Yet another apologia for atheism is enjoying media hype and broad public attention. The latest entry in the genre, God’s Brain (released by Prometheus Books in March), does not do away with God entirely. Rather, it miniaturizes him into a chemical produced by the brain. God is real, but he is a brain secretion.
According to authors Lionel Tiger, an anthropologist, and Michael McGuire, a psychiatrist, human beings invented God long ago as a way of soothing themselves, given the troubling realization that one day they will die. Death, it seems, is too horrible to bear. In self-defense, man created God, together with the comforting thought of an afterlife and religious stories that explained life and the surrounding world.
These consoling myths release serotonin, a brain chemical that acts as a natural stress reliever. The prospect of death gives us “brainpain,” which serotonin alleviates by “brainsoothing.” Thus the brain creates God and religion, and then feeds on its creation to offer comfort. Such a stark realization, of course, should send us back to a primitive state of severe anxiety. The authors, however, do not seem to mind discrediting their readers’ only antidote to the meaninglessness of existence.
Yet they do not want us to be weaned from serotonin or other chemicals that have a calming effect on our nervous system. “While people may not be going to church,” they write, “they are going to the medicine cabinet.” We need these illusions, they inform us.
Tiger and McGuire might find comfort in identifying themselves as history’s most revolutionary thinkers: Serotonin replaces God, the medicine cabinet displaces church, and God’s Brain supplants Scripture.
Has chemistry absorbed theology — or has notoriety absorbed the authors? Also, is a chemical of a different kind needed in order to criticize Tiger and McGuire?
When we look at certain individuals who converted from atheism to theism, it does not seem that their journey was serotonin-induced. In fact, their journeys often required considerable struggle and moved from a state of comfort to one of discomfort. G.K. Chesterton has referred to religious conversion as something comparable with “the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair.”
Let us consider C.S. Lewis’ account of his own conversion, which he describes at length in Surprised by Joy. As an atheist who had abandoned the faith of his ancestors, he found that his life had become anything but anxiety-ridden: “From the tyrannous noon of revelation I passed into the cool evening of Higher Thought, where there was nothing to be obeyed, and nothing to be believed except what was either comforting or exciting.” Atheism can be supremely undemanding.
His transition to a theist, as he tells us, was accompanied by “kicking and screaming.” Some of this pain came about because, in accepting God, he became more acutely aware of the “ludicrous and terrible things” about his own character. His self-portrait is not flattering: “For the first time I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”
Nonetheless, he “gave in and admitted that God was God.” He was “perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” His true and disillusioned understanding of himself came only as a consequence of accepting the reality of God. Nor was Lewis lured into religion by the promise of an afterlife: “My conversion involved as yet no belief in a future life.” There would be joy but, when it arrived, it came as a surprise.
Francis Thompson, in his enduring poem “The Hound of Heaven,” dramatically describes his vain attempts to flee from God, who steadfastly pursued him with “unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy.” Lewis also felt that God was pursuing him all along: “A young atheist who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a drug called soma is given to people on a daily basis. It is their feel-good religion. It does not bring them any joy because it is not founded on any truth. It is a placebo given to sustain an illusion.
Christianity is most un-serotonin-like. It offers a cross to be picked up and carried every day. Christ brings a “sword,” asks his followers to “die” to themselves, and instructs them that they will be a “sign of contradiction.” None of this is comforting in itself. In fact, it is the very antithesis of a drug-induced feeling of well-being. But it brings people into contact with certain truths, illuminated by a loving God, that enable them to be, in their own personal ways, “surprised by joy.”
Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary and Mater Ecclesiae College.