Book Review: The God Part of the Brain



Matthew Alper is a lot smarter than he initially lets on. He begins his narrative in The God Part of the Brain softly and carefully as a recounting of his journey toward self-realization. This reveals itself as a tactic to play to the undecided, spiritual, or mystically inclined reader. In this vein, he makes a lot of concessions to philosophical uncertainty, and the problems of perception. His journey included the use of psychedelics, then other drugs to counteract their after effects. These gave him the perspective to understand the purely chemical nature of consciousness. This turned him toward science as the only reliable tool for the investigation of the true nature of reality.

But then he began to question science, and whether reality could be truly investigated at all:

…no matter how much faith one places in science, he must realize that at no time can it ever represent anything more than just another belief system, just another way by which humans can choose to interpret reality…Who, for instance , could say with total assuredness that his experiences are anything other than an illusion or a dream? –pp.16-17

I have to admit, passages like this nearly scared me off. I was ready to put this book down and chalk it up as yet another misguided attempt at feel-good pandering to uncertainty, solipsism, and new-age mysticism.

But since I was sent the book for review by the publisher, I thought I owed them and the author at least a thorough reading. Things quickly changed. It was the exact opposite experience from what I had last year when I read Andrew Newberg’s Why God Won’t Go Away. The themes of the two books couldn’t be more similar. In fact, when I first heard about the book, I thought to myself, “what could Alper say about this subject that Newberg hasn’t already said?”

Now this isn’t exactly fair, because the first edition of The God Part of the Brain came out in 1996, long before Newberg’s book (2002). In fact, Newberg came to nearly the identical set of conclusions Alper drew. He was at the very least working from some of the same research as Alper, in terms of both the innate and sociocultural basis for development of functional religious belief. These sections of both books cover nearly identical points:

…all the lofty reaches to which human achievement has carried us from the first flint spearheads to the latest innovation in heart transplant surgery can be traced to the mind’s need to reduce the intolerable anxiety that is the brain’s way of warning us that we are not safe. –Newberg p.60

…it is this anxiety function that has motivated us to manufacture fire and electric lights, to develop all sorts of medical technologies, to build dams and structural fortifications, direct silos to store vast deposits of food, and to devise methods of refrigeration…if nature didn’t provide our newly emergent animal with some type of adaptation through which to counter the anxiety induced by mortal awareness, it’s quite possible our species might not have endured. In order to compensate for this debilitating awareness, nature was going to have to modify our animals cognitive processing in such a way that we would be able to survive our unique awareness of death…as generations of these proto-humans passed, those whose cerebral constitutions most effectively dealt with the anxiety resulting from their awareness of death were most apt to survive. This process continued until a cognitive function emerged that altered the way these proto-humans perceived reality by adding an “spiritual” component to their perspectives. Just as the human brain had evolved linguistic, musical, and mathematical intelligence, we apparently evolved “spiritual” intelligence as well. –Alper pp.114-123

Though they agreed on the natural evolution and purpose for spirituality, the trajectory of Newberg’s discussion moved in the exact opposite direction from Alper’s. Newberg began his book with a very technical (and scientifically accurate, from what I could tell) analysis of how religious and spiritual people perceive God, and what are the neural correlates to their experiences as measured with SPECT scans, fMRI, and other techniques. These include the limbic system, the OAA (orientation association area), and states of the autonomic nervous system including: hyper quiescence, hyper arousal, hyper quiescence with arousal breakthrough, and hyper arousal with quiescent breakthrough. But while Newberg tries to build a case for the ontological “reality” of these spiritual experiences as the book moves on, Alper systematically dismantles these assumptions.

Though a scientist and M.D., Newberg seems blatantly gullible, (more so as his book progresses), and supports some of his theories with quotes from theologians like Meister Eckhart, as well as the recounting of mystical experiences from Sister Margareta, and the meditations of Buddhists. Newberg conveys no stronger impression in his book than that he wants to “believe.” Alper on the other hand, has no letters after his name, but seems to have a far greater grasp on both the science of what he calls Biotheology, and what constitutes acceptable evidence for what can be called “real.”

In summary, and this is not overstating the case, Newberg’s book ends up feeling almost willfully fraudulent and contrived–as if he had deliberately checked his scientific credentials at the door after about chapter 5. In stark contrast, Alper left me with a really solid understanding of the basis for human religious belief. While I definitely got the message from Newberg that God is wired into our brains, he sought to extrapolate from that fact a whole other set of conclusions about reality for which he provided only conjecture and personal testimonials by his experimental subjects.

Alper doesn’t just rely on assertions, but traces a long path through the origins of innate behaviors, starting with the phototactic reflexes of planarians. He continues on through discussion of how honey bees construct their hives, how three spined sticklebacks perform their mating dance, and how herring gulls feed their young. These behaviors have all been proven to have a genetic origin. He then discusses innate behaviors of cats and other small mammals, moving to primates, and finally to humans. Readers need not take Alper’s word for this, he provides references to many studies which confirm it. Much of this discussion of the role of genetics in cognitive development and personality still remains controversial. But books such as The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker have also discussed the twin studies, and shown how strong genetic influences on human behavior can be, and that they do in fact propagate through generations. Of particular interest is Pinker’s Appendix called “Donald E. Brown’s list of human universals.”

This list, compiled in 1989 and published in 1991, consists primarily of “surface” universals of behavior and overt language noted by ethnographers. It does not list deeper universals of mental structure that are revealed by theory and experiments. It also omits near universals (traits that most, but not all, cultures show) and conditional universals (“if a culture has trait A, it always has trait B”). A list of items added since 1989 is provided at the end. For discussion and references, see Brown’s human universals (1991) and his entry for the MIT Encyclopedia of the cognitive sciences (Wilson and Keil, 1999).

