Freethinking in the Words of Matthew Alper

By Michel-Camille Bordeau

If you ever wonder what’s the future of freethinking and who’s leading the charge; if you are curious to know what Freethinkers of today are doing to ensure that tomorrow’s secular world is on the right path; if you want to know what’s good to (free) think about these days; or, if you simply want to read a mind-bending interview, tune in to Religion Nerd for my series, Freethinking Tomorrow: In the Words of Today’s Freethinkers.

If, like yours truly, you’ve been closely following the new wave of freethinkers, if you’ve helped Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and many others become bestselling authors, you might remember Matthew Alper, author of The ‘God’ Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God. You might even recall the original cover of the 1996 self-published edition of his seminal work. 

Indeed, there were 50,000 of us who became fans long before The “God” Part of the Brain was bought by Sourcebooks and repackaged in 2008.  And, to think of it, long before the aforementioned became household names.

Although The “God” Part of the Brain continues to pad Sourcebooks’ pocketbook; although it has been adopted by about 50 college professors; and, although, fifteen years after the initial release, Matthew Alper still receives hundreds of e-mails from students and professors worldwide, I still think it should get more attention. It should get Religion Nerd’s reader’s attention. Here’s why.

First, Matthew Alper is one of the first thinkers, if not the first thinker, to successfully demonstrate that human spirituality and our longing for a transcendental being might have a bio-psychological root.  Second, he is responsible for the now fast growing field of bio-theology (aka, neuro-theology).  And, last but not least, The ‘God’ Part of the Brain is a remarkably easy read, considering the complexity of the concepts Alper introduces.  In short, below is my interview with Matthew Alper, a true pioneer.

MCB: Why is ‘God’ in quotation marks in your title? Is God always in quotation marks for Matthew Alper?

MA: I put God in quotation marks in my book’s title for the simple reason that I don’t believe in one [God]and wanted that to come through lest people think I was writing a book which suggested that the actual spirit of God somehow resides in our heads as many probably do believe.  According to Wikipedia, the use of quotation marks to denote sarcasm is referred to as irony punctuation so this was my intention.

MCB: Why did you relegate the mind-bending concepts of religious and spiritual impulses to a footnote?

MA: My book is so packed with mind-bending concepts that sometimes I ran out of room and had to cram some concepts, as they occurred to me, into footnotes to avoid shifting all of the page/chapter settings, which, frankly, would have been a pain in the ass.

MCB: And what do you say to people who argue that the spiritual/religious dichotomy is a contemporary and fallacious invention?

MA: Every culture from the dawn of our species–no matter how isolated–has believed in some form of a spiritual reality.  I therefore hypothesize that this would suggest that humans, as a species, are genetically predisposed–that is “hard-wired”–to believe in some form of a transcendental reality.  This is further supported by an accumulation of genetic, anthropological, biological, and ethno-botanical evidence.  Thus, one of the main premises of my book is that humans are genetically engineered with a dualistic perception of reality which compels the majority of our species to believe in some form of a spiritual reality.  It is neither a social or historical construct but rather a biological one.  The function of this cognitive adaptation is to enable our species to survive our unique and otherwise debilitating awareness of death.  Of course, each individual belief system, that is religion, is constructed by individual cultures, but the initial predisposition to have faith in a spiritual realm comes from the mechanics of our neurophysiology–what I informally refer to as our “God” part of the brain.

MCB: Which concepts in The “God” Part of the Brain show your greatest strength as a thinker?

MA: Without reiterating the entirety of those concepts I think are most original to my work and which highlight my strengths as a thinker, I will simply list seven of them as something of a teaser.

  1. That humans are genetically predisposed to a dualistic interpretation of reality. 
  2. My theory that it was the advent of self-conscious awareness, which, though it made us the most powerful species on earth, also made us the first animal to be aware of our own mortality. It was this debilitating anxiety of inevitable death that I suggest prompted the evolution of a cognitive adaptation that helped allay our fear of death by compelling us to believe in an alternate, transcendental realm through which our “souls” or “spirits” would persevere for all eternity.
  3. My theory regarding the nature of our view of infinity as nothing more than a cognitive construct.
  4. How in our original state–as Paleolithic nomads–the religious function was essential but then became maladaptive as we became a global animal.
  5. The biologizing of our concepts of good and evil via my theories regarding the evolution of moral reasoning.
  6. A biological explanation of atheism and the introduction of the new field of “Bio-Theology” and “Bio-History.”
  7. A neurophysiological interpretation of near-death experiences, speaking in tongues, transcendent states and religious conversion.

