It takes a God to create a “God”: A Review of The “God” Part of the Brain     by Matthew Alper

Reading Matthew Alper’s The “God” Part of the Brain (1999) recently I came to a conclusion about atheists—they are just as religious as the “religious.”

Substituting “Evolution” for “God,” Alper examines how the fear of death is a side-effect of our ability to recognize ourselves. Unlike other species we know we are alive, and therefore we know we are going to die, and that knowledge produces dangerously strong feelings of fear in us.

According to Alper’s theory, evolution, in its wisdom, counteracts this fear by genetically implanting a dualistic view of the world into our brains. There are two worlds. There’s the world we can see , and the world beyond what we can see.

Alper is in a long line of scientists including Richard Dawkins who have cleverly transformed evolution into a creator God, an all-powerful, all-controlling force that thinks of everything. Science has created a God, and it is called Evolution. Alper’s thesis positions Evolution as the inventor of “God.” Evolution needed to control the human species’ potentially devastating fear of death, and so in Its wisdom It saw the need for an alteration in the human’s brain chemistry. Evolution declared humans must believe there is a way to escape death, there is a God who can save them from it, that there is another world for your soul to go to after the body dies. Alper sees it, and it is good.

The proof of Evolution’s wisdom is everywhere. Though nothing about our sensory experience would indicate the existence of a spiritual realm, in every known culture we find a prevalent belief in the spiritual, in a God or gods, in an afterlife. Why? Because Evolution knew the fragile nature of the human mind. Death cannot be the end! The human is always unsatisfied. That’s why Evolution works through dualism. There is another world out there, and when you get there, you will be satisfied. This way the most extreme human dissatisfaction becomes endurable, because it’s only temporary, a mere nanosecond compared to the eternity of satisfaction which awaits you after death. “God” was Evolution’s insurance against the dangerous human tendency toward despair. Despair leads to suicide. Suicide is to Evolution as blasphemy is to God.

And so Evolution created “God.” But what about the idea that along with “God” came the religion of “no God”? Alper gives himself the perfect opportunity to address the idea in his chapter “Why are there Atheists?” Unfortunately Alper only considers one far-flung answer to this mega-question, where more than anywhere else his theory hangs in the balance. His answer is this:

There’s a “spirituality” bell curve

Atheists are at one extreme of a spirituality bell curve. In any group a few are extremely religious, most are average religious, and a few are extremely unreligious. These extremely unreligious are the Atheists. Visually such a bell curve is a perfect fit for the black and white psychology of many scientists and Atheists. They picture themselves as far away from the creationistic, fundamentalist, superstition-worshipper Christians as it is possible to get. But just because it may fit Alper’s psychological eye does not mean it isn’t a completely STUPID answer to the most crucial question. Why are there Atheists? If Evolution has genetically implanted dualism, why would some claim to not believe in any dualism, to not believe in any God? I would ask Alper to set aside his bell curve analogy and consider another answer, one that would require true scientific objectivity:

Why are there Atheists?

Because Atheism is a religion too.

Alper thinks because he doesn’t go to church, he’s not religious. He describes his conversion to science as a young man: “…with the same faith that many placed in a god or religion, I now placed in science.” He illustrates how science is something you can put your whole faith in, just like a religion, but he still fails to see the religiousness of science. He comes close toward the end of his introduction when he boldly self-questions: “But wait! What if it should turn out that science was just another form of psychological indoctrination, a new religion for a new world…What if science was no more founded in truth than any other of the self-glorified creeds I had thus far encountered?” He piles on the dire ‘What if…’s’ until a pigeon-toed rhetorical turn: “Then again, perhap it was not.”

"Perhaps science was a genuine tool by which human beings could gain a clearer and more distinct insight into the underlying nature of reality."

Don’t let that “perhaps” fool you. This is Alper’s Premise No. 1: Science is the absolute truth period. Nothing religious about it. No church, no declared God, no religion. That’s tiny brain thinking. He should understand and admit how psychologically science promises everything Christianity does - purpose, redemption, and the hope of eternal life. By “psychologically,” I mean when you boil it down. The key to the effectiveness of “God” is HOPE. The reward for believing in Jesus or some other deity is the hope of eternal life and good feelings forever. Science too offers hope. The hope of immortality. And this brings us to the specific case of Matthew Alper.

I heard of him from listening to “Coast to Coast,” a late night talk radio show. He’s been on two or three times to talk about his book, The “God” Part of the Brain. In these interviews Alper continually expresses his obsession with his status within the scientific community. He insists he is the first to link religion with evolution and see God for what it is - a word, a part of the brain. He dreams of being remembered forever as the visionary independent thinker who saw what others lacked the courage to see. What he has to hope for in this regard is that nobody reads past the first page blurbs, which do not prepare you for the awfulness of Alper’s writing. After finishing the book, and looking back to the effusive praise in the front, you will really start to consider the idea that science has become a religious scene. If it praises Evolution, if it adds to the deification, it is good even if the writing sucks. Like this paragraph:

As time went on, civilizations rose and fell. Without reciting the histories of          all the various civilizations, suffice to say that this process continued until            we find ourselves here today at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

This is the below-average work of a college freshmen with no high school grammar training—a paragraph that says absolutely nothing. I think Alper had an average deep thought while high (“God is just a word, man.”) and instead of writing it himself he commissioned a B or C student college freshmen to spread the almost Jack Handey-level deep thought into book-length form. The organization is terrible, the narrative frame of the personal journey is an obvious, completely un-integrated device that pathetically attempts to hold the disjointed contents together, and the overall argument is obviously flawed down to its core. Throughout, there is an astounding klutziness with language. Many of the chapters just abruptly stop. He introduces the idea of an argument, but doesn’t bother to make the argument. When he does try, the rhetoric is jumpy, impatient, clumsy and inept. In other words all the qualities we expect from bad writing but without the charm. 

The psychology of religion should have become Alper’s priority conclusion once he’d thought his deep thought through in the cold light of day. If you want to get past the surface differences down to the underlying sameness you look at the brain’s internal logic, you look at psychology. If you look at the Bishop in Caddyshack. He’s having the round of his life but rain is pouring, lightning striking, and he misses the final putt. In the Bushwood clubhouse afterwards we see he has undergone a drastic change of theology. The Judge tries to cut him off at the bar but the drunk Bishop won’t hear of it. The Judge: “You’re a Bishop for God’s sake.” The Bishop (huddled over his drink): “There is no God.” See, that’s a change of theology not a loss of religion. He’s still just as religious, because psychologically there’s no change. He still cares about it just as much. Alper never defines religion but I will. My religion definition is inclusive to atheism: religion is caring deeply about the idea of God. The Bishop’s cryptic response to the Judge is spoken as a conclusion drawn from deep, serious study of the issue. He’s not going to kill himself. Atheism relieves his guilt, though on the other hand it may decrease his potential for joy.

Unlike Howard Bloom, Alper cannot acknowledge that science is his religion, that it requires belief and offers an afterlife to those who remain diligent. In a psychological brain scan Alper fits the profile of a proselyte. He should not insult the God of Science with a bell curve. He should give Evolution more credit.

copyright Christopher Duckett, 2005