Book Review: The “God” Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper

In The "God" Part of the Brain, Matthew Alper seeks to explain why our species ever began to believe in God in the first place. It’s a lofty goal, but one Alper seeks to answer by combining research from a variety of fields.

He opens the book by explaining why science has taken away the need for a God in recent history and yet many people still believe in Him. He also gives us “a very brief history of time,” tying together ideas from biology, physics, chemistry, and several other fields. I actually enjoyed that section– it would be great for a textbook– though it wasn’t so useful in answering his ultimate question.

The reason he does this is to give us his personal background in exploring science to explain how he came to view God as a scientific hypothesis.

There are further chapters about Kantian philosophy, universal behavior patterns (explaining how so many cultures could have come to believe in a Supreme Being), and a strange section on what we know about God:

“What, if anything, can I say that I know with near certainty about God?” As I pondered my own question, shaking my head in the usual frustration, suddenly, in one radiant and Archimedic moment, it dawned on me. As plain as the nose on my face lay the one small but certain fact for which I had been searching. There it was, spelled out on the computer screen before me; simply, God was a word!

There are more paragraphs after that to… um… elaborate on that idea. The point is to show God is just generated from our own brains. So there must be a specific place where that originated.

Finally, we get into the topic of Biotheology (a.k.a. Neurotheology).

This is where the book picks up steam. There’s quite a bit about how our consciousness evolved to the point that we could finally think about our own mortality and these were some of my favorite sections in the book. Once we evolved this consciousness, the notion of struggling to survive seemed futile, since we were going to die anyway. In one of his better passages, Alper elaborates:

How was our species to justify its continued existence in light of such a hopeless and desperate circumstance? Why struggle today when tomorrow we won’t even be here? Under such conditions, the motivating principle of self-preservation that had sustained life for all these billions of years no longer applied to our species. This was a whole new set of rules our animal was now playing by, and unless something could be done to ameliorate our species’ pained and desperate circumstance, it might not have been long before our newly evolved animal would have succumbed to the forces of extinction.

This sets up the explanation for why we created God.

In fact, Alper states that God is “a coping mechanism that compels us to believe in an illusory reality so as to help us survive our unique awareness of death.”

With the emergence of spiritual consciousness, our cognitive functioning had been stabilized to the extent that we could now go on living in a state of relative calm, even amid our awareness of our inevitable demise. This, I contend, is the purpose of a spiritual/religious function. This is its rationale, its reason for being. If all this is true, however, it suggests that God isn’t a transcendental force or entity that actually exists “out there,” beyond and independent of us, but rather represents the manifestation of an inherited human perception, a coping mechanism that compels us to believe in an illusory reality so as to help us survive our unique awareness of death.

The rest of the book delves into research that supports this hypothesis.

Overall, this book sheds a much needed light on the subject of the evolution of religion. While the chapters dealing with science background are well-written, especially for those with little knowledge about the fundamentals of scientific subjects, I presume they’re not necessary for most adults reading the book. As stated earlier, they are in the book simply to provide background on how Alper became interested in the subject of Neurotheology. But the reasons why he is researching this subject are less important to me than what he actually found.

Some of the most interesting chapters in the book deal with the consequences of Alper’s conclusion that there is a “God” part of the brain. Among them: Alper explains why atheists exist (he is one himself), what is happening in a “near-death experience,” and what is going on with those people who supposedly speak in tongues. I would have loved to read more about those topics and less about Alper’s personal journey leading up to the God question.

The proposed solutions for how to deal with this new knowledge are too unrealistic (for example, having the world’s religious leaders work together to write up “some sort of spiritual constitution… by which each religion would agree to abide”) but they go beyond the scope of the book.

Atheists will enjoy The "God" Part of the Brain, as it gives an in-depth answer to the question of why God is so pervasive among different cultures. Readers of faith may be turned off by Alper’s descriptions of the wastefulness of religion, but then again, they’re not the intended audience.

While I would have liked to skip some sections, there weren’t many. And most were limited to the first parts of the book. The meat of the book was well worth reading.