MCB: The God Part is as relevant today as it was when it was first published. What do you have to say to your new readers that you didn’t have a chance to say in 1996? 

MA: I’d say to them, “Why didn’t you listen to me in 1996 when I first discussed these ideas? What the hell were you doing then that was so important? And now you want me to repeat myself?” ;-)

MCB: In the 2008 edition of The “God” Part of the Brain you first introduce the concept of bio-history and illustrate your point by discussing what has motivated people to immigrate to the US.  How can bio-history help readers better conceptualize (their) cultural heritage?  Can it help them understand why religion plays such an important role in American life?

MA: Regarding the premise of bio-history, without reiterating the entire chapter, suffice to say that, what I wanted to introduce as a concept was that just as particular physical traits can be passed along with the migration of a particular gene pool via the phenomenon known as genetic drift (as was true, for instance, of those physical traits associated with the Native Americans whose Asian ancestors crossed the Bering Strait), the same holds true for cognitive traits which can also be transferred by the migrations of certain gene pools. 

MCB: You have a fascinating chapter entitled ‘Why are there Atheists?’ I’m sure Religion Nerd readers would like to know why you think there are people like us? 

MA: In that chapter, I offer the first proactive take on an atheistic philosophy i.e., as most atheistic ideologies are based in the mere denial of God’s existence, I would like to stress that no philosophy can be justifiably upheld without possessing some underlying logic through which to substantiate its basic principles. Without such a logic, what is referred to as a philosophy is really nothing more than just another groundless belief system, founded in emotion rather than reason. As I see it, this is the essential problem faced by today’s atheist movement. Rather than possessing an inherent wisdom of its own, the atheist movement relies on the logical shortcomings of those faiths it seeks to contest. And though it’s true that no religion has ever been able to defend its precepts with reason, no legitimate philosophy can stand on gainsay alone. The contradicting of one belief system does not validate the tenets of another. Establishing that something is not white, for instance, does not necessitate its being black.  Analogously, finding fault in the convictions of every world religion does not constitute proof that there is no God.  Consequently, if we are ever to advance a viable atheism, it must possess its own rationale, its own logical foundation, something I believe this new science of Bio-theology finally provides.

When I re-read The ‘God’ Part of the Brain to prepare this interview, I was most impressed by the maturity and freshness of Matthew’s incredible effort—I like to think we are on a first name basis.  Reading The ‘God’ Part of the Brain today, reading it along the works of Harris, Dawkins, and Bennett, reminded me that I/we have a lot more to learn from it.

For more information on Matthew Alper and his book, The ‘God’ Part of the Brain, visit his website at http://www.godpart.com/

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About Michel-Camille Bordeau

Michel-Camille Bordeau is the founder and author of The School of Seshata (www.scriptotheism.net), a blog about secular spirituality and the home of the Scriptopedia Project. Michel earned an M.A. in French Studies from The Ohio State University (1998).  Mid-life crisis oblige, he is returning to college in August 2011, to pursue an M.S.W. with a specialization in Mental Health & Drugs of Abuse.

Before relocating to Atlanta, Michel was an Academic Advisor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor campus, for nearly ten years. He has advised many students (and parents) on academic and life matters. He taught English, Public Speaking, Humanities, and French at various colleges and universities. In 2002, Michel published Poire Sucrée, Salée, Epicée, a short novel about a dance teacher forced to face the demons of her past. He is currently seeking representation for Seeing Purple, a dystopian novel set in Anaïs Abelard’s hometown, the New Orleans of tomorrow, also home to the power-hungry mega church known as the Calvinistry. Michel considers himself an amateur ‘atheologist’ and he often writes under the nom de plume Anais Abelard.

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  1. Kenny Smith says:

    This is a very nice review, as it gets fairly quickly and concisely to the most interesting elements of Alper’s argument. In fact, it’s convinced me to read Alper. Well done, I would say.

  2. Thanks for your comment Kenny. Alper is quite unique in the New Atheist Movement. His book was and is still very mature, adressing so many topics that have yet to be fully explored. Unfortunately, he’s not an academics and doesn’t get the publicity he deserves. I will utilize a lot of his genuis ideas in my upcoming book.

    I know you’d love the section about bio-history/how and why America has become the most religious of the developed country. A great way to start a seminar on New Religious Movements.

  3. Rich says:

    As a lifelong mainstream Christian, this book: “God” parts
    of the brain, was both painful and enlightening. I opened
    the pages with an open mind, and must suggest that the old
    traditional Christians should do themselves a favor and
    try to read this book. Even with an open mind I am troubled by the concept of Athiesm. I believe your many
    comments on physiological hard wiring argues against it.
    Rich