The Great Urban-Rural Divide and the Feudal Pyramid

“The Monday morning after the 2016 election, in a gas station in a logging town in north-west Wisconsin, I asked a group of retired and working men what they thought Trump would do to help them. Ron, a logger, replied: ‘Nothing. Nothing. We’re used to living in poverty, we’re used to it. It ain’t never going to change. How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.’”[1]

The problem is the Feudal Pyramid.

Seriously.

Rural has been on the bottom of the pyramid for a long, long time. The only way it will ever get out of the bottom is if urban sprawl overtakes and gentrifies it. And then where will it go?

The Feudal Pyramid had God at the top. Then came the king, the nobles, the knights, and finally the peasants. The peasants were farmers, sheep herders, shopkeepers, tradesmen, crafters, crofters—like they still are today. Rural. Country. People “used to living in poverty.”

Where did this system come from?

It came down from the top. From the people at the top of the pyramid. Of course that’s where it came from. Where else would it come from?

God at the top meant challenging the system was challenging God—not a good idea when the church stood ready to torture and burn people who did that. God is what philosophers call a “first cause”—the missing link when you’re trying to explain something by tracing it back through a cause and effect chain and get to the point where you can’t trace it back anymore. That’s when you put a “first cause” in place that gets the whole thing started. You know you’ve reached a first cause when you sound like a parent, “Because I said so, that’s why.”

Nothing caused God, God caused himself. God existed because… because he said so, that’s why. There’s no God exam he had to pass, no professional credentials he had to acquire or memberships he has to maintain, no ethical standard of conduct, no required professional education to stay current, no review board to call him to account. God isn’t accountable to anyone, for anything. He just sits up there on top—way on top—of the pyramid, doing whatever he wants, and everybody else just has to deal.

How would we ever know anything about this totally autonomous and authoritarian God who sits on top of the pyramid dictating everything and everybody all the time without being accountable to anybody or anything?

Because somebody higher on the pyramid told us.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

Rural people like God more than urban people. God in charge? Check. Right below God on the pyramid is God’s “Anointed,” whose job is… well, I’ve never been quite sure what his job is or when or how he gets appointed, which allows for all sorts of improvisation, but as far as I can tell the position can be filled by various people at various times. In Medieval times, they kept it simple:  God’s Anointed was the king.

The USA imported its law from England, where “crown immunity” declared that “the king can do no wrong.” Since God put the king in place, there was no higher human authority than the king. If he screwed up, God could always take him out, which theoretically would keep him under control, but to avoid any debate about whether the king was screwing up or not, crown immunity also declared that the king was endowed with God’s absolute perfection, so it was impossible for him to do wrong—in fact, he couldn’t even think about doing wrong.

Seriously. That was the law. The king wasn’t accountable to anybody—other than theoretically to God—because he could do no wrong. There was nothing to complain about. It was all good.

The New World colonists thought all that sounded like a plan, so they brought the legal concept with them. And when they got tired of the King of England doing no wrong they kept the legal concept of “crown immunity” but gave it the new name “sovereign immunity,” which meant that their newly anointed President (and people in certain other governmental positions) can do no wrong while they’re governing the people who are lower than them in the pyramid. And if their buddies get in trouble, there are also Presidential pardons to pass around.

Seriously. That’s what our law says. Nice to know our legal system is doing its part to keep the feudal pyramid intact.

I still remember learning about all that in law school. “Government has to be free to govern,” our law professor explained, “If you start holding government liable, nobody’s going to want the job.”

Oh well yes of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

God in place? Check. President and his buddies in place? Check. Next came the nobles and then the knights. The nobles were the capitalists and demagogues and one percenters of their day—the wealthy and powerful, elitist and entitled captains of land and industry who hung around the halls of power and fretted over whether they were extracting enough blood from turnips. The peasants grew the turnips. They were also treated like turnips when it came to blood-letting. The nobles funded the knights—the military-industrial complex of the day.

The nobles bitched about the king and his taxes, but not too loudly, and the knights could go rogue but their Code of Chivalry mostly kept them in line, so the whole thing went along mostly as planned—every level of the pyramid accountable to the one above and free to mess with the people below all they liked, and every lower level careful to give due respect and pay their duty to the level above.

Except for the peasants. Being a peasant was a one-way proposition. They owed a duty of servitude to everybody above them, but had no one to lord it over. All they could do was bully each other and complain about the people above—pointlessly, fruitlessly, vainly. Mostly, their duty was to suffer their solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives. Every now and then some idealist would lead an eventually brutally-crushed rebellion on their behalf, but mostly they carried on silently, sullenly, hopelessly… if they knew what was good for them.

That’s what it meant to be Rural. It still does.

“It ain’t never going to change.
How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”

It seems that civilization isn’t ready for the people on top governing for the general welfare that poly-sci idealists occasionally dream of. Doing that would make the people on top accountable to the people below.

Not going to happen.

We’re apparently okay with the feudal pyramid and crown and sovereign immunity because we need government and laws and institutions to keep life from being even more solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short than it already is. Which is why the guys (the Founding Fathers’ pronouns are definitely male) who talked about “live, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and wrote in the Preamble to the Constitution that one of its purposes of their new government was to promote the “general welfare” also declared that a slave counted as 60% of a person.

The Bible helpfully explains that God never meant for the pyramid to be necessary—what he wanted was a direct relationship with his people, but the ancient Israelites looked around at the kingdoms they were destroying and thought it would be good to have a king like them. The request made God mad and the people were clearly acting like the sinners they were, but God complied with the request, and since then we’ve had the pyramid.

So the pyramid is all our own fault. We asked for it. We wanted it this way.

And where do you suppose that explanation came from?

From somebody at the top of the pyramid. We’re definitely seeing a pattern here.

But like everything else, the pyramid has changed with the times. Now we have another reason to keep it around:  so we can climb it. Or more accurately, to keep the myth around that we can climb it.

Climbing the pyramid is one of the greatest frauds ever foisted on the human race—right in there with “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” As usual, the fraud lands hardest on the people that could most benefit it if were actually true.

The member of the month at the gym where I used to work out was a guy in his early 20’s. One of the “get to know me” questions asked “Who motivates you the most?” His answer: “My dad, who taught me that hard work can give you anything, as long as you can dedicate time and effort.”

The answer is predictably, utterly American. “Hard work can give you anything”—yes of course, everybody knows that. Parents tell it to their kids and the kids believe it. America is the Land of Opportunity; it gives you every chance for success, and now it’s up to you. “Anything you want” is yours for the taking – and if you don’t take it that’s your problem not America’s.

But don’t blame the Republicans, because they’re doing their best to banish government and its character-destroying handouts from our lives so the free market can make everything all better, which is why they voted in unison against the infrastructure bill and since then have been lining up for its evil socialist handouts.

A lot of those Republicans lining up are Rural. They just get smaller shares out in the hinterlands.

Back in the day they’d have a greased pole at the county fair. Guys (always guys) would try to climb it. Everybody would watch and laugh. That’s the myth of upward mobility in action. The pyramid doesn’t want to be climbed. Climb it, and you bring it down, expose it for the system of servitude it is. The pyramid says hey don’t blame the rich if you’re not rich. I mean, give ‘em a break—they’re up there making you work your butt off so they can get rich enough for their riches to trickle (trickle, not flow) down to you. If the people on top help the people below they’ll get lazy, the nobles won’t get rich anymore and then where would we all be?

And Rural is okay with it. Rural loves the Republicans, loves capitalism, “free” enterprise, the “free” market, everything “free.” Rural don’t need no stinking handouts. Rural is content to wait around for the trickle that never comes down.

Go away. Just go away. Leave us alone. We can take care of ourselves out here. That’s what we’ve always done while you townies namby-pamby around. Nothing’s going to change anyway. Thus our hyper-inequitable hyper-privatized hyper-monetized hyper-capitalism keeps Rural in its place. That’s how the pyramid works. All that onward and upward isn’t true, and we know it. Rural people work really, really hard and still don’t get what they want. It’s part of the deal, down at the bottom. Like the man said:

“It ain’t never going to change.
How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”

Of course, plenty of Urban people are also game to tackle the greased pole. Why? Why do we keep saying and believing something that isn’t true? Because to do otherwise would be un-American. This is where Rural steps up again. Rural is where the Real Patriots are. Patriotism elevates the boast:  America doesn’t just offer opportunity, it gives everybody equal opportunity—just like Teddy Roosevelt said:

“I know perfectly well that men in a race run at unequal rates of speed. I don’t want the prize given to the man who is not fast enough to win it on his merits, but I want them to start fair.”

Equal opportunity means everybody starts together. No, not everybody wins, but still… no matter who you are or where you’re from, everybody has the same odds. None of that feudal pyramid class system here.

Fair. Free. Every man for himself. That’s Rural.

Except equal opportunity is not true either, and we know that, too. And it’s especially not true in Rural.But that’s another self-evident truth that’s been grooved into our American neural circuits since the beginning:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the .pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”[2]

We’re all equals here in America, divinely ordained to pursue the good life. That’s our creed, and we – “the governed” — declare that we believe it.

Even if it’s not true.

And one place it’s especially not true is—you guessed it—Rural America. But Rural doesn’t care, because equal opportunity is a foundational American cultural belief. Cultural myths are sacred – they’re afforded a special status that makes them off limits to examination. And national Founding Myths get the highest hands-off status there is—especially in Rural, where they’re especially not true. History and hindsight have a way of eventually outing cultural myths, but in the meantime the fraud is perpetrated, and attempts to expose it are shunned and punished as disloyal, unpatriotic, treasonous.

Welcome to Rural, where American myths are sacred. You don’t mess with American myths out here, even if they’re killing you.

If we can’t out the myth, what do we do instead? We blame ourselves. We confess that we weren’t smart enough, didn’t work hard enough, didn’t “dedicate the time and effort.” Or maybe we did all that but in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, frustration, depression… we take them all on as personal failings, in the name of preserving the myth. God helps a lot with all of that—reminding Rural people every week that they are, after all, a bunch of sinners.

Ironically the ones who see through it are—you guessed it—the people at the top who got in before they closed the gates behind themselves.  Meanwhile, the people below—the decimated middle class, the new poor, the working poor… keep blaming themselves.

“I can’t pay my bills, afford a house, a car, a family. I can’t afford healthcare, I have no savings. Retirement is a joke. I don’t know how I’ll ever pay off my student loans. I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m poor. But it’s not my fault.”

Try saying that to Dad at the dinner table.

Horatio Alger is dead, but the equal opportunity myth stays alive on life support as American parents teach it to our children and elect politicians who perpetuate it, while all of us ignore the data that no, it really doesn’t work. Maybe 150 years ago when Horatio Alger was around. But now? No, not now.

“It ain’t never going to change.
How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”

There’s no more enduring version of the American upward mobility myth than the rags-to-riches story codified into the American Dream by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the Gilded Age of Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the 19th Century Robber Barons. If they can do it, so can the rest of us, given enough vision, determination, hard work, and moral virtue — that was Alger’s message.

Except it never worked that way, especially for the Robber Barons. There’s a reason they were called “Robber Barons.” They were ruthless opportunists aided by collusion and cronyism carried out in the absence of the antitrust and securities laws that would be enacted under the New Deal after history revealed the fraud.[3] But never mind that — according to Roughrider Teddy and politicians like him, government’s job is to guarantee equal opportunity for all, then get out of the way and let the race to riches begin.

There’s just one problem:  Horatio Alger told an urban story—you didn’t go from rags to riches by staying down on the farm.

