael McGuire, of "God's Brain," just published by Prometheus Books.