Having read Pinker’s book, and studied the list of human universals with great interest, I had no problem understanding the basis for Alper’s theories, which are on solid ground. He did a much better job than Newberg of convincing me how fundamental human God-wiring is–that it is not completely universal, but rather varies in intensity from person to person, and that variation is alomst certainly genetic. In chapter 17, entitled Why is America so religious?, Alper provides a pretty good theory of self-selection and genetic drift. Since America was started by Puritans, who fled European religious persecution, religious belief was a founding principle and highly reinforced as America was colonized:

I’d like to offer an analogy: imagine we were to take the entire New York Philharmonic — let’s say a couple hundred people altogether, people not only possessing a distinct passion for music but also a heightened degree of inherent talent — and we were to banish them to an isolated island. Now imagine 200 years later we were to pay a visit to their surviving progeny: would it be unreasonable to presume that we would most likely find a society steeped in musical culture? Granted, as the island’s founders would most likely have stressed musical appreciation and education to their offspring, a great deal of this could be attributed to environmental factors. Nevertheless, isn’t it also reasonable to presume that some portion of the society’s musical nature might result from inherent aptitudes and proclivities passed on by their forefathers enhanced musical genes? Even if several generations into this island societies’ genesis new immigrants were to arrive — many with little or no inherent musical talent or inclination — isn’t it highly probable that the island’s strong musical heritage would still persist to some extent?

Alper has also finally made me understand that it may be futile to try to remove god-belief from a person who has a genetically well-developed spiritual function. The best we may be able to hope for is to help them understand themselves a little better. Alper sums up by proposing that if we can show a person that they have a built-in perceptual alteration, they may be able to learn to correct for it. But first they have to accept the nature of reality.

This is where Alper almost lost me a second time, as he again raises the question of Kantian subjectivity. Another review over at Daylight Atheism seemed to confirm my difficulties. On page 226, Alper asks:

So what if Kant was right? What if all of our conceptions of reality are really nothing more than the products of internally generated cognitions, sensations, perceptions, “the outward picture of an inward condition”? In such a light, we must accept that all we interpret as being “real” or “true” is subjective, relative to the manner in which our species is hardwired to perceive the world. Because each species processes information differently, each species consequently interprets reality from its own unique perspective. As all of our perspectives are relative, no species, nor any individual within a species can ever claim that its interpretation of reality constitutes any absolute truth.

I think Alper should have dealt with this question in the beginning of the book and been done with it. He’s just taken us through an entire journey toward finding out that all of our perceptions have a physical correlate in the brain. Now he’s asking us to again consider that it might all be a solipsistic illusion? How can we know anything at all then? To me this was the absolute low point of the book. I think he made a deliberate concession to the relativists here. I know logical positivism is out of style. But he’s led us on through 18 chapters to an understanding of this incredible cognitive machine inside of our skulls and its ability to form models of reality, and the physical nature of all our experiences, only to tell us that none of our perceptions may be real? He then invokes the analogy of schizophrenia and its treatment, and then uses that to describe how a “normal” person might learn to become objective:

As another metaphor, imagine we are looking into a mirror that can offer a pure reflection of ourselves. Now imagine that placed between us and this pure reflection is a series of invisible lenses, ones that will distort our otherwise unadulterated view in some way. Because we are ignorant that these lenses exist, we have no way of knowing that our self-perceptions have been distorted. though we may believe that our view represents a perfect reflection of ourselves, we are actually misinformed. Not until we become aware that these lenses exist, until we learn to look past them, to push them aside, will we be afforded a true reflection of ourselves. –p.229

I see where he was going with this, but it was an unfortunate departure. It’s hard enough to get people to understand how to define scientifically objective reality in the first place. If you’re going to be a reductionist, than go whole hog. Mount a detailed analysis of consciousness, subjectivity and objectivity and stick to it. The Blade Runner analogy helps a little bit, with his discussion of implanted memories in the replicants (which would be possible for them to learn were false) But I think most people will wind up terribly confused.

I read and reread chapter 19, and I think I understand what he was getting at: even though we can’t rid ourselves of the God Part of the Brain, according to this metaphor, we might be able to adapt our perceptions to minimize the harm of it. After all, it is a vestigial part of ourselves which only evolved to deal with existential anxiety in proto-humans. Alper believes we should try to leave it behind along with other elements of the primitive cultures which lacked the scientific understanding we now possess.

In conclusion, I began this book expecting to be disappointed. I thought it would cover mostly familiar ground. But the depth and complexity of Alper’s arguments, as well as the personal nature of his journey were impressive and engaging. Readers of Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Pinker, Buss, and Ridley will find a startlingly original take on well-worn premises which support the human origins of god-belief.

Chapter Notes:

Book I: Theory’s Evolution

1. Throwing Rocks at God

  • Begins with recounting of bad LSD trip, realization of the chemical nature of consciousness.
  • If self-perception could be so radically altered by a chemical, then it had to be chemical in nature.
  • Therefore, to understand self, one must understand science. But isn’t science just another form of faith?

2. What is science?

  • Begins long section on philosophy of science, discussion of subjectivity–begins with apology to solipsism, relativism, nothing can be known, problem of qualia. What is reality?
  • Eventually settles on science as delivering the best result which has the highest probability of coinciding with the physical world.
  • Light discussion of problem of induction, without reference to Hume.
  • Wonders how people who doubt science are so willing to partake of its fruits.
  • But if one is looking for god in science, where does one start?

3. A very brief history of time

  • Goes through the evolution of the universe, touching on all the physical sciences, and how they blend with and evolved from one another, starting with physics, and ending with anthropology.
  • Ends chapter with positing of non-overlapping magisteria: science explains the “how” but what about the “why?”

4. Kant

  • Moves from exterior search for god to interior. Discusses nature of reality, e.g. The Matrix, how do you define reality?
  • Cites Critique of Pure Reason. Limitations of human perception, to pre-existing mental structure, vs. John Locke, Tabula Rasa ideas. Work of Piaget on the perceptual limitations of children, and developmental stages. Innate modes of comprehension.
  • Much of this ground also covered in The Blank Slate.

5. God as Word

  • This is one of the most subversive chapters. I began by thinking he was talking about word as Word: As in John 1: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God…”
  • Actually, he was talking about God as a word. As in a word you can type into your word processor, to represent a concept. By this Alper acknowledged the only provable real thing about God: It is a word which represents a concept we can discuss and basically understand what it means: “the concept of a trancendental/spiritual force or being.”
  • So we can acknowledge that since humans were the first ones to come up with this concept and put it into words, that the concept of god originates with humans (also explored by Dennett in Breaking the Spell extensively).