Oops.

Still, every Rural high school is haunted by the local boy makes good story (usually male pronoun, although these days it’s usually a local girl who makes good). The local boy/girl is an underdog, and everybody loves an underdog—loves the upset, the incredible comeback, loves it when there’s no way but then all of a sudden the bigger, stronger, tougher, richer, better equipped opponent gets a comeuppance. The Rebel Alliance, La Résistance, the Miracle on Ice, David vs. Goliath—too many examples to list—we love them all.

The underdog story is about the reversal of power. The underdog tips over the pyramid. The peasants rise up, storm the gates. It’s not just that the weak win, it’s that the weak win over the strong. The pecking order is reversed. There’s always somebody with more brass, more money, more creds, more of whatever it takes to put us down and keep us there. In school it’s the principal. At work it’s the boss. In life, it’s death. But not this time. This time we win.

Underdogs and Horatio Alger and local kid makes good are the best kind of heroes. Their kind of heroism gives our lives meaning and purpose, sends us on quests and missions, makes us something other than the small, confused, barely getting by people living in a big confusing scary world that we really are. Heroism makes us suddenly bigger, better, grander, nobler, transcendent, immortal—the stuff of legends. Heroism makes us live forever.

Except heroism is Urban, too, and in its heart Rural knows it. Urban is where heroism gets funding. The only heroism funding out in Rural comes from government handouts, which we God-fearing Republicans know are evil.

So don’t get uppity. Who do you think you are? The people on top don’t owe you anything.

And don’t you have some work to do?


[1] The great American fallout: how small towns came to resent cities | Cities | The Guardian

[2] The Declaration of Independence.

[3] A great source for all the American history we never learned is Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017).

Why Faith Endures

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62 NIV

I once told a leader of our campus Christian fellowship about doubts prompted by my religion major classes. “Get your Bible and read Luke 9: 62,” he said. I did, and can still see the hardness on his face when I looked up. Religions venerate those who long endure, honoring their moral steadfastness. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter.

Scarlet letterReligions punish doubt and dissidence through peer pressure, public censure, witch hunts, inquisitions, executions, jihads, war, genocide…. The year before, the dining halls had flown into an uproar the day the college newspaper reported that the fellowship had expelled a member for sleeping with her boyfriend.

Religions also have a curious way of tolerating their leaders’ nonconforming behavior — even as the leaders cry witch hunt.[1]

These things happen in all cultural institutions, not just religion. Neuroculture offers an explanation for all of them that emphasizes group dynamics over individual integrity. It goes like this:

  • When enough people believe something, a culture with a shared belief system emerges.
  • Individual doubt about the culture’s belief system introduces “cognitive dissonance” that makes individuals uneasy and threatens cultural cohesiveness.
  • Cohesiveness is essential to the group’s survival — doubt and nonconformity can’t be tolerated.
  • The culture therefore sanctifies belief and stifles doubt.
  • The culture sometimes bends its own rules to preserve its leadership power structure against larger threats.

This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017) illustrates this process:

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017) explains why the process seems so perfectly reasonable:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”

What does it take for individual dissent or cultural change to prevail in the face of these powerful dynamics? We’ll look at that next time.

[1]  This “bigger bully” theory was remarkably evident when Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, said evangelicals “kind of gave [Donald Trump] a mulligan” over Stormy Daniels, saying that evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that’s willing to punch the bully.”

“The Opium of the People”: Sex, Drugs, Rock n Roll, Gambling, and … Religion

dice

Religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. What happens next might surprise you.

Last time, we heard from Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, who says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“[N]eurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, another pioneer of “neurotheology.” agrees that the religion-brain link promotes social cohesiveness and morality.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’ says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discusson.'”

The Apostle Paul, whose pre-conversion theological training was ultra-legalistic, likened law-based belief to being under the care of a guardian:  we need something to keep us in line until we grow up enough to embrace responsibility along with freedom. Paul’s Letter to the Galations 3:22-24. Until we make that shift, the brain’s religious wiring is equally adept at promoting individual and communal health as their opposites. Dr. Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist that reflect the implications of this neurological indifference:

  • Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety, but just 12 minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
  • Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
  • Fundamentalism, in and of itself, is benign and can be personally beneficial, but the anger and prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.
  • Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain—altering your values and the way you perceive reality.

In fact, the brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning”

“What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

These findings suggest a fascinating explanation for a wide range of religious behaviors — everything from charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and “fellowship” dynamics on one end to clergy sexual crimes and misconduct, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other. Shocking as it may seem, the whole spectrum qualifies for the brain’s addictive feel-good list, along with sex, drugs, music, and gambling.

More from neurotheology next time.

Why Belief Works

Our experience of the “real world” will conform to what we believe. It has to, because our brains insist upon it.

They do that in part through neuro-cultural conditioning — the process by which the neurological wiring of a culture’s individual members is patterned after the culture’s belief system, and vice versa. This is the case with any kind of cultural institution, whether national, religious, scientific, economic, corporate, professional, team, tribal, or otherwise.[1] This post looks at religion as an example.[2]

Tim Crane is a professor of philosophy at the Central European University in Budapest. “I work in the philosophy of mind,” his online CV says, “I have attempted to address questions about the most general nature, or essence, of the human mind, and about the place of the mind in the rest of nature.” In his book The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), he cites William James’ 1902 classic The Varieties of Religious Experience for a definition of what he calls “the religious impulse”:

“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms, one might say that it consists in the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

Christian Smith is a sociology professor and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Here’s his definition of religion:

“Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on promises about the existence and nature of supernatural powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align themselves with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.”

Religion: What It Is, How It Works, And Why It Matters (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Both authors stress that religious principles and practices need to match in order for religion to be effective. In other words:

“Faith without works is dead.”
The Epistle of James 2: 17

As it turns out, “faith without works is dead” is not just scripture, but accurate neuroscience as well. When we practice what we preach, we set up a self-sustaining loop in which belief drives thoughts and behavior, which in turn reinforce belief. In that way, religion develops the brain while the brain develops religion:

“Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined.’”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

The more widespread and enduring the religious practice, the more the religion develops scriptures, rituals, icons, and institutions to sustain itself. Therefore a Bible passage such as this…

“I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
 or their children begging bread.”
Psalm 37: 25 NIV

… becomes both community truth and the “testimony” of individual adherents. But what happens when belief and experience don’t align — e.g., when a member of the congregation and her children in fact go begging?

Some religious thinkers, like the writer of this Huffington Post article, reckon with the contradiction by distinguishing belief from faith. Beliefs are products of the mind, she says, and deal with what can be known, while faith is a product of the spirit, which traffics in what cannot be known. Since knowledge is always shifting, belief can and probably will let us down, while faith in what can’t be known remains inscrutable. Faith therefore invites belief to step aside in favor of “trusting beyond all reason and evidence.”

That outlook captures the essential center of the definitions of religion we saw above:  that there is a “divine order” populated with “supernatural powers” that exists alongside but separate from ours. (Of which we have only limited understanding, the belief/faith outlook would add.)  Whether this satisfies the brain’s need to align internal patterning with external experience is the kind of issue being taken up by the new discipline of neurotheology which looks at where religion happens in the brain.

Neurotheology’s inquiries have far-reaching implications for many of our common assumptions about how reality is structured. For example, if faith can be explained in neurological terms, then it could be located — in whole or in part — along with belief on this side of the theoretical divide between human and supernatural existence.  This shift would likely have a ripple effect on similar dichotomies, such as known vs. unknown, real vs. imaginary, objective vs. subjective, observed vs. inscrutable, temporal vs. transcendence, etc.

More on neurotheology coming up.

[1] For more on cultural patterning, see the other posts in this blog’s category The Basics of Belief. Culture, and Reality.

