Faith and Reasons: Two Authors Explore the Persistence of Religious Feeling

In “Believers,” the anthropologist Melvin Konner takes on a different question: Why is religion still around? Challenging those he calls “the Quartet” of “belligerent atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris — who see in religious traditions nothing but willful ignorance, Konner sets out to investigate the persistence of religious belief. At the outset, he identifies himself as an atheist who, after adolescence, left behind his own religious upbringing, and draws upon his experience as an anthropologist living among hunter-gatherers in Botswana. Then, in each of the following lively chapters, he explores an astonishing range of perspectives.

Konner begins with the psychologist William James’s classic “Varieties of Religious Experience,” declaring that he shares James’s interest in creating “a science of religion.” Recognizing deficiencies in what James wrote to counter Sigmund Freud’s dismissal of religion as infantile illusion, “the neurosis of the human race,” Konner agrees that Freud, like members of the Quartet, overvalued rationality, urging people to seek answers only in science and to dismiss questions that science can’t answer.

Noting that the death of religion, so long predicted, has failed to arrive, Konner asks “what it is about the brain … that has made this so.” He relates how earlier anthropologists exploded the myth of some single universal underlying the diversity of all cultures. Then, noting that “theorizing about religion’s origins is now a cottage industry,” he dives into scientific and social scientific papers that investigate related questions, and offers a series of marvelously readable chapters to summarize the research they present.

After these preliminary discussions, Konner (who also has a medical degree) explores neurological experiments in “brain mapping,” as some researchers seek particular brain circuits that may respond to experiences seen as religious. Next he investigates reports of experiences catalyzed by mind-altering drugs in religious rituals, as well as in laboratory experiments; not only what he calls “Marx’s opium,” but also cannabis, peyote, ayahuasca, amanita, coca, tobacco, alcohol and chocolate. After summarizing the findings, Konner comments that “each overlaps with some non-drug-induced religious experience, and each has been used in somebody’s religion.” From there Konner proceeds to survey research by cognitive and social psychologists, social scientists and philosophers seeking to understand how religion is formed not just in the brain, but in the mind. Attempting to include as complete a picture as possible, he also considers studies of evidence for religious behavior in some animal species, as well as in children, interspersing reports of these with anecdotes drawn from various traditions.

While introducing these varied perspectives and noting the insights that many can offer, Konner reminds the reader that people, even within the same culture or, indeed, within the same family, respond to situations differently, complicating any attempt to generalize about what one might say about any specific “human need” for religion — whether for psychological reassurance, social cohesion or any other of the most obvious answers.

Best of all, Konner refrains from offering a simple answer, which people asking questions about religion often expect. Instead, like Charles Darwin, he notes that “such a huge dimension of life must serve many functions.” Some readers may take this to mean he is ducking the question; yet the energy and passion the book articulates belie that charge. In his final chapters, he clearly states his conviction that religion is “a part of human nature,” and so “very persistent, and, in my view, will never go away.”

Konner’s “Believers” offers a terrific running start for anyone who shares his excitement about the questions he raises. And in his bibliography, he offers much more: a list of over 40 pages of recent articles and books discussing each topic — which leaves this reader eager to dive into that trove of sources he cites.

Finally, his book calls to mind a story — apocryphal or not! — that some physicists love to tell of the great physicist Niels Bohr: A colleague, visiting him at home in Denmark, was startled to see a horseshoe nailed over the barn door, and exclaimed, “Surely you don’t believe in that stuff, do you?” Bohr answered: “Of course not! But it works whether you believe in it or not.”

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes