"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
How do you solve a problem like Maria? (Not the singing, the God thing.) Here’s an idea Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t think of: You could wave a hot poker around in her temporal lobe. That, at least, is one inference to be drawn from Matthew Alper’s lively manifesto regarding the biological basis of religious experience, “The God Part of the Brain.”
As V.S. Ramachandran explained in his 1998 book “Phantoms in the Brain,” patients with temporal lobe epilepsy may experience a variety of symptoms that include an obsessive preoccupation with religion and the intensified and narrowed emotional responses that are characteristic of mystical experience. (St. Teresa of Avila, Dostoevski, van Gogh and St. Paul are believed by some historians and scientists to have suffered from the affliction.) Observing these symptoms, scientists have established that some circuits in the temporal lobe are involved in religious experience.
For now, that’s about as specific as neurologists can get regarding the biological basis of religion. No one can say whether these circuits have evolved primarily to evoke religious experience. No one can say whether religious impulses originate in some other part of the brain and then make their way to the temporal lobe. No one can solve the chicken-and-egg question of whether religious experience strengthens these circuits, or neural activity makes mystical vision possible. And no one can say whether or how the neurological activity associated with mystical experience is related to the everyday, earthbound experience of religious devotion.
For evolutionary biologists such as E.O. Wilson, however, the mere fact that “the emotions that accompany religious ecstasy clearly have a neurobiological source” helps to confirm that “much if not all religious behavior could have arisen from evolution by natural selection.” These observations come from 1998′s “Consilience,” which includes a brief discussion of religious experience in terms of evolutionary biology. For the discipline’s specific application to the matter at hand, however, I’ve seen nothing that matches the fury of “The God Part of the Brain,” which perhaps explains why it’s earned something of a cult following.
To be clear from the get-go: This book is a screed, full of bad writing, sloppy thinking and slipshod research. Yet some passages make for compelling reading, yielding the kind of pleasures often found in outsider art. Alper’s book is powerful not because of its truth, but because of its scope and ambition — which rival that of “Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly,” the massive altar, made of aluminum foil, light bulbs, pins and bottle caps and telling the story of the universe, found in the garage of a janitor for the General Services Adminstration in Washington after his death in 1964.
Although Alper does not provide details of his early life or his religious or educational background, he states that he has been on a spiritual quest at least since his “mid-teens, those years of which Wordsworth wrote, ‘bring upon the philosophic mind’” when “I realized that my life’s primary pursuit would be — if it were at all possible — to acquire clear and distinct knowledge of God.” Sometime between that period and his 21st birthday, Alpert had a bad LSD trip that mired him in anxiety and depression, which were alleviated by medication.
His suffering made him an empiricist: “The fact … that my conscious self had been so ravaged, scrambled and defiled in the past year and a half convinced me that there was no fixed or eternal essence in me.” This conviction led him to decide that “if spirits or souls truly existed, they should not be able to be affected by matter.” And his belief that the soul is a “manifestation of some strictly physical phenomenon” led logically to the idea that there must be a “God part of the brain.”
To prove this point, Alper embarked upon an odyssey of self-directed education —”like an Arthurian knight in search of his Holy Grail” — which he recounts in painstaking detail: “I now had to purchase a whole new set of texts that dealt exclusively with these complex carbon-based compounds.” Alper’s account of his arms-around-the-world education (one chapter is titled “A Very Brief History of Time, OR, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Universe But Were Afraid to Ask”; the next is called “Kant”) is both reckless and sweet. Even polymaths would shy from writing the kind of sentences that Alper casually tosses off: “Having catalogued Man’s universal spiritual beliefs and practices,” he writes, “there were still several other components to spiritual consciousness that I felt needed to be investigated.”
Of all this reading, Alper liked evolutionary biology best. The meat of his book is a loopy riff on that discipline’s standard explanation of religion: “Our species’ awareness of inevitable death placed such a strong pressure on our cognitive evolution that over the course of millions of years — during the emergence of the hominids — nature selected those members who had developed a physical consciousness, a built-in perception that there exists an alternate, transcendental reality that supersedes the limitations of the finite physical realm, one that can only offer us pain, anxiety, and inevitable death.” So, he concluded that “spiritual consciousness represents nature’s white lie, an inherited misperception selected into our species, for the purpose of alleviating us of some of the anxiety caused by our awareness of death.”
Alper’s evolutionary argument requires him to describe religion in universal terms, but his ideas about religion are strictly Western, monotheistic and personal; and his representation of religious worldviews is exclusively dualistic. “Since the dawn of our species, every culture has maintained a dualistic interpretation of reality. In other words, every culture — no matter how isolated — has perceived reality as consisting of two distinct substances or realms: the physical and the spiritual.” This argument is a clay pigeon, and could be blown away from any number of angles. The word “Asia” should suffice.
This one-dimensional definition of religion exemplifies the intellectual complacency of Alper’s earnest project — a hubristic, closed-minded certainty that the world can be fully understood in empirical terms. But this intellectual orientation is not the sole province of cranks. It’s shared by many legitimate scientists, including E.O. Wilson, though he pads his dismissal of religion (“self-deception” that gives our species an “adaptive edge”) with disingenuous humility: “And yes — lest I forget — I may be wrong”. (Incidentally, Wilson’s blurb for “The God Part of the Brain” reads, in full: “Excellent.”)
The trouble with empiricist criticisms of religion such as Wilson’s and Alper’s is that they are not criticisms of religion per se. Their actual targets are Christian ideologues (usually church leaders, the current pope being the supreme example) who believe that right doctrine is the essence of true religion, and who defend that position in an idiom that properly belongs to science. Religious doctrine cannot be empirically proven, nor can it be defended on empirical grounds, by invoking the transcendent God. A fundamentalist’s claim that he reads the “literal” truth of Scripture is shot through with test-tube envy. It’s his need to compete with the authority of modern science, not his attention to Christian tradition, that makes the religious ideologue claim to possess clear knowledge of the transcendent God’s will.
Most Christians, most of the time, experience religion’s power to explain the world in more modest and more glancing terms than those of a papal bull. For most of us, neither Maria nor God are problems to be solved. Faith may involve thought, but for most of us faith isn’t fundamentally an intellectual posture. It is something that we do, involving all of our faculties, all of our bodies. Faith is living in relationship to God, a relationship that manifests itself in love of the world.
This is a definition of faith that can engage the biological dimension of religious experience. It situates religious experience squarely in nature, without denying God’s transcendence, but without dwelling much on it either. Religion is a way of living, whose aspects may or may not include otherworldly, mystical visions. In the same spirit, Mark Salzman’s novel “Lying Awake” last year explored the connections between neural and religious impulses, in explicitly Christian terms.
“Lying Awake” concerns the quandry of Sister John, a nun who is diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy and fears that her inspiration for visionary religious poetry will depart if she undergoes brain surgery. Confounded by the choice between humdrum health and ecstatic disease, she seeks guidance from a priest: “Should I automatically assume that my mystical experiences have been false, or should I stand behind what my heart tells me? Is God asking me to let go of concerns for my health, or is he asking me to let go of my desire for his presence?”
In response, the priest gently chastises her: “You allowed yourself to think that loving God meant enjoying His company, having ecstasies. It was all about you, wasn’t it? But loving God is supposed to be all about Him. About trusting him, putting yourself in His hands completely.”
Sister John has the surgery and her raptures end, and her faith deepens as she discovers a new kind of love for God — “the doing kind, not the knowing kind.” Sooner or later, most Christians are faced with a less dramatic version of Sister John’s basic choice, between pursuing transcendent religiosity (our fantasies of saintliness, which would prove beyond doubt how special we are) and a more natural experience of devotion (in the disciplines of prayer and righteous action). That’s why, even though “Lying Awake” is less successful as a novel than as a statement about the nature of religious faith, it enjoys strong sales and great reviews. The book directly addresses a question that plagues contemporary believers, one that most Christian leaders fear to address. We wonder: How can we live as Christians, when nature seems more real than heaven?
Further research on the God part of the brain will press this question. Although it is highly doubtful that science will ever provide an exhaustive explanation of the religious impulse, it is inevitable that science will enlarge our understanding of the biological processes involved in religious experience. Over time, religious people will be forced to acknowledge that they are not special and separate; they are fully a part of the world.
Expect this to cause no shock waves in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism or most other Eastern and African religions. Their understandings of divine immanence and transcendence tend to be much more thoroughly integrated into everyday life than ours in the West. (They already know there’s a God part of a bamboo shoot, and they’re cool with that.) Christianity, however, will experience some healthy shrinking.
Fundamentalism will wither and ideologues will flee. Christians will have to stop using God as a deus ex machina to solve impossible problems, a rhetorical club with which to overpower those who disagree on points of doctrine. The Christian God will emerge more clearly as He revealed Himself in Jesus — as the suffering one whom Dietrich Bonhoeffer described in his “Letters and Papers From Prison” as He who “lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.”
Whatever in Christianity is threatened by neurological research ought to die anyway. Flipping back from the final pages of “The God Part of the Brain” to its first, I reread the dedication, “to the family of God,/…with all my condolences.” The first time through, I read this as the impertinent swipe of a smartass. The second time, I looked forward to the day when I will be able to accept his condolences, though not in the way he might hope.
Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer living in Boston.More Michael Joseph Gross.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)