[2] I talk about Christianity because it is the only religion I have personal experience with. And I am aware, by the way, that I write this post under the influence of my own neuroscientific cultural bias.

It’s An Inside Job

In Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, Yale Medical School professor of psychiatry Bruce E. Wexler declared that “concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” “Concordance” is peace of mind, which we all know is an inside job.

peace of mind

But the concordance Wexler is talking about is not the kind reserved for the enlightened few, it’s the kind that’s a brain health necessity. Our brains work unceasingly to maintain harmony between us and our surroundings, including our cultural setting. When internal and external are out of sync, the result is cognitive dissonance which, when left unresolved, leads to physical, mental, and social disease, distress and disorder. Neurological concordance is therefore a surviving and thriving skill, and can be traced to the corresponding part of the brain:

“Thanks to advances in imaging methods, especially functional MRI, researchers have recently identified key brain regions linked to cognitive dissonance. The area implicated most consistently is the posterior part of the medial frontal cortex (pMFC), known to play an important role in avoiding aversive outcomes, a powerful built-in survival instinct. In fMRI studies, when subjects lie to a peer despite knowing that lying is wrong—a task that puts their actions and beliefs in conflict—the pMFC lights up.”[1]

cognitive dissonance

The straightest  path to concordance is conformity. Nonconformity, on the other hand, generates both intracultural and intercultural neurological conflict. [2] This potential for conflict was the context for Wexler’s peace of mind declaration — let’s hear it again, the full quote this time:

“This book argues that differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” (Emphasis added.)

Peace of mind therefore requires the alignment of inner and outer belief systems. This article[3] defines the term:

“Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually ‘make sense’ of the world around us.

 “The species Homo sapiens developed so-called belief systems. These are sets of beliefs reinforced by culture, theology, and experience and training as to how the world works cultural values, stereotypes, political viewpoints, etc.”

In order for personal (internal) and shared (external) belief systems to align, the culture’s members must share comparable neural pathways, consciousness, perceptions, sensory tastes, physiology, and the like.[4] When they do, the culture becomes recognizable in its members. Think of the Olympics’ opening ceremony parade of athletes:  the Yanks are obviously the Yanks — nobody else has quite their swashbuckling sense of derring-do. Or think of professional cultures — lawyers, accountants, engineers, physicians — meet one, and you can just tell. Or remember what it’s like to visit a foreign culture — it’s not just the signage but it’s… well, everything —  how people look, sound, act, their customs and values….

All of that is the result of biological, chemical, environmental, and other influences, all stored in individual brains and bodies. But how is cultural patterning transmitted from one individual to another? John R. Searle, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, wanted to know, and finding out led to his seminal book The Construction of Social Reality:

“This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time:  there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking about things like money, property, governments, and marriage.

“If everybody thinks that this sort of thing is money, and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling, political offices, and so on.”

“How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?”

This article[5] provides this summary answer to Searle’s questions:

“Because mental states cannot be transferred physically, they must be transferred by being re-created in the mind of the receiving individual.

“[W]hat is transmitted is some state of mind that produces behavior.

“[The transmitted state of mind includes] a myriad of… beliefs, values, desires, definitions, attitudes, and emotional states such as fear, regret, or pride.”

Vastly simplified, the process of enculturation looks like this:

  • New members enter via an entry point such as birth, naturalization, initiation, etc.
  • They observe the culture’s members thinking and behaving in the culture’s characteristic ways.
  • Through observation and imitation, they take on the culture’s mindset and become habituated into its belief and behavioral norms.
  • In time, they become recognizable as members of the culture along with its other members.
  • Then, an organizing principle called “emergence” asserts itself, so that the whole culture takes on a life of its own that is bigger than the sum of its individual members.

We’ll talk about emergence next time.

[1] “What Happens to the Brain During Cognitive Dissonance?” Scientific American Mind (Nov. 2015).

