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The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones: exclusive extract

Friday 14 June 2013

In his new book, Steve Jones puts the Bible under the scientific microscope. Here he asks whether religious transcendence might have a biological cause.

By Steve Jones
7:00AM BST 22 Apr 2013

In 1962, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School tried to find the roots of religious mystical experience. In the Marsh Chapel, just before the Good Friday service, he divided a group of students into two. Half drank a shot of vitamin B3 and the rest swallowed psilocybin – the drug found in magic mushrooms. The Marsh Chapel event changed lives. Many of those who had taken the drug said their moral insights had been transformed. Almost all felt a new sense of unity, transcendence and sacredness – each an attribute associated with the deepest consolations of prayer.

Devotees insist that when they put their trust in a higher power they ascend into a universe of thought denied to sceptics. They may be right; but similar sensations can emerge from physical changes in body and brain.

The philosopher William James, a committed Christian, dismissed all attempts to understand mystical insights with an appeal to pathology. “Medical materialism”, as he called it, was trivial: it “finishes up St Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out St Teresa as an hysteric, St Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate.” Biology was not the right tool with which to explore devotion.

Despite James’s dismissal of a physical basis for spiritual experience, he had himself experimented with the effects of chemistry on the mental universe. James sampled nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas”, and found it had a dramatic effect: “The keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination. Truth lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding evidence.” Like the students in the March Chapel, he wrote of the event as the strongest emotion he had ever had.

Science, in its banal fashion, makes it possible to study the mind in ways impossible in the days of James. The visions of saints, sinners, dreamers, drug users or anyone else can now be explored with technology. To do so may not give much insight into piety itself, but hints that at least some of its symptoms are side effects of the machinery of the nervous system. People are free to follow the voices in their heads, but they should realise that (as far as biology can tell) they have a material origin.

Some scientists suggest that the entire structure of conviction – from the visitations of spirits to the hope of the afterlife, and from the architecture of the Vatican to the music of Bach – emerges from artefacts of perception. The divine mysteries are no more than a sort of phosphorescence of the brain: an incidental of its normal (or abnormal) function. That organ – like all others – cannot always cope with what existence throws at it. Its mistakes and failures manifest themselves in many ways. Some are interpreted as illusions, others as psychiatric disorders, but yet others as messages from a higher plane.

Many people – atheists and believers alike – are indignant at the claim that their convictions are quirks of the nervous system. It is almost impossible to prove or disprove that idea. Even so, hallucination and even mental disorder do play a part in the histories of all creeds and to understand them might hint at what some of the varieties of religious experience may actually be.

As conjurors know, the brain is always ready to fool itself, often in remarkable ways. Someone who has lost a hand may be tormented by a “phantom limb”. Their nervous system refuses to accept that the structure has gone and interprets it as present, but stuck in a cramped position. Non-existent fingers dig into an imagined palm and patients face intense discomfort as they try, and fail, to unclench their fictional fist. Their distress is genuine. It shows that pain, like many other messages from the external world, is not always a true statement of reality. A simple optical trick works miracles. The patient hides his stump (which might be on the left) behind a mirror set at right angles in front of him. He looks into it and shifts the image of his clenched right hand until it appears to replace its absent partner. Then he commands both fists to open. His real hand obeys at once. The image in the mirror appears to do the same and the pain from the absent hand goes away.

Sceptics often use such observations to mock what they see as the delusion that human actions are subject to the influence of a higher power. They boast that they at least act in a manner determined by their own free will. Their decisions – be they to make a cup of tea or to blaspheme against the Holy Ghost – are proudly made of their own volition. Such people deny the existence of an unconscious world. But brain science should give them, as much as their opponents, pause for thought.

Nobody chooses to breathe in and out, and nobody, sovereign as they might feel, can hold their breath for 15 minutes. The nervous system overrules their wishes and they are forced to gasp for breath. In fact, all actions, apparently voluntary or not, are preceded by brain activity outside the perception of those who make them. It then becomes almost impossible to separate the conscious from the unconscious mind, or to disconnect the inner senses from the apparent intervention of an external agent.

Students wired up to a scanner were asked to sit in front of a clock and, whenever they felt like it, flick up their hands and note the exact time they decided to do so. Easy enough, but about a second before they recorded each decision, a section of their grey matter had already burst into activity; the resolution to act had been made before the actor was aware of it.

The opera director, doctor, and fervent antimonarchist Jonathan Miller tells of an occasion when, looking down his large and republican nose at an enthusiastic crowd as the Queen drove by, he found that his own hand had decided to wave to the royal personage, against orders from Central Command to stop. This “anarchic hand syndrome” is reflected in Dr Strangelove, and for some unfortunates the errant appendage steals food from a neighbour’s plate or even tries to strangle its owner.

Deep mental absorption can persuade the brain that an inner thought has an outer source. Priests of many religions spend solitary hours in darkness or silence. Such experiences may activate the pineal gland at the base of the brain. Descartes believed that to be the seat of the soul. Be that as it may, the structure is the source of melatonin, a chemical concerned with sleep and wakefulness. Those who meditate may have more of it than others, with a shift in mental condition.

The deep breaths of Eastern mystics (and of church choristers) purge the blood of carbon dioxide, make it more alkaline, and fool the nervous system that oxygen is available even as the vital gas runs short. Some of the techniques used are arduous. I once visited an encampment of German Hobby Indians in which young men, dedicated followers of what they saw as the pure life of Native Americans, danced in grim silence for hours until they collapsed into a trance. As the brain gasps for oxygen, the limbs tingle, the head spins and, now and again, the mystic finds a moment of ecstasy.

That state can be reached with less effort through chemistry. Narcotics and the supernatural have long gone together. An 8,000-year-old cave painting from Algeria shows a priest about to eat a mushroom, the Scythians used cannabis to make contact with the hereafter, and ambrosia – the sacred drink of the pre-Hellenic tribes of Greece – was, Robert Graves suggested, a distillation of psilocybin-filled fungi. Siberians were said to drink reindeer urine to sample the same stuff, for it became concentrated there because of the animals’ taste for fly agaric. Even in biblical lands, chalices found at Philistine sites include remains of a hallucinogen, perhaps nutmeg imported from India.

My own limited exposure to the peyote cactus, a source of mescaline (related to the chemical used in the Marsh Chapel), also involved nothing more meaningful than some colourful illusions, a slight queasiness and the sense that the whole event had gone on for too long. That prosaic response was not improved by the babble of Colorado hippies in our geodesic dome who were having a better time on highways of the supernatural than was I. There was no oceanic boundlessness, no sign of sanguinary streets. Inborn cynicism, a biological inability to bow to the drug, or a simple failure to enter a cultural milieu alien to a scientist – even one as callow as my younger self – were all no doubt to blame. Whatever the reason, my reaction was far less dramatic than those of people primed to expect a mystical insight.

Medieval cathedrals, with their shady cloisters matched with a blaze of stained glass, move from gloom into glorious colour with the priest elevated above his congregation. Seville Cathedral – once a mosque – was for a time the largest such structure in the world. Those who planned it declared: “Let there be a church so beautiful and so great that those who see it built will think we were mad.”

Much as I appreciate ecclesiastical architecture when it comes to their spiritual, rather than their physical, power, I have a blind spot. Brain science sheds little light on why I am denied an experience so central to the lives of others; and its failure reminds us how little success technology has had in understanding the workings of the inner angel that lives within every nervous system.

*This is an edited extract from The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold as Science (Little, Brown, £25). Steve Jones introduces the book in the video below.

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