“The notion that faith in Christ is to be rewarded by an eternity of bliss while a dependence upon reason, observation, and experience merits everlasting pain, is too absurd for refutation, and can be relieved only by that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance, called ‘faith.’”

“If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament he would be a criminal. If he would strictly follow the New, he would be insane.”

Robert G. Ingersoll

The writings of The Jewish Atheist represent, among other things, an effort to UNDERSTAND religious belief, to probe the many ways it enslaves people, to cultivate compassion for the deep needs and fears it ministers to (albeit with fantasies and bullshit – talk about “false prophets”!), and to somehow pave the way for its undoing.

I am coming to believe that if we do not de-fang and marginalize religion, it will be the death of us. I saw a comic strip that predicted that religious fundamentalists will take over after an apocalypse, perhaps brought about by religion itself. Like all good comics, the cartoonist is probably too close to the truth. Aggressive, intolerant religion (i.e., most of it) threatens us all.

Understanding religion = understanding the mind.

So let us work to understand the enemy. To study religion is to study the mind, for that is where religious fantasies are housed.

I am five chapters into Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, and this last chapter has given me yet another appreciation of silence.

The first few chapters – about people who suddenly acquire musical talent…or those tunes that go round in our heads ceaselessly – were entertaining.

But there are some forms of music disorder that are downright disturbing, such as the one in which people hear very real-sounding music, playing continuously and uncontrollably… and – typically – appearing to come from OUTSIDE their heads. Some patients even reported that they had to check to make sure the radio was off or that the neighbor wasn’t playing hers.

Sounds and silence

Such people, unless medication or other therapies work, never get a moment’s peace. One young boy reported that a medication gave him FIFTEEN MINUTES of silence. Some people’s sounds are discordant or otherwise unpleasant. Something has switched on in the infinity of synapses that plays music inside the brain, and it won’t stop. A neurological hiccup.

As Eastern religious teachings have pointed out, silence is very valuable and is in short supply these days. Noise itself is actually a form of unhealthy pollution.

So, ironically, while some people can’t get the music or noise to stop, the rest of us, who CAN stop it, choose not to, fearing the silence. We fill our minds with endless chatter, supposedly important business, a plethora of electronic stimuli, religious and political blather, and non-stop self-talk, often negative. I just put in a year of keeping my mouth and mind quiet, so I can attest to the benefits.

Imaginary yet real

The implications for understanding religion are significant. I have already suggested that entities like God, the soul, and Heaven are imaginary and subjective, yet perceived as objectively real to the true believer. Sacks’ cases are more evidence that the magical fantasies that the brain can manufacture are intricate indeed, far more florid even than Jesus or Mohammed ascending to heaven.

I am by no means the first to suggest that religious believers are delusional. The noteworthy thing here is that as the notion of “psychotic” has been refined in the 100-plus years since Freud and Marx called religion “madness,” religion has still cleared every hurdle!

The Immunity Idol

Even as we see psychosis more and more as a neurological/chemical disorder, treatable by medical and other therapies, religion still passes muster. It is allowed Immunity from skepticism in the media and in politics, where Obama has recently begun a rally by announcing what a beautiful day God had made.

Hypocrite! Can somebody that intelligent really believe this crap? Or is he too shrewd by half — a politician who knows the value of pretending he believes?

Well, maybe he can believe. God, the soul, and heaven can be quite real to believers; they may experience subjectively objective reality, as with phantom limb symptoms, psychosomatic pains, uncontrollable musical hallucinations – and dreams. We rarely “know” we’re dreaming. “Wake the dreamer,” said Jung, “and you will see psychosis.”

So I can see why, in ages past, mystics, schizophrenics, psychotics, and nuts of all kinds were taken as prophets and truth speakers. Jesus probably didn’t exist. Mohammed was not a very nice guy. But to religious believers, then and now, reality doesn’t matter.

Religious believers forget (or choose not to notice) that the conventional boundaries of reality were in a different place, when these divine events supposedly happened. Theistic religious belief reflects an ancient time and mindset.

People had no idea why things happened, so it had to be divine doings. Spirits were all around and had to be placated. People could hold conversations with and receive revelations from divine beings – and report them as fact.

Nowadays people still have the same needs and fears…and they can have the same, convincingly real subjective religious experiences. Constant repetition and the presence of like-minded believers helps a lot. Maybe that’s how Barack’s brain got re-wired.

Many religious services induce a suggestible, trance-like state. I wonder why Mormons don’t allow anyone else in their services. Even mainstream Christians find Mormon theology bizarre. Maybe in those Temples, they are talking to and about God in ways that mainstream Christians — and certainly Jews and Secular Humansts as well — would find distasteful or embarrassing.

