Pay no attention to that deity behind your brain
by Patrick Lafferty
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Doubtless you remember the scene. A fearsome visage, cloaked in billowing smoke and flames as if from perdition itself, thunders portentous words demanding greater obeisance from a dimwitted scarecrow, a lion threatening no menace, a metallic man numb to all emotion, and a little red-haired girl wistful for familiar places. Then, suddenly, Dorothy’s diminutive dog follows his canine instincts toward a curious emerald curtain until what stands behind said drapery is unveiled in all his shamefaced glory. A ruse has been literally sniffed out.
A thesis has gained some traction in recent years concerning the phenomenon of religious belief. Why, the scientific community (and particularly its neurobiological guild) wonders, has the conception of the divine pervaded human cultures and persisted so relentlessly within them? Their most recent and increasingly popular answer: Our minds have played an unwitting trick upon us much as Oz perpetrated an illusion upon the motley foursome. And why would our minds do such a thing? Because the threats to humanity’s survival over time led to the development of particular brain functions that were small cognitive steps away from religious thinking.
I know—complicated. So, for instance, one putative example is the highly developed human sensitivity to other presences—what cognitive scientists call the Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, or HADD. In our earlier days, the sensitivity would help us know if we were the object of predation (read: on the menu). Today, we associate the sensitivity to our tendency to think someone or something is there in a darkened room when we are all alone.
The theorists argue, quite plausibly, that such sensitivity preserved us. Insouciance to the presence of a hungry lion would most likely decrease your chances of seeing your grandkids. But theorists then infer from that asset a tendency to perceive nonexistences—like a spirit, a ghost, or a god. Nothing external conspires to persuade our hapless brains of the existence of immortal, invisible, and only wise entities. But like Oz, our minds, conditioned by external circumstances, convince us of a transcendent domain to which we become self-deceptively obeisant. (In which case advocates of the thesis are cast in the role of Toto, who liberates us from our error.)
Neither space nor my understanding permits a sufficient analysis of the thesis. Others are far better equipped. (If you’re interested in hearing their responses, you might look here, here, here, and here.) But if one underlying premise of the thesis is that religious belief is the offshoot of a brain function with adaptive value—that is, it helped us to survive—then at least one feature of a particular belief in God would seem to challenge, if not undercut, the thesis: namely, Jesus’ counterintuitive instruction to turn the other cheek when suffering ill treatment, the text of which Mark spoke briefly last Sunday and will speak at length this week.
Jesus enjoins an ethic here which risks loss, even loss of life. His more comprehensive ethic entails finding your life by losing it. That’s not exactly an adaptive strategy.
I do not deploy Jesus’s instruction as a slam-dunk repudiation of the cognitive thesis. But one must do the proverbial squeezing of the square peg into a round hole to argue that this particular religious ethic expresses any innate drive to self-preservation. Jesus either protests the premise or identifies true life as being liberated from that premise. Either way, dismissing religious belief as a mental misfire doesn’t follow.
I doubt you awoke this morning wondering if your prayers were only a synaptic function equivalent to a loose wire. So I’ll leave you to the implications of this ambitious attempt at bringing every thought captive to your stillness in the Spirit.
But perhaps one offshoot application: Are you as interested in understanding the position of others as you are in making the gospel understood to them? Think about the “gentleness and respect” called for in the defense of our hope to others (1 Pet 3:15ff). You must leave your Kansas and enter their Oz if you ever want to explain how there’s no place like home with Him.