6. Universal Behavioral Patterns

  • Covers innate traits and behaviors of many species. Planarians, honeybees, three-spined sticklebacks, herring gulls, cats, primates.
  • Asks question, can we not ascribe many traits and behaviors as innate to humans? (Also covered by looking at the list of human universals in The Blank Slate.)
  • Shows how specific areas of the brain correspond to particular aspects of speech and comprehension.
  • Cognitive traits are very similar to other traits, and are inherited.
  • Music aptitude and “perfect pitch” are inherited and cannot be learned. Certain types of music are universally experienced as rousing, calming, etc. across all cultures.

Book II: Intro to Biotheology

7. The Spiritual Function

  • Every civilization has had faith in gods. Therefore, we must look for a gene which perpetuates tendency to believe.
  • This leads us to look for the expression of that gene, which would of necessity be a neurophysiologically based spriritual function, or the titular “God part of the brain.”
  • Jung theorized the collective unconscious and archetypes. A “shared psychic substrate”. This directly contradicts Locke. Contents of myths are generated from these archetypes. Jung considers spirituality as basic to the human condition as the instincts of sexuality and aggression.
  • Every culture has maintained a dualistic view of reality. Religious works of art. Belief that physical actions have effects on the spiritual realm and vice versa. Immortal soul.
  • Rituals mark passages in physical life. Without these rituals, such as baptism, or bar mitzvah, people don’t accept the person as having fully arrived.
  • Every culture has possessed a priest class. A mediator between the physical and spiritual.
  • Every culture has its sacred spaces and objects. Superstitions. Talismans, Guilt. Atonement.
  • Distinction between spiritual and religious function. Spiritual concerns inner life, religious concerns ritual and social aspects.
  • If religion did not exist, it would be created anew by any isolated society–much as isolated humans would re-create language.
  • Examination of spiritual aphasias, people who have some sort of damage and are incapable of ‘spiritual’ experience.
  • The fact that humans create gods is the best evidence against the existence of any actual god, since they are all different. One would expect if there were actual gods being contacted, they would be the same.
  • “Not only does this spiritual function act to transform our perception of reality, but it also seems to possess the ability to override our capacity for critical reasoning.”
  • “religion therefore represents the social medium through which are spiritual and religious impulses are given form and expression. The drive, therefore, to create a religion, with all of its codes, customs, and ritualistic behaviors, stands as its own distinct impulse.”
  • various cultures and tribes create sacred animals based on animals native to their regions

8. The Rationale

  • Everything that exists is rational and runs by the principles of cause and effect
  • Religion must be useful, or it would not have been supported by evolution
  • Humans are unique in their capacity for self reflection
  • Pain, and the avoidance of pain dominate our lives. This is a necessary evolutionary reality for survival.
  • Anxiety is the result of the pain function projected forward into the future.
  • Since our evolutionary response to danger in the moment is fight or flight, there must be a corollary in terms of self reflection and future planning: it is anxiety
  • Our fear of death, and our constant reflection on death leads to a natural reflex toward anxiety. In evolution, this could have made human intellect a danger to human survival. So it was necessary to evolve a response. This response is religion. It allows humans to continue to function and take advantage of their high intellect, without the paralyzing burden of existential anxiety.
  • Even our enumerative function, allowing us to grasp concepts such as infinity only serves to increase our awareness of the severely limited nature of life, against the backdrop of eternity
  • Our instinct toward valuing the protective function of the father becomes useless once we realize our parents are powerless to prevent death. So this infinite longing and helplessness we feel for the father is projected outward onto our supernatural God father, who according to Freud: “God is the exalted father, and a longing for the father is the root of all religion.”

9. The Spiritual Experience

  • mystical experiences can be invoked by meditation, sports, tai chi, yoga, as well as worship.
  • All mystical experiences have in common feelings of unity, timelessness, spacelessness, the dissolution of ego boundaries
  • temporal lobe epilepsy has been correlated with heightened spiritual experiences or a “sudden sense of enlightenment”
  • transcranial magnetic stimulators can create “mystical” feelings
  • removal of various regions of the brain can remove the ability to have these experiences.
  • Disabling the amygdala or anterior cingulate can cause loss of free will.
  • Piaget studied the development of self-awareness in children and showed that it came in distinct stages.
  • the ego is protected from overwhelming anxiety by the transcendental function.
  • Meditation has physical consequences, including the change of brain wave states and the ability to lower blood pressure and decrease response to pain
  • this can be termed a state of “absolute unitary being”

10. Drug-Induced God

  • psychedelic sacraments have been used throughout the world, including mescaline by Native Americans, Ayahuasca in the Amazon, Iboga in equatorial Africa and others
  • these are called entheogenic drugs, because they generate an experience of God from within
  • no drug can cause the brain to respond in any way, to which we are not physiologically predisposed.

11. The Spiritual Gene

  • debate between nature versus nurture.
  • Twins and adoption studies by Waller (1990) came to the conclusion that religious attitudes and interests are genetically influenced
  • multiple other studies, one on 30,000 sets of twins, confirm this result

12. The Prayer Function

  • some studies seem to confirm that prayer (though not when other people pray for them) helps people to heal faster
  • Alper theorizes this has to do with the anxiety reducing characteristic of prayer. This may be related to supernatural beliefs and rely on the placebo effect
  • guilt, which is also often times religious in origin can have the opposite result of increasing stress, which is then often relieved through prayer.