After all, when people believe that Jesus made an appearance in the USA, who knows what they do in private?

But everybody else is doing it, so it must be right.

Where reality comes from

Second insight: Sacks’ observations show that the brain not only manufactures convincingly objective reality…it also creates the perception of WHERE that reality is coming from. This is just as miraculous and mysterious as the self-talk and the “truths” the brain manufactures.

Just as the patients’ musical stimuli seemed to come from elsewhere, so too can the presence of religious entities OUTSIDE the body be manufactured by the brain.

Thus, although there is no religious experience that can be witnessed outside the brain, a vast variety of religious experiences, even ones that seem real to the person experiencing them, even ones that appear to come from OUTSIDE the brain…can be created by that marvel of fat, nerves, and goo inside our skulls.

Understanding the problem

I hope the above contributes a bit to our understanding of the problem facing us: the reasons for the continued, perhaps lethal encroachment of religion on our lives. Some of it has to do with the brain, and some people are truly beyond saving.

It may even be too late. Too many people are too permanently religious for humanity’s good, and perhaps even for its future. Some 40% of the Republican base is Evangelicals – that’s tens of millions of people with simplistic, fundamentalist worldviews.

Still, there’s an infinity of synapses. Other people, whose faith is held in place mainly by fear or weakness (or the lack of an alternative – Humanists must be FOR something) – these soft-core believers – may be open to the abandonment of religious fantasies.

Like Dawkins, I think a new enlightenment is not only possible….it may be our only salvation.

Yes, atheists do appear on TV and the Internet, but too often they’re, well…preaching to the choir. And I don’t count “debates” with religious figures. These are issues that do not lend themselves to debate.

So first we’ve got to get some air time and a fair hearing. Like John Stossel doing a POSITIVE unrebutted piece on secular humanism (oy, the hate mail that would pour in!). Or the Chicago Tribune covering a Festivus party or any secular event with the same front-page zeal it devotes to an elderly Jew finally having his bar mitzvah.

Take away the Immunity Idol

Many of us Humanists are tired of being non-people. I for one would like to see the Immunity Idol taken from the hands of the priests, rabbis, and “radical Shiite clerics” (is that a job description?). I would like to see religion subjected to the same verifiability criteria as other things that people claim to be true.

I would like to see the truth told, in public, by reputable authorities in psychiatry and psychology: religion, by our modern medical criteria, is psychotic and insane.

It exists only in the brain, no matter how real it seems to the believer. It often represents a deformation or stunting of rational brain processes; a retention of a primitive, magical, and childlike mindset; and the inculcation and maintenance of bizarre, irrational fears and guilts.

I would like to see politicians SHUT UP about God, instead of constantly inflaming and reinforcing the voters’ religious fantasies.

When a Presidential candidate attributes his campaign momentum to divine forces, as Huckabee recently did, I would like to see an outpouring of protest – press conferences, letters, articles, talk-show appearances, full-page ads signed by prominent mental health authorities – to the effect that such pronouncements are evidence of a delusional mind unfit for the nation’s highest office. But no. The silence is deafening.

But at the same time, I believe in approaching believers not with derision (which will never convert anyone), but with compassion. I believe in helping them find rich and meaningful ways to live their lives devoid of fantasy. I believe in being there with a supportive, positive humanism and a face-saving, dignity-saving exit from religious belief, so that they will be less resistant to reality and reason.

I especially would like to see the end of false divisions between “science” and “spirituality,” as entities of equal stature deserving of equal respect, “different issues.”

Science is knowing things because reliable people have experienced, experimented with, and documented them. Religion is knowing things because the right people say so, no matter how fantastic the stories. The two are not in competition. Only the former is a way of life for thoughtful, self-respecting adults.


Alan M. Perlman is a secular humanist speaker and author — most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to

4 Responses to “An infinity of synapses: Music, God, and the brain”

  1. on 21 Dec 2007 at 10:17 pmJ Sveda

    Interesting. I have read somewhere that brain can even supply complete memories about something/someone we have never met - including that e.g. that someone was a classmate, favorite music, etc.

  2. on 22 Dec 2007 at 1:51 amAlan

    Yes… this is why so many criminal cases, especially involving children, are so difficult.

    Many people have trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. With the right encouragement, people, especially the naïve and gullible ones, can be led to believe almost anything is the truth. And one can definitely be convinced to have memories of events which never happened.



  3. on 22 Dec 2007 at 3:00 pmJ Sveda

    Yes, this definitely has implications to court trials. Witnesses for example - they are under oath and yet they can tell untruth without knowing that. Creepy…

  4. on 22 Dec 2007 at 10:43 pmAlan

    It is so easy to create the brain’s realities — that’s why so many people believe in religious fantasies and are willing to kill and die for them.



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