Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 16, 2009

God, the Evolutionary Artifact

Matthew Alper went on a solitary quest to understand religion. What he found was that his mind was trying to trick him.

David Goldenberg

Matthew Alper doesn't believe in God, and he doesn't think you should, either. That's because he's sure that God is a figment of your brain's imagination, one that evolved to make you feel less anxious about your insignificant place in the universe and your impending death.

Alper isn't your typical philosopher or cognitive scientist. He was working as a screenwriter in Germany when he decided to devote his life to understanding why people have a predisposition towards religion. After years of scientific research in which he helped to develop the multi-disciplinary field of neurotheology, Alper self-published his opus The GOD Part of the Brain in 1996. Over the next decade, as the religion wars rekindled and more scientists came to agree with his view of the evolution of religion, Alper's book sold more and more copies, and last year Sourcebooks decided to publish a new edition.

Matthew Alper
"The awareness of inevitable death is maladaptive and therefore needed to be compensated for."

Matthew Alper

This is not to say that Alper's view on religion is now taken as Gospel. Some scientists, including fellow Geeking Out guest Paul Bloom, think he overstates the role of adaptation in human spirituality. But Alper's argument that God is an evolved cognitive rationalization rather than an all-powerful being is both eloquent and simple. In the following interview, conducted over email and edited for clarity, Aper tells Gelf why human evolution is finished and why God is our mind's coping mechanism.

Gelf Magazine: Does the fact that you're not a scientist hurt your argument? What's it like interacting with scientists about neurotheology?

Matthew Alper: Whoa there, Nelly! Let's take a step back and try that one again: Not a scientist! Was Leonardo DaVinci—who was never formally trained and who proudly referred to himself as "a man without letters"—or Albert Einstein—who developed some of his most important theories while working as a patent clerk, unaffiliated with any academic institution—not a scientist? Or what of Descartes, Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Alfred Russell Wallace, Thomas Edison, Leibniz, among the myriad other autodidacts whose works contributed to the advance of Man … were these, too, not scientists? Granted, a university might help point someone to the right books and resources, but the world of information is available to anyone curious enough who is looking for answers.
Of course, there are specialized skills that require particular training. For instance, though I may have independently accrued a considerable amount of information regarding neurophysiology, I'm not suggesting I'm ready to perform brain surgery. Nevertheless, in regards to theory, which represents the foundation of all practical science, such exploration is available to anyone who seeks new ways of looking at old problems.
And though all I possess under my academic belt is a paltry BA in philosophy, my book has been adopted by over a hundred colleges to teach a wide variety of graduate and undergraduate courses. I have been touted by MDs, PhDs, and even Pulitzer Prize winners. I have been cited in over 25 books (that I know of), all written by MDs and PhDs, and I have more chapters than anyone in the first anthology to come out in the field, NeuroTheology, even though I am the only one without an MD or PhD. If an accredited scientist quotes me or uses my work to either teach his or her students or advance his or her own work … am I still not a scientist?

Gelf Magazine: Do you think good scientists can believe in God?

Matthew Alper: Generally speaking, I would answer yes, that not just good but, in many cases, great scientists can believe in God. A brilliant physicist, for instance, may be born with an advanced capacity for solving mathematical problems and yet still possess a strong predisposition to believe in a spiritual realm without it having to compromise the quality of his work. Even a biologist can believe in God and be great at what he does. I might flinch at the notion of a Christian creationist being a great biologist, as I might find it hard to believe that his beliefs wouldn't interfere with the quality of his work, but not all theists are creationists, so as I originally said, my answer would be yes: One can believe in a God and still be a good scientist.

Gelf Magazine: Given its neurological basis, do you believe hyper-religion should be a diagnosis in the DSM-IV?

Matthew Alper: I make that very assertion in my book, particularly when it leads to destructive behaviors such as acts of martyrdom. I also note that the phenomenon known as "religious conversion" in which an individual (usually one suffering an intense psychological crisis and, in the vast majority of cases, who has experienced some form of abuse as a child) undergoes a radical personality change in which their "normal" self is substituted for a highly religious one, this, too, should be viewed as a form of pathology.

Gelf Magazine: Are math, music, and religion parallel in terms of their development in the brain? What other abstract capabilities would you include as brain-based?