Another review of the book can be found on Salon.

(This review was solicited by a publisher; however, the opinions expressed are my own.)


[tags]atheist, atheism, The “God” Part of the Brain, Matthew Alper, biology, physics, chemistry, Kant, Supreme Being, Archimedes, Biotheology, Neurotheology, evolution, near-death experience, glossolalia[/tags]

  • Richard Wade

    This is really interesting. Thanks for the review.

    …Alper’s conclusion that there is a “God” part of the brain. Among them: Alper explains why atheists exist…

    Aw c’mon, don’t make me read it to find out. Was I born with that part of my brain missing? I took a swan dive out of my crib once and landed on my head. A lucky accident? I was skeptical of just about everything as far back as I can remember.

    How was our species to justify its continued existence in light of such a hopeless and desperate circumstance? Why struggle today when tomorrow we won’t even be here?

    This sounds just like John Avant’s whining about how terrified and depressed he’d be if he was an atheist. Maybe if he took a swan dive out of his crib (or something higher) he’d love life like I do.

  • MTran

    The coolest part of this, Hemant, is that the publisher solicited your comments. This makes me unreasonably happy for some reason.

    I’ve got to agree with Richard Wade, though, about what appears to be an inordinate amount of attention given to the “Oh how awful life is because of death” stuff. Some people in ancient times may have felt this angst but I don’t think we’ve got any evidence that the sentiment was overwhelming, ubiquitous, or anything other than a socially inculcated condition.

    Yeah, explaining death, or explaining it away, is an important function of most religions. But it’s not the only one. And I would suggest, cynic that I am, that the natural fear of death was and continues to be used by those seeking to wield power over people during their lifetimes.

    By constantly emphasizing the inevitability of death and the “need” to obey some sort of authority in order to avoid its most frightening aspects, thoughts of death do come to predominate the fears of people who would otherwise not be prone to such obsessions.

  • http://avenidacentral.blogspot.com Pedro Morgado
  • Daniel

    I’ll put this on my reading list, but just from the quotes that are posted this title looks extremely hokey. I’ll be interested to see what he is using for his support research, since the quotes look so much like thought experiments to me.

    For me, the best book on the evolution of religion is still Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer. It is a little dry and might put some readers off, but I found it quite consistent with what I already know about evolutionary psychology and cognitive science. The title does a good job of distilling the cultural differences in supernatural and mystic experience so there is less focus on ‘god’ and organized religions, but the conclusions still apply.

  • Richard Wade

    The more I think about this the more unlikely it seems. For such a brain structure to evolve would require consistent dying off of all those without the structure until those with it dominated the gene pool. So some early hominids are sitting around on the African savannah, and all but two of them are so bummed out by knowing their own mortality that they don’t bother to run away from the leopards? Yeah, right.

    Let the surgical search begin. If 100 neurosurgery patients have their brains poked and stimulated, and if simulating one part of their brains always results in their suddenly saying, “hihaveyouheardthegoodnewsjesuslovesyouwouldyouliketobuysomeofourliteraturehaveyouthoughtaboutyourimortalsoulgodhasaplanforyouandhelovesyouandwantsyoutobewithhiminheavenokaywellyouthinkaboutitandremembergodlovesyouandsodoIsojustreachoutwheneverandwhereveryouneedtohandhewillanswerhallelulah” then maybe I’ll pay this some credence.

  • Allen Katzoff

    If Alper is building his case by stating that near-death experiences (NDEs) are the result of purely phsyiological or pharmacological causes then I suggest he take a fresh look at the recent medical research. The best source is the International Association for Near Death Studies (http://www.iands.org).
    You can check under the Research Tab for some current papers – the best are by Dr. Peter Fenwick from Britain and D. Pim Van Lommel from the Netherlands.

    The most relevant data is presented in a DVD by Dr. Bruce Greyson, a research psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, of a presentation he made at an October, 2006 conference at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houton. Greyson shows that current research data, mainly done in recent years at medical centers, does not support the physiological explanations for NDEs. His talk can be obtained by clicking on the 2006 conference link in the center of the home page. The talk is titled “Explanatory Models of NDEs.” Greyson is not making theological conclusions but simply outlining what the data is showing. It is a compelling case.

