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Lionel Tiger is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense on the future of biotechnology.  An expert on the[…]

Believing in God generates soothing “juices” in the brain that make us feel good.

Question: What evolutionary purpose does religion serve?

Lionel Tiger: It is of course a very vexing issue because people who believe devoutly in religion will tell you that there is no question there.  It is already answered, which is that we’re obligated to respect and believe and follow the word of God however that word is determined.  I did with a colleague of mine who had been at the UCLA Medical School, head of the Psychiatric Research Institute, Michael McGuire, a book called God’s Brain in which we were I think able to suggest, if not demonstrate that religion is really made by the brain. It is a secretion of the brain and this gets us away from the issue of whether religion is true of not true.  The fact is that there are 4,200 religions in the world, each of them believing they’re absolutely correct and everyone should follow their views and some 90% of human beings are describable by themselves, if not other, as religious, so we’re not dealing here with a casual phenomenon even though no one has any evidence of the stories behind the religions and so we got interested in this massive unreality, which is in fact finally a real reality, namely religions and so there are cathedrals and towns.  There are tax exemptions.  There are people donating money to religions still in America.  Religions receive more donations than any other part of the community and so we were fascinated with what animated this and as I said I think we were able to suggest, if not also demonstrate that the brain creates religion and the brain consumes religion.

When you say the brain creates religion, is that a neurochemical process?

Lionel Tiger: Yes, that is the argument that Michael McGuire discerned in the matter of serotonin.  He discovered that serotonin in primates was associated with high status and that when animals had high status they felt better.  It’s not unreasonable.  If you took away their high status their serotonins levels would crash.  Their brains would begin producing more cortisol and other neurotransmitters that are associated with feeling mean and feeling bad and feeling low and so we decided that one of the ways of looking at religion is to what extent and how does it generate the serotonergic juices that make us feel good.  Hence, you go to a mass in a major cathedral or anywhere or a slum Baptist church and there is music and there is color and there is activity and it appears that people actually get some brain juice out of it and that brain juice again self created and self consumed is the story we think of religion.

Question: If we have drugs that can create this kind of soothing, do we need religion?

Lionel Tiger: Well there is an argument about Europe, which has tended in the years, recent years to become less formally religious, so the French for example rarely go to mass.  There are certain fictional religious observances, but they don’t really abide by it.  On the other hand, they’re the most enthusiastic pill poppers in Europe and it may be that they’re taking the mass into their skull with a pill, so there is the pharmacological element of brain soothing.  Let me just backup for a second.  What we described was a kind of malaise of the brain we call brain pain.  That is when you’re late for work.  You’re driving somewhere vital and you get a flat tire.  You’re working with somebody who is a certified moron.  You have brain pain and everybody has that.  It is in the nature of the human brain to observe, to seek out and to conjure up problems, evaluate the environment.  In contrast, we suggested that one of the things that religions do is provide brain soothing and they soothe the brain the way a spa does or a massage or exercise or going for a walk in the park and so there is a kind of bracket here between brain pain, brain soothe and religion may be one of the main producers of the brain soothing phenomenon in a way that is not that expensive or destructive or difficult.  All you have to do is show up Sunday morning.