13. Religious Conversion

  • individuality is replaced by ideology.
  • The only other time a person’s core personality undergo such an abrupt and drastic change is when they are stricken by psychosis.
  • In studying 2,174 cases of religious conversion, E.T. Clark noted. “Sudden conversions were associated with fear and anxiety.”
  • for psychologically troubled individuals, their emotional states often improve following conversion.
  • Vulnerable people such as the recently divorced are often targeted by the ministries of Evangelicals and others.
  • Support groups are also often targeted, and many converts have stories of success in overcoming addictions.
  • Conversion often works on the very young–studies showed that the average age of conversion was 15.2 years
  • the tendency toward conversion is a cross-cultural characteristic of our species, and therefore should be looked at as being innate

14. Why Are There Atheists?

  • how can there be atheists, if we are wired to believe?
  • spiritual tendencies exist on a bell curve, like other traits such as visual acuity and hearing
  • some people are tone deaf, while others become great composers

15. Near-Death Experiences

  • near-death experiences have been reported throughout history.
  • Much of the euphoria stems from the bodies endogenous opioids called endorphins.
  • One hospital tried to test the validity of near-death experiences by placing the computer display at ceiling level facing upward. No patient ever reported seeing the information on the display
  • another component of the NDE is the neurotransmitter glutamate. Injection of ketamine can produce nearly identical effects

16. Speaking in Tongues

  • this phenomenon happens in nearly all religious cultures. It involves a trance like state followed by an abrupt change in the brain state from alpha waves to beta
  • temperature differentials between the right and left hemisphere of the brain were found to increase during this practice

17. Why Is America so Religious? A Bio-Historical Hypothesis

  • normally the religiosity of the nation is inversely correlated to the level of the human development Index. In.
  • the United States is a stark exception to this rule
  • religious persecution drove people to immigrate to America, therefore the population was self-selected for religion
  • de-facto theocracy existed in much of colonial America
  • we can take as an example, what might happen if a group of musicians went to an island, and we came back 200 years later. We would expect to find a high degree of musicality in the population.
  • This has been shown with other genetic traits such as Tay-Sachs disease in the Ashkenazi Jews
  • religion in the United States has also been culturally self-reinforcing

18. The Guilt and Morality Functions

  • this chapter is a kind of review of what Dawkins and Pinker discussed in The Selfish Gene and The Blank Slate
  • morality arose as animals moved from solitary living to becoming social species.
  • Groups had to prevent behavior which threatened the group, and this became a matter of survival
  • this is achieved through the hierarchy system to maintain stability and order. Therefore, an individual within such a system would develop a healthy sense of fear of transgression
  • Humans have changed all this, because they do not any longer rely on physical dominance to maintain order. Anyone can use a weapon to kill anyone else. Therefore, it was necessary to develop laws and moral codes, and the penal system.
  • The case of Phineas Gage, whose prefrontal cortex was destroyed, demonstrated the innate basis of self-control and morality.
  • MRI scans can pinpoint the region of the prefrontal cortex involved in making moral choices.
  • Broad categories of good and evil, and the concept of sin remain constant across most cultures
  • the concepts of heaven and hell are universal

19. The Logic of God: a New “Spiritual” Paradigm

  • what if Kant was right? what if we can never truly perceive reality?
  • Like teaching a schizophrenic to recognize his delusions, what if we could teach ourselves to understand our spiritual perceptions were internal?
  • Spiritual consciousness is nature’s white lie, a coping mechanism selected into our species to help alleviate the debilitating anxiety caused by our unique awareness of death

20. What, If Anything, Is to Be Gained from a Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God?

  • The reverse Pascal’s Wager: if God exists, and we are immortal, what harm can there be in considering the possibility that he does not?
  • But if he does not, and we end up spending our lives acting as if he does, we fail to act in favor of the greatest human happiness, and we also have no immortal life.
  • The key to happiness lies in the love of knowledge.
  • No other creature has cognitive self-awareness.
  • We have the ability to modify our thinking.
  • If spiritual and religious consciousness are evolutionary adaptations, we need to work on objectively evaluating their impact, and try to turn the weaknesses into strengths.
  • Spiritual impulses are not in and of themselves destructive, it is only when dogmas and creeds arise. The problems are created.
  • Religious certainty pits societies venomously against one another, inciting acts of hostility, aggression, and genocide.
  • belief in immortality reduces the value of the short life we do have
  • we could possibly write up a world spiritual constitution, codifying universally accepted spiritual principles and guidelines by which each religion would agree to abide.
  • We should stop teaching our young to only honor and respect those with whom they share the same religious ideology.
  • How much longer will we be slaves to destructive religious creeds before we can transfer our faith over to the natural sciences?
  • it’s a choice either or. Either hold on to those antiquated belief systems that sprang from our prescientific ignorant past, or choose knowledge and reason.
  • It is overwhelmingly likely that once our brain dies, once its cognitive processes stop functioning, so does our conscious experience. Never again will we exist in the same exact molecular combination. Never again will we undergo the same conscious experience. Therefore we are far more precious and unique than we may have imagined.
  • what would outside observers such as extraterrestrials think of all our fevered religiosity?
  • “Let the secular revolution begin…”

Comments (20 comments)

Heather Annastasia Siladi / April 22nd, 2007, 9:58 am / #1

Whew! That was a long one.

I’m all about Kant. You know when you hear a recording of your own voice, and it doesn’t sound like you? It does to everyone else, but you hear your voice through your own skull, so there are different distortions. The simple act of processing information through our physical senses, then through our cognitive perception, is going to distort the reality we are trying to interpret. There’s no way around that yet.

I know the initial reaction is, “Well what’s the point, then?”

The point is that reality exists and we have to keep trying to pursue it. We just need to stop thinking we know things when we don’t; we need to keep our minds open to the most ridiculous possibilities while we pursue facts that seem supported by evidence (i.e.: science).

If we can continue on a path of forward progress with no major regressions and no unexpected comets wiping out all life on earth, perhaps someday we will evolve beyond the physical bodies that separate us from reality (though I’m not entirely sure I’d want to give up all things physical).

Either way, I will be long, long gone by then.

Sounds like a good book!

Morgaine / April 22nd, 2007, 12:02 pm / #2

Thanks Sean,

Great review! I’ve got to read this! He seems to be supporting a lot of what has made sense to me for a long time; that the religious/spiritual impulse is a hardwired psychological adaptation (not unlike other individual or group defense mechanisms) and in and of itself, is not destructive. Rather, it is the individual creeds and dogmas attached to them that become the problem. That we need to objectively identify the various positive purposes that religious/spiritual belief serves, (reduction of debilitating anxiety, increasing healing ability as it reduces cortisol and other destructive counter healing chemicals/ hormones) as opposed to simply pathologizing the instinct, and do so while eliminating the negatives of religion, is so right on!! And we need strategies for introducing such options.

