Wired for Worship

Anthropologist Lionel Tiger + Neuroscientist John Kubie at Brainwave 2010

gods-brainDebate about religion is almost as old as religion itself.  What is religion?  Does it have a purpose?  From the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse, it seems as though everyone has an opinion.  The Rutgers University anthropologist Lionel Tiger, along with the UCLA neuropsychiatrist Michael McGuire, has attempted to make a scientific argument about religion in the new book God’s Brain.  Dr. Tiger appeared at the penultimate event of The Rubin Museum of Art’s Brainwave series, where he was joined onstage by SUNY-Downstate neuroscientist John Kubie.  The two men considered the question of whether human beings are “wired for worship.”

The most important part of the conversation was in fact not conversational at all.  Dr. Kubie, whose lab focuses on the function of the hippocampus on spatial perception, gave a five minute lecture on the serotonergic system, responsible for the distribution of the chemical reward. Best known as the focus of a class of anti-depressants—SSRIs—serotonin was initially discovered to be a substance that induces powerful muscle contractions.  Only 1% of the body’s serotonin stores are located in the brain.  80% is found in the gut, and has been proven necessary for male mating behavior in the sea slug C. elegans (The Lesson in Love:  Go With Your Gut?).

It has become popular to link serotonin to an ever broadening spectrum of behavior.  After all, neurons in the Raphé nuclei in the brain stem (an evolutionarily ancient structure), where serotonin is released, project throughout the brain.  But it is a vastly complex network; it seems a long way from ten carbon, twelve hydrogen, two nitrogen, and one oxygen to a rabbi, a priest, and an imam walking into a bar.

Of course, though his stated aim is to embrace the phenomenon of religion, Dr. Tiger understands this.  The problem of “Why Religion?” is by nature philosophical and thus incessantly complicated by language and theory.  Science can never satisfactorily (by its own critical standards) explain religion, its discourse will merely replace another equally incomplete one.  There is no net epistemological gain, though that is not necessarily the point.  People struggle with religion, and a shared search for its meaning makes perfect sense. In the basement of the Rubin Museum, did not something religious take place?  There was serotonin, there was community (there was wine, there was classical music).  What I mean to say is this:  No one can adequately define Religion.  Is it the institutions?  Is it the impulse?  What are we studying?  What are we embracing?

There are no answers.  If you liked Dr. Tiger’s other books, I would recommend God’s Brain. That is, if you enjoy the exercise of pop-theory.  (You could, of course, try Dr. Kubie’s neurobiology class.  To each his own).

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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3 Comments

  • There appears to be an underlying need to communicate to someone or something by just our minds. The brain is alive with activity well below the conscience level, how much is dream, how much is real? Ever watch the Ghost Whisperer? Jennifer Love Hewitt may be good to look at, but the idea that she talks to ghosts is an old one. Many believe or want to believe that we can communicate with other living or “non-living” beings through some sort of telepathy. So is the need to talk to god a cause or effect to this? If we can talk to god, who or what is god, this is where we get into the philosophical.

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