by Jamie Hale
After reading Brain & Belief (Mcgraw 2004) for the second time I decided I would e-mail the author and see if he would be interested in answering some questions. To my delight he agreed.
I know of no other single volume which covers such a wide range of topics and still retains a depth of analysis…this book is an important addition to the pantheon of popular science books that should be read not only by general readers, but by professional scientists, philosophers, and scholars of all stripes. And it’s a good read to boot! –Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine; author of How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God.
I just finished reading Brain & Belief for the second time. In addition I have referenced the book too many times to count. Needless to say I really enjoyed the book. What inspired it?
What inspired Brain & Belief? Life. My life. I can’t look back to a time in my life when some question or another that ended up central to Brain & Belief wasn’t there. As I recounted at the beginning of the book, I had a great-grandfather and great-grandmother (husband and wife) who were both senile; he lived in a hospital, she in her condominium. My great-grandfather was never verbal in any interactions with me but his owlish, staring eyes always spooked me out when I was a little kid. I just didn’t get it. We visited my great-grandmother more routinely and I remember answering the same questions from her over and over again, half-amused and half-frightened; a strange combination for sure. Their uncanny disabilities left me ill-at-ease with the diseased brain and informed me, from a young age, that human personality relies on a healthy, working brain.
One of my favorite activities as a small child was sitting on my dad’s lap, sucking my thumb and enjoying his quiet warmth as he read the newspaper. Occasionally he would stop to point something out or pose a question to me. I would innocently answer and he always took my answers with patience and encouragement. How can one not fall in love with questions, big and small, with a background like that? Most kids, in my experience, love to wonder about great things and ask why endlessly but they are usually stifled and their curiosity squashed. I was especially fortunate never to have to go through all of that. With an incredibly patient father and a handful of inspirational teachers, I kept on track thinking about and discussing ridiculously irrelevant philosophical quandaries. At the end you find a need to express the pent up pressure of all those questions and sketch out a few answers that have begun to satisfy.
Now, more proximally, there’s no doubt that Brain & Belief is a record of my undergraduate studies at Stanford. I remember looking over the course catalogs as an undergraduate with nerdy enthusiasm. I tried to take as many classes as I could and found that the patterns worked out so that I could major in psychology as well as do an interdepartmental major in philosophy and religious studies. If you look at Brain & Belief closely you’ll see that the structure of the book and its arguments are pretty evenly broken down by those fields/approaches.
Since the publication of Brain & Belief, in 2004, have your thoughts changed on any of the content?
To be honest, I’m still pretty content with the book though I think I could do a better job with it now than when I wrote it. There are sections that seem a bit rushed to me. I would prefer to have fleshed out those bare bones some more.
And journal articles! When I wrote Brain & Belief I didn’t have access to any online journals or databases so virtually all the content I included was either from the books I owned or those I read at the UCSD library. Occasionally, I would track down an old journal article and find a bound copy to look over. My Ph.D. program has made me a far more capable researcher so I think I can enrich the content of the book in any future editions.
I find the language of Brain & Belief a bit hyperbolic now. As a doctoral student I’ve had to proceed in a much more measured tone. But screw it…I like tossing around big ideas with the tone and language they deserve. Moreover, I think it’s easier to draw in a popular audience when you write for them rather than for a hypercritical set of scholars who are probably too sober for their own good.
As an anthropologist I’ve developed a greater patience with religions and religious movements. Around the time I wrote Brain & Belief, I was feeling a lot of frustration with the religions that had shaped me. But even that frustration was muted; I’m no Sam Harris. Now, as time has passed and I’ve studied even more about religion I see it as inextricable from the human condition. Is it irrational? Often. Is it dangerous? Sometimes. But such are people. Even when we put forward our best face we might be clutching a knife behind our back. You aren’t going to make humanity better by amputating that arm. What to do? I’m not sure. Clearly we need more science education and a more thorough training in the use of reason. This includes the use of reason as a means to philosophically approach psychological struggles. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, that descendant of Hellenistic philosophies, really does help people. And everyone ought to learn some of those practices as children or adolescents in order to rationally contend with the insanities we torment ourselves with as young people. Scientific pursuits and experiences in nature (camping, hiking, boating…) are just as rich in developing a sense of awe vìs-a-vìs the universe as sitting in some clammy stone building singing hymns with elderly neighbors. But there still are plenty of religious practices and beliefs that are exquisite in their elicitation of feelings of joy, forgiveness, understanding, and peace. As always, we need to find a golden mean here between obnoxious sanctimony and heartfelt human experience.
When can we expect another book?