The idea of possibly developing a universal spiritual code that could help make the transition away from the distinctions that religions now fight over, and use that as a transitional step toward a world based on reason and the natural sciences is interesting, but how do we introduce this? Wouldn’t this be a lot like Buddhism minus re-incarnation? I can see the attempt to do this with people like Wilber and the Integral movement…but they still haven’t let go of the supernatural piece in the end. Stil, I think he (Alper and in some ways Wilber) are far closer to addressing the issue realistically than many others.

One critique I have (if I understand him correctly) is in the statement that the key to happiness is in the love of knowledge. I agree except, only those with a certain intellectual IQ will find happiness here. For the rest who have an intellectual IQ resting below a certain point, something else will be called for. We need to be thinking about addressing the needs of all people along a range of intellectual capacity (if we hope to solve the problems of religion, and religious fanaticism.) As for Atheism, isn’t there a correlation between this and higher than average IQ, as well as standard of living?

Heather Annastasia Siladi / April 22nd, 2007, 12:42 pm / #3

I’ve found atheists in all walks of life (with all levels of IQ). I think many atheists are vocal and intellectual. Still, there are many people who think religion is a bunch of nonsense, but they don’t try to intellectualize or justify their non-belief. I’ll bet these people are often missed when we’re doing an atheist roll-call because they don’t want to bother with any kind of “ism”.

Doris Tracey / April 23rd, 2007, 3:37 am / #4

Hi Sean,

I got up around five Sunday morning and started reading about the God Part of the Brain. I may purchase it for my brother Franks birthday on June 18th. I may buy a book for my self also.

Thanks alot!

Morgaine / April 23rd, 2007, 10:20 am / #5

Yes, from what I’ve read Heather, there is definitely controversy over the reputed inverse relationship between intelligence, and religiousity. But, in weighing the research, there is a body of compelling evidence for some correlation between religiousity ( especially more orthodox interpretations of scripture) and at least higher verbal IQ, and higher education. There are of course some studies contradicting this, and exceptions to the rule are always to be expected, but the weight of evidence is heavier on the side of correlation.

For exapmle, a 1998 survey[8] by Larson and Witham of the 517 members of the United States National Academy of Sciences showed that 72.2% of the members expressed “personal disbelief” in a personal God while 20.8% expressed “doubt or agnosticism” and only 7.0% expressed “personal belief”. This was a follow-up to their own earlier 1996 study[9] which itself was a follow-up to a 1916 study by James Leub

To be certain we need more studies that control for all factors in the sample populations that could skew the results, like: base line mental heath, age (as people get closer to death there is some tendency to open to belief), stage of life, physical and emotional stress ( chronic illness can push someone who is otherwise rational over the edge), level of poverty, ( which is related to level of education), parental influence…

Still we are talking correlation, not causation, and since there seems to be a large genetic component to belief, I would guess that if you take 2 people with the same inborn predisposition to ward religious thinking, the same IQ,and expose one to quality education emphasizing critical thinking skills, and expose the other to a tenuos fourth grade education, and they otherwise have the same parental influence, the same good physical health, I’d bet the one with more exposure to critical thinking skills would be more likely to consider atheism. In addition, I’d bet if all else were the same, including both had mediocre eductaions..except one had a higher IQ ( and I realize these tests are limited in what they measure and have cultural bias).. but assuming we could get a fair measure of verbal and mathematical IQ, I would bet the individual with the higher IQ would be more likely to consider the idea of atheism.

That we have an unusually high level of religous belief in this country compared to other developed nations is discussed in Alper’s book. He explains this is a result of the combination of the high gentic component of religiosity in the original US immigrants )plus in my opinion by our poor educational system.

BlackSun / April 23rd, 2007, 10:44 am / #6


While Kant’s take on subjectivity is true to the extent that everyone has coloration in their sense perception, it does not follow that nothing can be correctly perceived.

Anyone who claims the possibility of objectivity always has to deal with this objection, and I’ve discussed this ad nauseam over the years. We eliminate subjectivity through the use of the scientific method, multiple observers, and instrumentation.

It’s funny you should mention the sound of your voice. I used to have the experience you have about thinking I did not sound like myself on tape. But now I don’t feel that way at all. I regularly record myself for voice-over work for my promo spots, and when I hear it back it sounds completely like me. I don’t have that subjective coloration, because I’ve corrected for it.

It is possible for anyone to learn, over time and with effort, to eliminate most of their own subjectivity–possibly not all. But this remaining doubt does not prevent us from making valid claims about the nature of reality.


Good points, I think the universal spiritual declaration based on introspection and meditation is also along the lines of what Sam Harris called for at the end of The End of Faith. If Wiber could contribute to something like this, so much the better. We need all minds on deck to make it happen. I don’t mind making some concessions to uncertainty if it will bring about the cessation of fanaticism. I have my own opinions about what constitutes a reasonable certainty. But that doesn’t have to be universal by any means. Just the agreement to remove the issue of belief from the public square, and as a basis for government policy.

As far as the question of religiosity and intelligence, I don’t think this is even that controversial. There’s clearly a reason why scientists aren’t lining up in droves to go to church. That Francis Collins and a few other high profile scientists have written religious testimonials only proves that they are human and their brains maybe have a more hightly active spiritual function than other scientists.


I think you are right there are many people who just haven’t thought it through. But what I would say is that in order for atheism to be emotionally satisfying, it has to be thought all the way through–which is why I think the number of intellectual atheists is far lower than the number of evangelical Christians, for example.

Heather Annastasia Siladi / April 23rd, 2007, 12:20 pm / #7

On the issue of Atheism and intelligence, are scientists less religious because they’re more intelligent, or because they’ve been exposed to more facts that cancel out religious superstitions?

It’s almost an impossible question because how much you learn will influence your IQ, but I’m just wondering about the whole idea of genetic predispositions to religiosity.

Hey, I just had a thought!

If scientists find the gene for religious tendencies, would it be wrong of them to invent a cure?

BlackSun / April 24th, 2007, 9:10 am / #8


You raise one of the many objections (eugenics) to studying society through the lens of evolutionary psychology.

