I recently had something that was as close to a religious experience as I’ve had in a really long time, and a light bulb went on in my head that changed the way I see a whole lot of things. So much human behavior suddenly makes sense to me now, and I’d like to try and convey what it was that I finally realized.
I was at a symphony performance where they were playing the music of John Williams selected from a handful of movies I know and love because they were an integral part of my childhood. I love music, and I particularly love movie scores because watching movies is one of my most favorite things to do. I personally think that some of the greatest musical geniuses of our time have gravitated toward the cinema (that’s where the paycheck has been), and John Williams is among the most gifted and versatile in the genre.
The Music of My Childhood
When I was a kid, there was a series of people I wanted to be: First I wanted to be Superman. Hands down, he was my favorite hero for as far back as I can remember. I even recall eating Cheerios for breakfast for months as a child, not because I actually liked them, but because I saw Superman eating them in a commercial once and I wanted to be just like him. Well played, General Mills, well played.
Next I wanted to be Luke Skywalker. I loved how much deeper and wiser he seemed, at least by the end of the original Star Wars series (rewatching the trilogy as an adult made me realize how whiny and immature he was at the beginning). And of course like a Jedi I wanted to understand the mysteries of the universe and be able to move things with my mind. How cool is that? The light sabers were cool, too, but what I really wanted was the prescience of feeling things before they even happened, and being able to “sense” what was going on in people galaxies away.
Finally, the last movie hero I recall wanting to be as a child was Indiana Jones. For a while there, I kept turning everything I could into whips so that I could swing over imaginary pits and avoid booby traps while stealing priceless artifacts that I now know no archaeologist worth his degree would ever just up and steal without documenting where he found it, what condition it was in, and without at least getting the permission of the local government. It was oddly amusing for me as an adult when I realized Dr. Jones wasn’t so much an actual archaeologist as he was an unscrupulous tomb raider. Funny how different our childhood heroes look once we reach the age they were when their movies came out.
It finally dawned on me one day that all three of my childhood heroes had something in common: They all had theme music written by John Williams. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe what I really wanted in life wasn’t to be able to fly, or to move things with my mind, or be able to swing from a vine while being chased by angry tribesmen or Nazis. I think what I really wanted in life was to have John Williams write my very own theme music.
I mean, come on. Think about how much cooler life would be if it came with theme music! Whenever you walk in a room, the brass section would blare out your own signature melody while the cymbals crash and the strings keep time. You would always know when something important was happening because the music would let you know, and you would never have to wonder how you should feel about whatever is happening because the music would pull your heartstrings at all the right moments. Incidentally, bad guys would be a whole lot easier to spot, too. I really think life really should come with a score. But I digress.
A Common Element in Pleasure
At the symphony that night, the music of my childhood came to life and bathed me in memories so rich and delightful that at moments I forgot where I was. I closed my eyes and just savored the melodies I loved so much as a child, and it took me back through so many good times I could scarcely contain my own emotions. It was overwhelming. I swear I could feel my brain sizzling with all the right chemicals to produce the kind of euphoria it ordinarily would take drugs to obtain, and I spent the rest of the evening basking in the afterglow of that ecstatic experience. It was the best night I’ve had in ages.
This wasn’t the first time I had felt that kind of delight, of course. In varying degrees, this has happened a lot through the years whether I understood at the time what was happening or not. I’ve felt something similar during exercise. I’ve felt it in the sound of ecstasy in my lover’s voice. I also feel it when I sit down to eat dinner with my four daughters, each writers and avid readers in their own right, and one of them finally makes all the others double over with laughter because the banter is just so clever. These moments are the happiest moments in my life, and I feel certain their memory will still be keeping me company even into old age.
Somehow the other night the ecstatic enjoyment of the music of my childhood triggered a realization. All the happiest moments of my life felt like they came flooding in all at once as if they were linked together by some common element, and it finally dawned on me what that element was: It was dopamine.
Think about it. Every time you do something you enjoy, your brain is rewarding you with a chemical that makes you feel good so that you want to keep doing it for as long and as often as you can. That’s the common element that runs through everything you do that you enjoy. If that chemical were not produced while doing whatever it is that you like to do, you wouldn’t like doing it so much. And yes, I know there are other chemicals, but let’s stick with this one for now.
For me, it happens when I listen to music that I love. It happens when my children are all together, enjoying each other’s company and making each other laugh. Sometimes it even happens while I’m writing. As I’m typing this right now, in fact, I’m listening to the sound of a steady morning rain outside my window accompanied by the gentle, low rumbling of distant thunder. It’s pretty damn pleasant.
I’m sure if you think about it, you can come up with your own list of things that bring you pleasure and make you happy. Your list may not be the same as mine, but whatever your happy things are, the one thing they all have in common is that they all produce the right kind of chemicals in your brain to give you that feeling you love so much. It is the common element in all things pleasurable.
Why We Do What We Do
Now, I realize it may spoil the romance of it all to reduce the things you enjoy to chemical reactions inside your brain, but bear with me for a minute. I’m not saying there’s any need to remain cognizant of the mechanics of your own neurochemistry at all times. In fact, it seems to me like it would kill the buzz if we were always trying to analyze and understand why things make us happy the way they do.
Most of the time, it’s best to just let yourself enjoy what you enjoy, letting it carry you away so that you’re not even thinking about yourself or what’s happening to you. We human beings are navel-gazing enough as it is—the last thing in the world that most of us need is to become even more self-conscious. But every once in a while it can do us good to stop and engage in some metacognition, taking a moment to think about why it is that we do the things that we do. And that brings me to the point of what I’m trying to convey to you today.
I finally understand why religion grips us the way it does.
It’s because it triggers all the same reward centers in the brain that these other things do, even if through a more circuitous route than the other methods achieve.