Soon, I hope. I have a “Big Idea” that’s been simmering for years now. I have a hundred pages of starter material but I’ve just been too distracted by all my other commitments to consistently work on the book. But I’m always marking another quote or skimming another book in support of the project. If I got really motivated and had 8 months I could probably get a draft completed. So, realistically, we’re probably looking at 2-3 years. But it will definitely be better than Brain & Belief; it will take what I see as the most essential arguments of that book and rigorously develop them and extend them to account for a bunch of human behavior. Here, as in Brain & Belief, I’ve gained much from Ernest Becker. Like him, I feel that contemporary scholars need more chutzpah: we ought to work on grand synthetic models that pull together findings from the various fields of psychology and inform them with a philosophical and anthropological sensitivity. In short, we need modern myths. But these won’t be tales of Gorgons and unicorns, they will be explanatory frameworks that help us understand who we are and why we are given our ecology, physiology, psychology, and culture. Like the ancient myths, these modern myths will enable us to face our universe and all the natural phenomena that have mystified us and take it in. We will look at our limitations, we will look at the fearsome and awesome things all around us, and in us, and be able to weave them together with a comprehensive affirmation. We will take things as they seem to be and yet we will find these things emotionally, cognitively, and philosophically satisfying, if not indulgent. That’s the idea at least.
How do people respond when you tell them almost all current religions can find their roots in shamanism?
In a few of the reader reviews that I’ve seen people have responded well to the idea. It’s not an original idea of mine, of course, and it remains a highly debatable/speculative one at that. But to the extent that we can piece together prehistory and discern its influence on later times, I think this is a very reasonable argument.
Shamanism, as a concept, has been debated over the years. Some scholars feel that it is merely an academic construct. Whatever similarities “shamanistic” groups display are far outweighed by the numerous differences they have idiosyncratically developed, so some scholars have argued. To me this criticism has something of a Pyrrhonian flavor to it. At the end of the day, all generalizations are false. But if we want to proceed in this endeavor called “knowledge,” we need to employ skepticism in measures, not wholesale. Generalizations are useful if there is ample data to support them and they lead to other ideas/hypotheses.
In my own fieldwork, in Guatemala, I was able to work with specialists who employed rituals and techniques that I had read about in the context of Siberian shamanism. Wow! If this is not just coincidence (and that’s always an underappreciated possibility in my opinion) then it would suggest that groups of indigenous Asians and contemporary Mesoamericans continue to share cultural traits in spite of thousands of years of divergence. This seemed to confirm exactly what Weston LaBarre had argued in “Anthropological Perspectives on Hallucination, Hallucinogens, and the Shamanic Origins of Religions.” So, yes, I continue to support the idea that much of the things we see in contemporary religions, the world over, had their roots in “paleo-shamanic” rituals, practices, and ideologies.
After reading the section in Brain & Belief discussing Zoroastrianism I did further research. Very interesting. Could you give readers a brief tutorial on Zoroastrianism and how it influenced present day monotheistic religions?
Sure. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that was started by the prophet, Zarathushtra, around 1000 BCE. The ancient Greeks translated Zarathushtra into Zoroaster and thus we have the current name of the religion although it also goes by the title, Mazdaism, after its god, Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism believes in a supremely good god, Ahura Mazda, and a diabolical one, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman. The universe is a constant battle between the forces of good and those of evil/chaos. Humanity itself is caught up in this conflict and has an essential role to play in the prophesied triumph of good over evil at the end of days. In this final time, a savior will emerge, evil will be vanquished, and the dead will be resurrected to live in bliss with Ahura Mazda forevermore.
If you know your Old Testament you’ll remember that the Jews were conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century before the common era. Nebuchadnezzar forcibly relocated the Jews to his kingdom in the east. This stage, which lasted for two or three generations, is called the Babylonian captivity. What was the primary religion in this area at the time? Zoroastrianism. After the Babylonian captivity Jews began to write about and discuss a few things that weren’t much in evidence beforehand, namely, angels, the resurrection of the dead, the centrality of scripture and its priestly interpretation, the battle between good and evil, a forthcoming savior, and the power of Satan as God’s nemesis. Hmm…sounds a bit fishy, doesn’t it? The transitional prophet of this time (supposedly) was Daniel, who lived in Babylon, spoke to angels, and made one of the first references in the Judeo-Christian canon to the idea of resurrection as the future glory of humankind. Unlike most Jewish prophets before, Daniel was obsessed with the future, rather than the present, and wrote about the apocalypse and a savior he called the “Son of Man”. Though the historical picture is decidedly more complicated than this, it’s hard not to conclude that Zoroastrianism had a major influence on later Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As an additionally suggestive sidenote, remember that Jesus was first heralded as the messiah by the three wise men from the east who brought him gifts as a baby. The name of these wise men? Magi, the title of priests in the religion of Zoroastrianism.
The whole good/evil distinction that is so central to Western cosmologies and systems of ethics seems to have come directly from this ancient source.