[2] There’s been a lot of research on conformity and nonconformity in the past ten years. If you’re interested in digging deeper, searching “neuroscience of conformity” and “neuroscience of nonconformity” will turn up several scholarly studies.

[3] “What Are Belief Systems?” Usó-Doménech and J. Nescolarde-Selva, Department of Applied Mathematics. University of Alicante. Alicante. Spain.

[4] See the prior post, Microbes of Meaning.

[5]Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture”, Philip G. Chase, former Senior Research Scientist and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania,

“Be the Change You Want to See” — Why Change MUST Always Begin With Us

the-beginning-e1503252471356

In the beginning, somebody…

Told a story. Made something. Made something that made things. Drew a picture. Used their voice melodiously. Moved a certain way and did it again. Took something apart, put it back together, and built another thing like it. Watched how weather and sky and flora and fauna responded to the passage of time. Sprinkled dry leaves on meat and ate it. Drew a line in the sand and beat someone who crossed it. Traded this for that. Resolved a dispute. Helped a sick person feel better. Took something shiny from the earth or sea and wore it. Had an uncanny experience and explained it.

And then somebody else did, too — and then somebody else after that, and more somebodies after that, until the human race had organized itself into families, clans, tribes, city-states, and nations, each with its own take on life in this world. Millennia later a worldwide civilization had emerged, organized around trans-cultural institutions of law, economics, science, religion, industry, commerce, education, medicine, arts and entertainment….

And then you and I were born as new members of a highly-evolved human culture of innumerable, impossibly complex, interwoven layers.

From our first breaths we were integrated into site-specific cultural institutions that informed our beliefs about how the world works and our place in it. Those institutions weren’t external to us, they were embodied in us — microbes of meaning lodged in our neural pathways and physical biome. Our brains formed around the beliefs of our culture — our neurons drank them in, and our neural networks were wired up with the necessary assumptions, logic, and leaps of faith.

These cellular structure informed what it meant for us to be alive on the Earth, individually and in community. They shaped our observations and awareness, experiences and interpretations, tastes and sensibilities. They defined what is real and imaginary, set limits around what is true and false, acceptable and taboo. And then they reinforced the rightness of it all with feelings of place and belonging, usefulness and meaning. When that was done, our brains and bodies were overlaid with a foundation for status quo — the way things are, and are supposed to be.

All that happened in an astonishing surge of childhood development. Then came puberty, when our brain and body hormones blasted into overdrive, dredging up our genetic and environmental beginnings and parading them out for reexamination. We kept this and discarded that, activated these genes instead of those. (The process by which we do that is called epigenetics, and it explains why your kids aren’t like you.) We also tried on countercultural beliefs. welcoming some and rejecting others. From there, we entered adult life freshly realigned with a differentiated sense of self, us, and them.

From there, adult life mostly reinforces our cultural beginnings, although the nuisances and opportunities of change periodically require us to make and reaffirm shared agreements in our communities, professions, workplaces, teams, and other groups, each time reaffirming and refining our shared cultural foundations. In doing so, we sometimes flow with the changing times, and sometimes retrench with nostalgic fervor.

Where does all this biological, cognitive, and social development and maintenance happen? In the only place it possibly could:  in the hot wet darkness inside the human body’s largest organ —   our skin. Yes, there is a “real world” out there that we engage with, but the processing and storing of experience happen inside — encoded in our brains and bodies.

be the changeWhich is why individual and cultural change must always begin with us — literally inside of us, in our physical makeup — because that’s where our world and our experience of it are registered and maintained. Gandhi’s famous words are more than a catchy meme, they describe basic human reality:  if we want things to change, then we must be transformed. Think about it:  we have no belief, perception, experience, or concept of status quo that is not somehow registered in our brains and bodies, so where else could change happen? (Unless there’s something like a humanCloud where it can be uploaded and downloaded — but that’s another issue for another time.)

The implications of locating human experience in our physical selves are far-reaching and fascinating. We’ll be exploring them.

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