And I know as soon as I say that, there will be some who scratch their heads and wonder what the hell I’m talking about because they’ve never felt anything like the pleasure of (insert favorite thing here) while reading the Bible or praying or sitting in church or whatever it is that people do in their particular tradition that brings them joy and fulfillment.
But it does do that for people. You have to realize, whether you understand it or not, that faith brings its own rewards. Religion triggers something in people’s systems that rewards them the same way that yours does when you’re watching the sun set, or drinking your favorite cocktail, or watching your favorite show, or smoking a pipe, or whatever it is that you do that makes you enjoy your life. People wouldn’t keep doing the things they do if it weren’t producing the kinds of deep euphoria that it does for them.
For some, it’s the excitement of an energetic worship service. For others, it’s the harmonic music of worship bathing them in the familiar melodies of their own childhoods. For many of us, it’s the verbal stimulation—the seemingly endless discovery of new spiritual territory within the landscape of our own faith, which seems to expand before our eyes the moment we think we’ve arrived at its final boundaries.
Faith is like a virtual reality game in which more new territory appears each time we encounter something new, giving us an ever expanding terrain of symbols to explore so that we never run out of new things to discover.
It never occurs to us that we ourselves are generating this new terrain because that would ruin the entire experience. Our brains are smarter than that. For us to be able to derive pleasure and joy from this experience, we have to be able to enter into these artificial symbolic worlds without letting on to ourselves that we ourselves are the authors of the very landscapes we are exploring.
It helps that we’re not doing it alone. It’s a collective endeavor, a social experience in which each of us lets our imaginations play off of the imaginations of others, spawning exciting new worlds to investigate which expand our own minds and make our brains tingle with the enjoyment that comes from encountering something new and beautiful.
I’m convinced this is how the Bible itself got written in the first place, and it’s why there seem to be so many intriguing and fascinating connections between one part and another. It’s because people wrote it, and people can be incredibly creative when they put their imaginations together.
It’s like playing Minecraft, which constantly generates new terrain to explore each time you reach the edges of your world. Only instead of a server somewhere randomly generating the landscape, it’s the whole church doing it through an exertion of its collective imagination over centuries. Think about how big a world can be under those conditions!
Imagine millions of people doing that for centuries and then passing down what they’ve created to each successive generation after them. Is it any wonder Christians have yet to run out of new ways to envision their own faith? The possibilities are endless, and it never dawns on them that the worlds they are exploring are taking them, not deeper into God, but into each other.
A Laboratory of Faith
I haven’t written about this much, but I spent the last few years before I left my faith (or it left me) in a house church environment. It was decidedly “low church,” with a decentralized model of leadership and an open, participatory style of worship. We wrote a lot of our own songs, and everyone contributed to the decision making process as well as to the “order of worship” if there even was such a thing. We were a little bit Quaker, a little bit Baptist, and we occasionally threw in a dash of muted Charismatic flare. We were frankly a sappy bunch.
But boy, did we enjoy ourselves. Or at least I did. Being in a home church network for me was like working in a lab experiment for my faith. Because we had freed ourselves from the usual trappings of traditional church, we were able to branch out and explore the edges of our own faith, discovering things we probably never would have encountered in a Methodist church or wherever. Or at least not as easily.
I had the pleasure of sitting in a living room full of people who had given up so many different church backgrounds to try out something new, and the things we came up with were often quite emotionally and intellectually rewarding. I got to see beliefs and practices develop and evolve in real time, almost like a microcosm of the history of religion, and it was a fascinating experience. I feel like I learned so much in such a short time.
I guess you could say I learned too much. Because here I am, writing now as an atheist looking back in on my former faith as an outsider. Incidentally, I have no regrets.
If that experience taught me anything, it’s that a group of people focused on exploring their own inner world of symbols and “dreams” can sustain that endeavor indefinitely because they themselves are continually creating the landscapes they are exploring whether they realize it or not. It’s like playing a virtual reality game so engrossing that no one even remembers that’s what they’re doing. Their inner world of symbols has become so real to them that they no longer can tell the difference.
A Different Kind of Gaming
I think maybe this is why gamers are such an irreverent bunch. I’m sure many people who gravitate toward video games do so because they’re highly introverted and prefer virtual people to flesh-and-blood ones. And I’d imagine people who don’t care to be around other people much would find religion inherently unattractive because religion is primarily communicated through social structures. Not much fun in that for them.
But I also think there’s another reason. I think gamers are already getting their itch for exploring new worlds scratched, so they don’t need the promise of an alternate spiritual reality to make them feel like they’re getting to move beyond the mundane boredom of daily life.
There is an escapism to religion, and people who already have satisfying routes for escape aren’t looking for additional ones because they’re fine thank you very much. You can have your auditorium full of people singing songs that lost their novelty in the late 1980s, although I suppose the fixation on the bloody beaten man is kind of cool if you’re into goth things.
Related: “Dear Church, You’re Weird“
But for those more socially inclined people who crave the enjoyment of exploring symbolic worlds, religion can present an ideal environment to discover ever-expanding alternative realities that delight and thrill the explorer. For them it triggers reward centers in the brain the same way that watching a ball game does for others, or eating chocolate chip pancakes, or going hiking, or whatever it is you do that makes you happy.
There is a logic to what people’s faith leads them to do, and it’s rooted in brain chemistry…along with a host of other sociological and psychological traits which explain why religion survives and even thrives no matter how advanced our civilizations become. It keeps morphing and mutating just like any living organism does, finding new hooks and lures to remain attached to its host, surviving to pass along its DNA to successive generations.
Now you know one of the reasons why it persists. Sometimes it just feels good, and that’s enough in itself.
[Image Source: YouTube]
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