But the more we learn, the more we become responsible for dealing effectively with the knowledge. Just because we don’t like the implications of something doesn’t mean it isn’t true, nor that we can avoid making difficult choices.

As I’ve stated many times, bioethics is one of the most important disciplines, and it will have a growing impact on society. We also have to deal with robo-ethics (which is really the same field, and will merge with bioethics as robots become more intelligent and take their place beside humans in the next 25 years).

Resolving these questions will take center stage as humanity assumes more and more responsibility for its own biological and cultural evolution.

just say no to christ / April 25th, 2007, 9:27 am / #9

Wow, that was a lot of info! It tooks me a couple of days to get through it. I only have a short time on the net since my husband is working on his thesis and needs the computer more. I have to get in as much as possible before my husband gets home from school.


Thanks for all the book recomendations, I wrote a couple down and added them to my list of reading material. However I do have some issues with some of the topics.

1) The after life is not universal nor has it been around since the begining of human history. The after life is a fairly new concept and originated in Egypt. In fact christianity is a more Romanized version of the Isis and Osirus cults. The Early Native Americans(minus the mound builders) did not believe in an after life and the “great spirit” ideology was introduced to them by the early invading christians. The Natives were animists and believed everything had a spirit and when they died their energy moved on to plant life, that is why so many natives refered to the trees as their ancestors, hence the family totems. Although, I guess the transfer of energy could be considered a type of an after life, but for me, a primative form of understanding thermo dynamics comes to mind.

2) Animals do understand and do fear death. They don’t obsess about it they way some humans do, but humans only do because of the idea of an after life. The early Natives and many indigenous societies did and do not obsess about death, they consider it a natural process of the life cycle. It is just accepted, exactly the way animals accept it. We know this because animals have a fear instinct and do try to avoid death, just like humans. Many animals aslo know when they are dying and will wonder off to die. And many animals have been observed going back to the sites of an un-timely death of a pack member, as well as elephants returning to bone yards to fondle the bones and actually cry over them. And primates have been observed mourning and crying over their dead and the list goes on. We are not alone in the understanding of death.

3) I have a hard time believing that the belief in a god is innate. What is innate, is for children to believe whatever their parents and other members of their community them tell them. All mammalian offspring have an innate need to follow the mother/parents and/or the elders, their very survival depends on it and that goes for children too. They are born to accept whatever their parents tell them. Children believe in Santa clause because their parents tell them, they only come to question later because their parents arent as adimit about them believing in him. Children also have an innate ability to pick up on their parents subtle body language and their body language is much more laid back in a jokingly manner when telling the kids about Santa, then it is when parents are telling them about god and jesus. Now I will agree that if we put a group of non-believers on an island that they would eventually come up with some form of religious belief over the generations, but I would almost be willing to put my life on it that they would create a more animist type of religion without an after life, unless they suffered from a few generations of drought and famine. That is exactly what happened in Egypt when the after life originally suffaced there.

I just don’t understand how christianity can be genetic either. If you put muslems on an island they would still be muslims many generations later, not because it is innate, but because of social conditioning. However, I do believe that a sense of spirituality is innate, I personaly think it has to do with the magnetic energies and the tiny magnets in our brains as well as the creative energies(dark energy) that suround us, but it takes social conditioning to make people accept an unrealistic and obsurd ideology such as a suppernatural sky daddy or a beloved savior who was slaughtered for our sins to be forgiven.

I hope I am not being too cynical, I get that way sometimes when talking about christianity. I think I still have unresolved issue with my christian upbringing or my angry stage is lasting a little longer than most. lol


Morgaine / April 25th, 2007, 10:18 pm / #10

Hi Amy,

Interesting comments and questions. I know you asked Sean, and I’m curious to hear his response too, but I’d also like to speak to this.

Regarding afterlife as a concept, it would help to know what is your source or sources of info. Also, I guess my response depends on how you are defining afterlife, but from what I have read, all primitive cultures (and cultures encompass various religions) contain some sort of “original story” or cosmology which entails some reference to post death events in supernatural terms. Some include metaphorical versions of heaven and hell, like upper and lower worlds, and some talk in more obtuse terms about what happens afterward…but the reference is still there. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell, but if not, I think you’d be interested in his research. He’s famous for a great body of work in comparative religious studies. He explored the common themes in origin stories between cultures from early human times. One of his conclusions was that myth evolves over time through four stages:

• The Way of the Animal Powers — the myths of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers which focus on shamanism and animal totems.

(Shamanism as I understand it deals with multiple planes of existence, upper and lower worlds, etc.)

• The Way of the Seeded Earth — the myths of Neolithic, agrarian cultures which focus upon a mother goddess and associated fertility rites.

(Weren’t there references to lower worlds as well here?)

• The Way of the Celestial Lights — the myths of Bronze Age city-states with pantheons of gods up ruling from the heavens, led by a masculine god-king.

(Speaks for itself.)

• The Way of Man — religion and philosophy as it developed after the Axial Age (c. 6th century BCE), in which the mythic imagery of previous eras was made consciously metaphorical, reinterpreted as referring to psycho-spiritual, not literal-historical, matters. This transition is evidenced in the East by Buddhism, Vedanta, and philosophical Taoism… and in the West by the Mystery Cults, Platonism and Gnosticism
( He does give credence to your statement that types of religious belief are correlated to geographical region.)
Regarding Native Americans, although perhaps in some ways when they speak about transfer of energies at death, they may be closer to an intuitive understanding of physics, the tribes I have read about and know of at the very least attributed magical qualities to nature, personifying natural objects with consciousness that although I find meaningful symbolically, we have no evidence for objectively. And to relate to the rocks or trees, or dream spirits as literal ancestors, which went way beyond the idea that we are made of the same elements, that they preceded us evoltionarily, acted similarly (to typical concepts of afterlife) on the psyche. If it really was a simple matter of…when I die I become the earth, the dust, the wind…then during sweat lodges why do they pray to the stone people? ( I’ve done a few Lakota based sweats myself.) They imbue nature with supernatural energies. These concepts of animated life exist on a continuum which doesn’t end with physical death. I’m not saying that its a bad thing. I personally have no problem with people having some degree of magical thinking as long as it doesn’t reduce their functioning, and isn’t imposed on others. These beliefs can be normal and even healthy developmental defense mechanisms that keep people putting one foot in front of the other. One can’t judge this without knowing the context. The problem is with fanaticism and I think that is a separate egg, so to speak.

