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Brain & Belief: An Exploration of the Human…
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Brain & Belief: An Exploration of the Human Soul (edition 2004)

by John McGraw

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272402,159 (4.25)None
DubiousDisciple's review
A worthwhile book, comprehensive in its treatment of the evolution of belief in the soul, and why we believe. McGraw possesses degrees in psychology, philosophy and religious studies, and he brings the three together in his writing … and in the wonderfully macabre cover of his book.

The three parts to the book are:

[1] A History of the Soul, in which McGraw leads us from our prehistoric beginnings of belief, through Shamanism, ancient Egypt, Judaism, and the famed philosopher Plato, into the development of Christianity.

[2] Part II, The Soul Matter, digs into the brain and its anatomy, the puzzle of consciousness, the effects of hallucinogens and other drugs, and illnesses such as depression.

[3] Part III, titled “Giving up the Ghost” introduces “the beautiful lie,” and attempts to carefully weigh what is gained and what is lost by perpetuating a belief in the afterlife.

I read this book several years ago, and I’m sure there are a number of other reviews out there to tell you about it, so I’d rather just quote a paragraph from part three that resonated strongly with me:

“The theologians’ heaven—singing, majesty, contemplation of God’s beauty—implies a total transformation of personhood and its context. This existence ceases to be a personal one at all and may be considered an Easter dissolution of self into the Godhead. Once everyone ceases to do personal things and engages in a standard universal, a fawning submission before ineffable beauty, one sacrifices one’s personality. At such a stage friend and lover, brother and son, all disappear. Hunger and admiration, play and sex, all dissolve into the singular experience—the singularly inhuman experience—of God worship. Every depiction of an existence worth living for disappears with the personality. Such an impersonal existence could be immortal but the person would have ceased to exist at death as surely as if he were simply mortal.” (p. 329) ( )
1 vote DubiousDisciple | Apr 4, 2012 |
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A worthwhile book, comprehensive in its treatment of the evolution of belief in the soul, and why we believe. McGraw possesses degrees in psychology, philosophy and religious studies, and he brings the three together in his writing … and in the wonderfully macabre cover of his book.

The three parts to the book are:

[1] A History of the Soul, in which McGraw leads us from our prehistoric beginnings of belief, through Shamanism, ancient Egypt, Judaism, and the famed philosopher Plato, into the development of Christianity.

[2] Part II, The Soul Matter, digs into the brain and its anatomy, the puzzle of consciousness, the effects of hallucinogens and other drugs, and illnesses such as depression.

[3] Part III, titled “Giving up the Ghost” introduces “the beautiful lie,” and attempts to carefully weigh what is gained and what is lost by perpetuating a belief in the afterlife.

I read this book several years ago, and I’m sure there are a number of other reviews out there to tell you about it, so I’d rather just quote a paragraph from part three that resonated strongly with me:

“The theologians’ heaven—singing, majesty, contemplation of God’s beauty—implies a total transformation of personhood and its context. This existence ceases to be a personal one at all and may be considered an Easter dissolution of self into the Godhead. Once everyone ceases to do personal things and engages in a standard universal, a fawning submission before ineffable beauty, one sacrifices one’s personality. At such a stage friend and lover, brother and son, all disappear. Hunger and admiration, play and sex, all dissolve into the singular experience—the singularly inhuman experience—of God worship. Every depiction of an existence worth living for disappears with the personality. Such an impersonal existence could be immortal but the person would have ceased to exist at death as surely as if he were simply mortal.” (p. 329) ( )
1 vote DubiousDisciple | Apr 4, 2012 |
Of the various books I have read discussing the problem of religion in modern society, Brain and Belief is likely to be the most accessible to those who find themselves moving away from a previously cherished belief system. The author’s confessed experience as a former believer himself lends his arguments a level of compassion and understanding for the spiritual experience that those who have never felt the stirrings of religion seem to lack.

McGraw’s book is divided into three main sections. In the first, the author provides a wide-angle overview of the concept of soul. He traces the history of the soul from its origins in animism/shamanism through ancient Greece and into Christianity. I have little background in religious history, so this section gave me a much better understanding of the origins and development of the kind of dualistic thinking required to sustain belief in the idea of a soul.

In the second section, McGraw uses findings from modern neuroscience to chip away at the belief that a soul can exist separate from the physical matter of the brain. An extensive section on brain mechanics and a discussion of how diseases such as Alzheimer’s can rob a person of any familiar sense of self serves to effectively undermine the idea that there is a separate soul which remains immune to the onslaughts of the physical plane.

McGraw spends a lot of time in this section detailing the effects of numerous hallucinogenic drugs on the brain. His discussion of the use of psychotropic plants in religion was particularly fascinating to me. I had no idea that there are those who believe the origins of Hinduism grew from the roots of a rare psychedelic mushroom (though, now that I think about it, that does seem to make an awful lot of sense.) His survey of psychotropic plant use from shamanism to Delphi makes clear that hallucinogens have played a major part in the development of human religious ideas.

What I found most effective about this section was that it speaks directly to what other critics of religion have referred to as “the argument for personal experience.” Since I participated in a tradition where transcendent moments of euphoria and bliss were cited as proof of the existence of a spiritual plane, reading a deconstruction of how these states are created in the brain was particularly enlightening. McGraw makes an effective argument that—as powerful as these states may be—they can be entirely explained by our own neurochemistry and cannot be reliably used to argue for the existence of alternate dimensions outside of our own heads.

In the third section of the book, McGraw discusses the issues that need to be faced in the process of moving away from false but comforting ideas of religion towards a more mature understanding of the world and our very limited place in it. McGraw excels here in his discussion of the cognitive biases that make this process difficult; in contrast to others who condescend to religious adherents as simply stupid, McGraw carefully explains how genuinely difficult our brains have made it to change long-held beliefs. His discussion of studies done on how doomsday cults react to the repeated failure of doomsday to arrive will be particularly interesting to students of cultic issues.

Though I disagree with his heavy reliance on the ideas of Freud to explain why we are so prone to believing in an all-powerful god, I think McGraw is correct that no real progress can be made until human beings are willing to let go of the self-important idea that we will live forever and face the reality of our own imminent death. As unpalatable as this idea may be for some, McGraw is kind enough not to leave the reader empty-handed. A brief discussion of the philosophies taught by Buddha, Epicurus and the Stoics provides several alternative ways of relating to the challenges of life that do not require the fierce denial of our material reality. ( )
  Lenaphoenix | Sep 14, 2008 |
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