The Biology of Belief (book review)

A while back, I mentioned I was reading a book that had me all excited about the relationship of science and mythological thinking. The author seemed to be setting himself up (by way of wonderful introductions to brain physiology, DNA, and evolutionary biology) to suggest a most interesting idea: that there is an evolutionary advantage to spiritual beliefs. But he dropped the ball. “The Biology of Belief: How our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions” by Joseph Giovannoli (2001) is full of interesting scientific tidbits and is a wonderful layman’s intro to some hefty topics. But he got trapped in his own left-brained bias.

The author speak of mythologists as social engineers. But, unlike the well-manufactured belief influencing technology we have today (e.g., techniques used in PR and advertising), mythological tales are not written and perpetuated by intention. They endure because they speak to people on some deep level, because they resonate with us in a way that is otherwise not adequately represented in our lives. They speak to a human need, a need for emotional, unconscious resonance, a need for mystery.

The author is just as guilty for lumping mythologists into one category as those he accuses: that of fundamentalists. He seems to think that the sole purpose of mythology is social control: It keeps us moral and helps us manage our fear. But this misses out on a important dimension of human consciousness. Mythology is a way of capturing the unknowable so that we can come into personal relationship with it. Not just to ease our existential angst, but because we have a basic need for mystery and experiencing awe and feeling reverance. Not because we are so mindless and sheeplike that we need someone or something to wield power over us, but because there is something deeply satisfying in doing so.

Power does not have to be “power over”. Power is simply creative potential, the ability to make things happen (for good or for evil). We need that kind of possibility, that sort of potential for change, that optimism. We need the story to not end. We need to strive for the answers with all of our faculties and we need to have something always held in obscurity. It is as much as a basic human, psychological need as is love.

Imagine how devastating it would be if we actually thought we had everything figured out. Those of us who wouldn’t be completely disappointed that all that could possibly ever happen was now in our own incompetent hands would likely have such hubris as to run roughshod over populations and natural resources. Add a dose of charisma and people will follow these narcissists down into their own destruction. One only need to look at history for examples.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” – T.S. Eliot

Even as a mythologist, I love hard facts. When they confirm my biases, I, of course, feel excited by the sense of order and meaning they usher in. When they debunk my biases, I am set back to holding the question again. Joseph Giovannoli has a bone to pick with theologians and anyone who doesn’t rely on empirically observable and verifiable “truth” for basing their actions. My bone to pick is with fundamentalists of any kind, including this author.

Just because something doesn’t fit with the data at hand or isn’t observable by our currently limited modes of perceiving doesn’t mean that it isn’t a force to be reckoned with. Rather than drawing conclusions, let’s all hold the questions a bit longer. If one trusts that there is an answer and we just haven’t found it yet, it’s not that bad to not know, to not understand. But the anxiety that lack of resolution brings takes some getting used to. It takes a strong, healthy ego. Learning tolerance, learning to refrain from attacking perspectives of which one has no substantial, positive experience comes down to raising healthier humans and to instilling the value of the drive to discover and to experience the awe in not knowing just as deeply as the drive to adhere to methods of assessment intended to prevent delusions.

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One thought on “The Biology of Belief (book review)

  1. Very interesting post.

    Power does not have to be “power over”.

    Absolutely. “Power over” is a very masculine orientation, as is an insistence on conclusions logically arrived at through empirical inquiry. While I’m not suggesting that this author’s gender is necessarily giving him this bias, it’s worth pointing out that empirical, linear thinking of this type could be characterized as a masculine epistemology. It’s too bad, imo, that more “feminine” ways of knowing continue to be disparaged. This author’s bias does seem disappointing.

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