Also what about the medicine wheel concept? This includes an aspect of reincarnation, in that everything eventually walks the path of every other manifestation on the planet…human, mineral, animal…Another example, “The Algonquians. In general, they believed every person (and animal) had two souls. The body soul or shadow was associated with the heart and provided the person with his memory and intelligence in life. It remained with the body after death forever…” That the personality somehow consciously continued on indefinitely with a dead body is a kind of afterlife. I think there are many many more I could cite. I don’t mean to be contrary, but this is what I know so far. Again, I am very curious re: your sources. If I am missing something, I really want to know :) I bet though, that if there are cultures with no version of afterlife cosmology, they still hold some sort of magical thinking…which can serve the same function.

That some indigenous cultures are more in harmony with life and death cycles is undoubted. That there is greater acceptance of WHAT IS,  could be considered a kind of psycho spiritual maturity, but there’s also the issue that their technology had not yet being developed enough to make anything but death an option worth considering. Once you realize that life can be extended with medical advances, and that cell death isn’t necessarily inevitable, it opens the door to being less complacent about death. It makes sense to make your peace with something that cannot be altered…but if it can be? Considering other possibilities is now relevant discussion, which could then lead to a new kind obsession. But obsession needs to be seperated from passion (…a fine line). Its clearly healthy to come to terms with the real cycles of life and death, but there is reason for us to push against that “inevitability” too.

Regarding the innate belief in god, there is solid evidence that we are hardwired for transcendent experiences, for mystical experiences, or what some may call god belief. As bad as Andy Newberg’s conclusions might be, you ought to check out his book (Sean mentioned) for the science part (which I believe Sean would agree is solid) which clearly identifies through FMRI and QEEG the specific brain locales which are correlated with, and provide the physical foundation for such universal experience. You can stimulate certain regions of the brain electrically and induce a religious like experience, (and that usually calls into consideration for the person having the experience, the possibility of some concept of god). That we have this innate tendency doesn’t mean we are destined to believe in a personified god, but it does mean that most of us given the right cues or chemicals will have an overwhelming religious like/spiritual experience in which our sense of self dissolves and grand intuitive insights come crashing in. (These experinces will be colored by our upbringing, thus Buddhists will see Buddhists images, and Christians will see Christ like images, and Atheist might see nature evolving.) These are the same parts of the brain responsible for trance states, the blissful unity of meditation, near death experience, for OBE. We are built for belief in something that transcends our reality. Its universal to ask where do we come from, where are we going, why is there suffering…Of course our parents shape us in many ways, but the predisposition to ask those questions, and to lean on something somewhat supernatural at least in times of stress, illness, or fear is universal.

That some people can more readily adopt rationalism or humanism is probably in part due to education, native intelligence, a higher quality of life, and of course there is evidence of genetic components (*see note in next comment). But I also think how concretely or abstractly a person couches their spirituality is in part influenced by their developmental stage psychologically (which probably is to some extent correlated to the aforementioned genes, education)…And this idea is reinforced by Campbell ‘s exploration of cultural stages, wherein he pointed out earier, ( the 4 main stages) that cultures naturally develop toward more and more abstract interpretations of spirituality. That gives me hope that as a species, we are intrinsicaly able to move away from the problems of concretized religion, and confusing subjectivity with objectivity, but its a slug slow process. Also, if we ever hope to see a widespread adoption of this meme it will require a virtual elimination of poverty, and vast improvement in education, among other things.

Re your intuitive hit about “magnets” and energy fields, I would encourage you to recognize that whether or not they may be accurate intuitions on the nature of reality, until evidence is available to support this theory, realize they are for now your subjective beliefs. If they give you peace and meaning that’s great. If the ideas are proven down the road, great. But till then I think its really important to maintain that distinction. :)

Morgaine / April 26th, 2007, 4:23 am / #11

Remember, according to this research, the innate spiritual function is described as almost universal, and exists on a bellcurve or continuum, which in part accounts for atheism.

Also, from what I’ve read the emphasis on Egypt as the ‘birthplace’ for the concept of an afterlife is more a description of their having developed the most elaborate prominent rituals to mark the concept, up till that time, but afterlife concepts existed from the first burials when food and other items were left with or buried with dead, to accompany them on their j’ourney.’

Incidentally, my step daughter was brought up with a strong scientific humanistic ethic, was taught about the problems of religion, went to a school with very secular demographics and yet was compelled to explore religious thought. She didn’t simply take what we taught her at face value, nor did we insist she choose anything that didn’t feel authentic to her. Last we discussed this she hadn’t come to any final conclusions. You’d think, if parenting and environment were the only forces at play she wouldn’t have pursued this at all….

just say no to christ / April 26th, 2007, 3:38 pm / #12


You comments are always welcome. :)

I love Joseph Cambel, I have read a couple of his books and watched his enterview with Bill Moyer. And I agree with everything you say and in fact you are saying what I was trying to say, but I was also trying to show how our environment also has an influence in shaping our religious beliefs. Wilhelm Reich was one of the firsts to recognize that and James DeMeo is one of the first to use Reichs work to verify it. Humans will always use some form of myth and magic to explain how we fit into the natural world without science and pobably even with it. I thought that is what animist religions were? I could be off, comparative religions are just a hobby for me and I have not taken full on courses in it, I’m sure I am missing somethings. I am not real familiar with the upper and lower levels and the Native Americans I have read about are the more matriarchal ones such as the Iroquois nations(which I thought was said to still be living like our prehistoric ancestors, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have upper and lower levels, my interest in them is for another reason). I am very interested in learning more about the upper and lower levels.

Also, I have read a few books by Ahmed Osman and Egyptologist who identified Egypt as the birth place of the after life(as we know it) after suffering a few generations of drought and famine.

