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15/03/2010 The neuroscience of devotion

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The neuroscience of devotion


Religion is so prevalent because it comforts the brain, professor says
Charles Lewis, National Post

Lionel Tiger's earliest encounters with religion were not encouraging. A s a Jewish boy in
Montreal in the 1 940s he was continually harassed by Catholics for being a "Christ-killer"
and harassed ev en more because Quebecers were being dragged into a war to sav e European
Jews.

"I think I got beaten up almost ev ery day ," he recalls.

It was that kind of early education in inter-religious disharmony that made him turn his back on
church and sy nagogue. Organized religion was at worst a force for ill, he felt, or at best an oddity
of human behav iour.

But a few y ears ago, Prof. Tiger, who now liv es in New Y ork City , and teaches anthropology at
Rutgers Univ ersity in New Jersey , began to take another look at religion. A s a scientist, he was
fascinated by the persistence of religious sy stems throughout human history . He estimates that
religious sy stems hav e lasted 7 0,000 y ears and are practised by 80% of the world's adults.

A t the same time, religion can satisfy the most basic y earnings of human beings, he believ ed.

Giv en all that, he decided the subject was worthy of serious scientific scrutiny , leading him and
co-author Michael McGuire, a California researcher and psy chiatrist, to write God's Brain,
released last week.

"We wanted to understand the mechanism in the brain that fosters religion," Prof. Tiger said
during a stop in Toronto. "We're really interested in what is going on in humans that stimulates,
permits and codifies the endurance of religion. It's a major scientific my stery . Our intent was to
describe what might animate and support this notion of the sacred in such a complex set of
different societies and circumstances."

He said the title was meant to suggest that the brain might actually be God's instrument. A lthough
Prof. Tiger does not believ e in a div ine presence -- "I don't liv e with the perception of a god ov er
my shoulder" -- he feels if there is a god, then the brain would be the instrument a god would hav e
to use. "It can't be the elbow or the pancreas," he said. "The brain defines who we are."

Prof. Tiger is best known for his 1 969 book, Men in Groups, which coined the term "male

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15/03/2010 The neuroscience of devotion
bonding." His writing partner, Dr. McGuire, is known for his pioneering research into the body 's
production of serotonin, the neurotransmitters that help regulate mood.

Prof. Tiger said he and Dr. Mc-Guire were also compelled to look more deeply at religion because
of the spate of books by such high-profile atheists as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins,
which were gaining huge readership for their anti-religious notions.

The main arguments of these writers is that no religion is backed up by scientific fact and
therefore religious believ ers are deluded, if

not outright morons.

"That was disrespectful and also not scientific," Prof. Tiger said. "Y ou can't hav e a v iable society in
which 80% of adults are morons."

In God's Brain, the authors add: "It is [also] all well and good to say that ... beliefs should be
buttressed by hard ev idence. But if the brain doesn't work that way naturally , the argument is
more wishful thinking than real. ... Astonishingly , the human record shows that a bewildering
portion of what humans imagine is giv en the same weight, v alue and authority as what they
tangibly ex perience.

"The brain is simply more comfortable believ ing than doubting, just as the body is more
comfortable ly ing in a hammock than hanging from a chin-up bar."

A t the heart of the book is the notion that human beings long for the "secular trinity of positiv e
socialization, rituals and beliefs." As well, the brain -- in try ing to trav erse a world full of danger,
problems and pitfalls -- is constantly raising problems that need to be solv ed. A nd that creates
stress that in some cases can be phy sically damaging to one's surv iv al.

Religion, meanwhile, meshes with the brain's innate needs by prov iding answers to some of those
difficult questions. The brain recognizes a problem, religion tells someone what to do about it, so
the two sy stems naturally work in harmony .

"For the majority of humans it appears that biology lacks critical and highly desirable features
compared to those offered by most of the world's religions," the authors write. "Small wonder
religion takes the cake."

Religion, too, raises problems, but then "produces and determines the conditions of their
remedy ." Just consider the Roman Catholic confessional, in which the priest absolv es sins, or
Y om Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement,

when the slate is wiped clean for another y ear.

It is also brilliant at organizing and building hierarchies, he said, which people also need and long
for.
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15/03/2010 The neuroscience of devotion

But why not a sy stem like Marx ism or fascism instead of Christianity or Islam? A nd why did
religion grow like wildfire after the fall of communism in Russia?

"A n answer to these questions is found in what the brain prefers -- in what is tasty and tangy to
the brain. Religion praises the brain's sweet tooth," God's Brain states.

Prof. Tiger said this is also known in a scientific way . Measures of neuro-electrical and chemical
activ ity hav e shown that the brain reacts positiv ely in the midst of a religious serv ice.

The authors describe how entering a religious serv ice can create "brainsoothing." Leav ing the
unpredictability of the world, with its problems and stresses, an adherent enters a "sacred"
location where special and predictable rules of behav iour apply . "They see familiar faces and
unfamiliar faces, but usually far more of the former, and ev en new faces carry possible
commitment to the common group and hence a better future."

The mood becomes so relax ed, he said, that y ou could almost "bottle the serotonin" in the room.

"Those participating are in a place and inv olv ed in a moment they respect and trust, one from
which they may leav e wiser and better human beings. A nd what a contrast that is to much of
daily life," he say s.

Prof. Tiger points out that one way religion is so good at keeping adherents is by creating guilt,
particularly ov er the emotionally sensitiv e issue of sex . While the book is consistently non-
judgmental about religion, analy zing only its effectiv eness, sex is the one place where the authors
raise alarms about the potential for ex ploitation.

"Churches will take a source of personal turbulence and then turn it into v ulnerability and then
ex ploit that v ulnerability ," Prof. Tiger say s. "On the other hand, if y ou're try ing to operate an
effectiv e sy stem, y ou look for where y our strong points are and where the people y ou're try ing to
sy stematize are most v ulnerable."

He has also been quoted as say ing that the notion of an afterlife was a stroke of "marketing
genius," but he say s now he regrets using a term that was so cy nical.

"It's not marketing genius, it's intellectual consistency . If y ou're going to take people for their
entire liv es and subject them to specific rules that y ou hav e announced are the best for humans
then y ou hav e to giv e them something. It answers the question of the biggest unknown."

clewis@nationalpost.com

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