Matthew Alper: Actually, one of the fundamental principles of my theory is precisely related to one such abstract brain-based capability that is specific to humans, that being the capacity for self-conscious awareness. I believe that this—more than our capacity for math, language, and music—is what distinguishes us from the other species. It is self-consciousness that has made man the most powerful species on Earth in that it enables us the unique capacity for self-modification. In other words, were we, for instance, to get hit with another ice age, rather than have to passively wait for millions of years for the forces of natural selection to evolve for us a thicker coat of fur, humans can address the problem by saying, "I am cold," and then do something about it. At the same time, however, the drawback in evolving this unique intelligence was that it, at the same time, made us the first creature to be cognizant of its own inevitable demise. It is here that I suggest that the debilitating anxiety that resulted from Man's awareness of death, forced the selection of a cognitive adaptation—a coping mechanism—that compels our species to believe in some form of a transcendental reality through which we believe our personal consciousness—along with those of our loved ones—will persevere beyond physical death. This is the origin of our spiritual function, our "God" part of the brain.

Gelf Magazine: You suggest that human spirituality evolved to combat the fear of death, which in turn resulted from the evolution of the theory of mind and our ability to understand the passage of time. How is fear of death maladaptive? It seems like that would be a good thing.

Matthew Alper: Fear of death is a crucial part of self-preservation and is an important part of survival … and therefore is a good thing. What I suggest is that it is not the fear of death but the awareness of inevitable death that is maladaptive and therefore needed to be compensated for.

Gelf Magazine: Atheism seems to be spreading throughout Europe much like religion did previously. Doesn't that argue that religious tendencies are more environmental than you suggest and less genetic?

Matthew Alper: Based on the preponderance of evidence—genetic, neurophysiological, and sociobiological—that spiritual/religious belief is an instinct generated from the brain, I'm wont to accept that an environmental explanation alone could account for humankind's religious tendencies. I would therefore offer a possible explanation for the trend towards atheism in certain European communities (though I highly doubt it represents a majority or that it ever will). First of all, I believe that a good portion of the trend towards atheism is as much a revolt against the church as it is an embracing of scientific principles that reject God. Moreover, one has to be careful as to how atheism is defined when conducting such surveys. For example, contemporary communist China is a secular state that rejects all religions. Nevertheless, the Chinese are notorious for being some of the most superstitious people on Earth. For me, superstition—that is, a belief in any spiritual paradigm—constitutes a variant of theism, be it a belief in numerology, astrology, luck, ghosts, souls/spirits, or such new-age beliefs as the power of crystals or the concept of karma. So just because one has rejected conventional religion, this, to me, doesn't necessarily constitute atheism. I therefore believe that even among the Europeans who have rejected the Catholic Church, even those who in many cases would say they don't believe in God still believe in a soul, for instance.

Gelf Magazine: Are people who believe in luck religious?

Matthew Alper: As I addressed this earlier, I'll just offer a simple "yes," though as luck per se doesn't have to be connected to any particular religious paradigm, I might be inclined to say someone who believes in it is more spiritual than religious.

Gelf Magazine: You say we should try to overcome our inherent religious tendencies. Why?

Matthew Alper: One, because it's best to live in truth. Two, for all the negative consequences associated with our religious proclivities such as that it promotes tribalism, i.e., discrimination, and justifies acts of hostility, aggression, and war.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that humans will eventually evolve to no longer possess a God part of the brain? In other words, can you foresee a time where it will be adaptive to no longer believe in God?

Matthew Alper: I don't believe humans will evolve, period. We are done. Homo sapiens is a finished product, not because we're by any means perfect, but because of what I was suggesting earlier—that as a result of self-conscious awareness, we've taken the reins away from Mother Nature and therefore can alter our environments to suit us however we see fit before we will be prone to the slow forces of natural selection. Even if religiosity were a maladaptive trait, I don't believe it could ever be selected out of us. As a matter of fact, the only way I could foresee such a thing would be in some scenario in which, via genetic drift, a community of biologically-based atheists (those who I suggest don't possess a genetic predisposition to believe in a spiritual realm) were to move to some island in which everyone else on the planet died and only their progeny survived, thus passing on their incapacity to perceive a spiritual realm. Only under such fantastical conditions, do I believe spirituality would or could ever be selected out of our specie's gene pool.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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