  • MTran

    Allen Katzoff,

    I’m not sure what you mean by this sentence:

    If Alper is building his case by stating that near-death experiences (NDEs) are the result of purely phsyiological or pharmacological causes then I suggest he take a fresh look at the recent medical research.

    Do you mean that there are non-physical (supernatural) causes of NDEs or do you mean that there are natural causes in addition to physiological & pharmacological ones, such as psychological ones?

    I browsed through an admittedly limited number of pages at the iands site and was not impressed in a positive way. Here’s a sample of an introduction to an article:

    This is one of the very few NDE studies to be conducted prospectively, meaning that a large group of people experiencing cessation of their heart and/or breathing function were resuscitated during a fixed period of time, and were interviewed.

    Prospective studies? From all appearances, this was not a “prospective” study in any normal sense of the word. This makes it sound as if a bunch of people were selected to have heart attacks and subsuquent resuscitation.

    Although the problematic wording does nothing to explain how the study was conducted, it does illuminate the questionable manner in which the study was designed and the odd conclusions that some are drawing from it. To me it sounds as if someone is using a bunch of sciency sounding jargon but not really knowing what it means.

    If you want to understand the qualities and varieties of consciousness you would be better served by reading a bit of the work done by VS Ramachandran or Oliver Sacks. They both have marvelous peer reviewed articles but, more useful for most people, they are enormously talented writers and are able to make even arcane neurobiology understandable to anyone who can read.

    In any event, there is no reason to attribute any non-natural process to the near death experience.

  • Karen

    In any event, there is no reason to attribute any non-natural process to the near death experience.

    Michael Shermer, of the Skeptics Society, has investigated NDEs extensively and this is the conclusion he reaches also.

  • HappyNat

    Agreed MTran. Reading their FAQs it looks like their organization is intent on finding that NDEs mean something more is going on. I guess I can’t blame them, because if NDE were explained they would be out of business.

  • Loren Petrich

    I wonder why Matthew Alper talks about “God” — isn’t he aware of the existence of polytheist religions? Monotheism is only a recent invention, and even then, it’s often partial. Consider the Xian Trinity, or Hindu monotheists’ explaining the multiple gods of Hinduism as aspects of some single one.

    Polytheism also has had much greater longevity than monotheism, judging from history and extrapolated prehistory. So the question ought to be why people believe in gods, plural.

    It annoys me when people project Abrahamic stereotypes on other forms of religion, because the Abrahamic religions have features that are not very common, like a dedication to squashing rival religions.

  • http://dmarvin811.blogspot.com Dan Marvin

    I have one for you to review Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. You can either get the book or here is a clip from the DVD. I am here to help with the truth. The evidence is compelling if you have an open mind and are truly searching for truth, if not we will see in your review.

    Just a concerned family man,

    Dan

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  • http://www.google.com Alex

    Thank You

  • Darryl

    I haven’t read the book, but I’m skeptical of its thesis. I doubt that there is a single area of the brain that is home to the God-function. I don’t buy the idea, as MTran expressed it so well, that it was the fear of death that got the ball rolling on the God idea. As I see it belief in God is both a rational and irrational product. It is rational insofar as it explains phenomena that cannot be explained by primitives who lack science (or, like fundies, that reject science). When pre-humans were terrified by lighting and sought to understand what it was, they had no other means than analogical ones: “hmmm, I throw my spear at the tree and it leaves a mark . . . some great and powerful hunter must be throwing his shining spear that splits the tree.” The irrational part of belief is the imaginary part that convinces people that they have felt or heard God. This capacity is expressed in other ways and is wrapped up with the emotions. A great novel or film or symphony or a Belgian beer with your pals around the campfire or a panoramic vista of the Sierras can get one to a similar place, using the same parts of the brain, as a peak experience with religious mysticism. We all have this capacity—it’s part of being human.


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