Not all prehistoric burials have items with the dead for the afterlife( a christian like afterlife which I would consider a more extreme and unnatural form of the afterlife). I know there are some, but the afterlife(as we know it) could have been a product of a very traumatic period for the ones that do. The christian type afterlife is a product of being surrounded by death. Seeing loved ones suffer horrible deaths such as with disease and drought and famine. I completely agree that the afterlife comes from the psyche to help us handle death, but with (what primatives would consider) unnatural and overwhelming horrific deaths. The afterlife in a more christian form does not benefit the species, especially in the long run and is one of the corks that come along when our natural world turns on us. And it was when our natural world began to turn on us that our religions took a turn for the worst.

I think we are running into semantics here for the most part, but I am also trying to show how our environment plays a big role in how our religions are formed. And I think it is so very important to be able to understand religion we have to understand the enviornment it evolved out of. The mythology, the bible and the other spiritual texts that are oppressive to its own species are all riddled with clues of diseases, drought and famine. The religions that do not obsess with death and function more intune with nature did not evolve out of deadly environments and are the most natural way for humans to believe and function in terms of spirituality.

And when you fill in the details about an innate sense of spirituality, I can’t argue with it. I completely agree, but there is no innate belief in a personified god, that takes social conditioning.

And I think it is good for kids to want to explore religious thought and kids innate ability to believe whatever you tell them only last for a short while up till about 7yrs depending on the child, its a gradual pulling away process. I should have made that more clear. Man, if that innate ability only lasted till they are 18, would be awesone! That is why christians want to get to them while they are still very young. When kids start becoming more independent they begin to explore their world on their own terms, of course what we have taught them when they were still young influences them their whole life.

You said: “Re your intuitive hit about “magnets” and energy fields, I would encourage you to recognize that whether or not they may be accurate intuitions on the nature of reality, until evidence is available to support this theory, realize they are for now your subjective beliefs. If they give you peace and meaning that’s great. If the ideas are proven down the road, great. But till then I think its really important to maintain that distinction. ”

I completely agree, that is why I said “I PERSONALLY believe that it has something to do with the magnetic energies”. Magnetic energies is a big suspect in some of dogs unique and almost supernatural abilities to read minds, but it is only a theory and my belief is subject to change with the more science reveals to us. :)


Morgaine / April 26th, 2007, 6:53 pm / #13

Thanks for that feedback Amy!

I hear you about the need to pay attention to the environmental (as well as biological)contributions to religions and how they evolve. Absolutely.

The relationship between geography and climate to the severity of a religion is something I need to know more about.

Upper and lower realms are just another way of talking about heaven(s) and hell(s) in non Christian lingo. The details vary from one group to another, but they are across the board pretty much metaphors for a paradisical plane vs a hellish one. :)

Morgaine / April 27th, 2007, 5:15 pm / #14

Yes, many non western theological systems do relate to concepts of good and evil (darkeness and light) in different and more wholistic ways, embracing opposites with the realization of how inextricably linked they are. But the point of mentioning upper and lower realms was in reference to the almost universal tendency to formulate some conception of afterlife in order to stave off the overwhelming angst of real life.

Actually, the terminology "upper and lower regions" applies to several indigenous (non western) cosmologies which do entail a separation and implicit if not explicit hierarchy of the gods/goddesses and demons/devils. These non western systems emphasize, in their own ways the value of good over evil. Perhaps couched in other terms, (and with some acknowledged definite exceptions), many still boil down to a less extreme version of the same principals, and "seperate planes of existence for good and bad people after death."

Heather Annastasia Siladi / April 27th, 2007, 7:21 pm / #15

“Upper and lower realms are just another way of talking about heaven(s) and hell(s) in non Christian lingo. The details vary from one group to another, but they are across the board pretty much metaphors for a paradisical plane vs a hellish one.”

Actually, most non-western religions view darkness and light and creation and destruction as two sides of the same coin, and tend not to view these extremes in the context of good and evil per se, or they at least view good and evil as forces that must coexist in order for the universe to exist.

Western theology is almost unique in it’s being built around the concept that good must triumph over evil in the end, and that there are seperate planes of existence for good and bad people after death (i.e.: heaven and hell).

Daylight Atheism > The Humanist Symposium: Inaugural Edition / April 29th, 2007, 8:15 am / #16

[…] BlackSun of Black Sun Journal also offers a review, this one of Matthew Alper’s The God Part of the Brain. […]

just say no to christ / April 30th, 2007, 9:11 am / #17

Morgaine and others,

With the indigenous peoples and other non-westernized religions, do their afterlifes exist outside of this world? I was under the impression that abrahamic religions differ in that their afterlife exist outside of this world. I could be wrong as I have only read about these matters and only a few books and they really weren’t focused on the afterlife issue.

Also, some Native Americans in certain parts could have been exposed to afterlife ideologies. There has been archeaological evidence of pre-Columbus settlements by early Roman christians. Its still a contraversal area, but the evidence is mounting. I read about it in the Ancient American(archaeology of the americas before columbus) mag. That would also explain why the mormons believe jesus had spent some of his life here in America. I am one of those that tends to think that there is always some truths in mythology, that is what makes it so believeable to some people.


Metacrock / June 29th, 2008, 9:59 pm / #18

you arrive at the conclusion you do because you are an atheist. you don’t’ know science, you just know you don’t want God. Newberg is obviously ythe more scientific researcher. Alpers assumptions are silly and his explanations Lamarkian. the whole attempt to destroy beleif through brain chemistry requires Lamarkain assumptions.

BlackSun / June 29th, 2008, 10:47 pm / #19


Care to support your vaunted opinion of Newberg? It doesn’t sound like you even read the review. As I stated, Newberg failed to show any evidence of a supernatural reality–only observations of the experiences and recollections of meditators. That’s hardly scientific data.

Would you like to explain how Alpers’ assumptions have anything whatsoever to do with Lamarckism [learned traits being passed along the genetic line]? Alper clearly states that he is not trying to destroy belief. If you even read the review, you would see that he acknowledges that many people cannot change their beliefs because they are hard wired. That’s his whole point.

Your comment is a cheap shot from the hip.

Randy / July 27th, 2015, 6:51 am / #20

Wow! It's just wow! Can't wait to read this book. Thanks

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