A reflection on extremes and religion


I have been listening to The Master and His Emissary by Ian McGilchrist. The book’s subtitle is The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It’s a book I have put off reading for ages. I bought it shortly after it was published in hardcopy format in 2009, but that was a pain for me to read, because of my grip disability. Then it was mentioned on a podcast in late 2021, and I rediscovered it as an audiobook.

McGilchrist is a psychiatrist who has dared to think into the popular left/right brain ideas that have been discredited by ‘science’ and reframe the ideas in a more sophisticated way. It is a deeply fascinating topic. McGilchrist follows the standard line on human evolution, to which I do not subscribe. That’s okay. The mind as brain model does not impair good science. 

The binary and the curve

I have been long fascinated by a deep sense of fundamental tension between two distinct natures in humans. The spiritual and the biological is a simple articulation. But then we can keep going with multiple binaries – good/bad, mean/generous, female/male and all the way to left brain/right brain. Is this just metaphor, or is there an actual fundamental yin/yang at work in all things – including our brains? 

There is a phenomenon called the ‘normal curve’ which seems to be a natural mathematical process. It is too technical to get into here, but it essentially means that in any assemblage of humans for any reason there will be a middle ‘normal’ and two extremes. The simplest example is how IQ is measured – with people with intellectual disability at one extreme and those described as geniuses at the other.

The binary that engages me most intensely is metaphysical/physical. While I think that the yin/yang binary is a cosmic or universal one that expresses in any defined set, I am not going to assert that there are exact correspondences between binaries – like metaphysical/physical and left brain/right brain. But there are functional relationships between them. I think, in essence, all binaries are curves, or spectrums – and they all interact.

So, I could listen to McGilcrhist talking left brain/right brain and fruitfully think metaphysical/physical and religion/science without feeling bound by having to make exact equivalences. Never mistake an idea for reality.

A meditation on tension

I have no doubt at all that human consciousness is substantially mediated by our brains – in terms of how we engage with our experience in the physical world. Arguments that our consciousness is not brain dependent often assume that it is also not brain modified. This leads to an erroneous assumption that brain science can tell us nothing useful about spirituality. This is so wrong.

Generally speaking, the only things we that we consciously know about being in this world are via our brain (an exception may be an OBE). It is where sensory input is collated and processed. Its primary function is to make being a physical being in a physical world as successful as circumstances permit. If the input’s collation and processing is impaired, our success at being a physical being in a physical world may be degraded.

This is worthwhile knowing – I am not my body. But I inhabit it; and identify with it – as a spiritual being in biological expression in a physical world. There is a natural order that belongs to the biological nature of my body – as a primate – and all the instincts and behaviours that belong to that heritage are part of the identity I express. This is what we try to modify to conform to our deeper sense that we are more than our bodies. This leads to beliefs and values that are inconsistent with instinctive animalistic behaviour. 

There is an inherent tension between instincts and aspirations as we spiritual beings have our physical experience. There is also an inherent tension between the experience of reality in a ‘spiritual’ sense (non-material) and the experience of reality in a physical sense (material). In a way, modern humans strive to ‘spiritualise’ matter through technology in an effort to (unconsciously) replicate what we deeply sense. The goal of materialist technocrats is to effectively make part of human physical reality an analogue of an animistic or ‘spiritual’ one. They are not conscious of this, but it is impossible to mistake the passion for putting chips in everything and connecting them all together to be anything other than a revival of the animistic sensibility. Thales’ “everything is full of gods” is updated to ‘everything is full of micro-chips’. There are cars you can talk to, and which can talk back to you – what is this? The passion for artificial intelligence is part animism and part magic. It is only mildly paradoxical that those who push this vision with such passion are the most materialistic. Perhaps the absence of a faith creates an urgent need to create one – only using technology and not just belief.

This is an evolutionary impulse to which is attributed a vague idealism. We call this ‘Humanity’. But this presents a problem. Is humanity an evolutionary objective to be attained by an animal, or a spiritual potential to be realised? Evolution can’t have an objective beyond survival – it can only be adaptive – at least that’s the standard way of thinking. If the purpose is survival, evolution can only be about responding to survival challenges to the physical organism. However, if the purpose of being is the evolution of consciousness, a completely different dimension opens up.

We use the terms humane, humanitarian, and humanity to convey far more than a mere survival imperative. In fact, we inject values that transgress against any purely utilitarian notion of survival. What we value is not just the supposedly standard bundle of biological imperatives. We have added a certain element – moral value beyond anything the standard evolutionary model can accommodate.

We humans are facing a significant problem. We are making a mess of our nest. Our conduct is imposing a systemic crisis upon the world we depend upon for our physical existence – and it does not seem to matter all that much. The foundation of that crisis is psychological. It relates to values, identity, and motives. But are these mediated through our biology – via our instincts?  We seem to add something that seems to be particularly human.

It is what we call Religion. As a word it seems to be associated with ideas connected to a bond or binding, or obligation. I want to propose a simple explanation here. There seems to have been a common belief that there is a connection between conduct and consequence. Our ancestors did not have access to our notions of materialism and were imbued with the sense that reality was interactive and relational. All was living. Religion is a form of self-awareness or self-consciousness – usually on a spectrum from a nascent impulse to a growing awareness of a potentially transformative existential experience. There are the exemplars – the shining lights of religious cultures – Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tzu, Hermes for example.

Our cultures have a bundle of spiritual heroes and villains – shamans, magicians, witches, priests, sages, saints, sorcerers and so on. We see them as acting for good or ill, and always on the edge of, or outside, the norm. That norm is codified as culturally determined religious beliefs, practices, and values to which the majority conform to a lesser or greater degree. On the very edge of the norm is the sacred and the magical. It is inherently transformational and dangerous – for good or ill.

In the West we have confused the situation by the invention of atheism and materialism. Both are a reaction against Christian theology and politics. But all they have done is divert the natural religious impulse into a state of utter confusion. This is both for good and ill. For good, it disrupts tradition and allows us to cast off that which is no longer useful. For ill, it opens up opportunity for predation and debasement.

Religion is not a belief system. It is a way of knowing that is rooted in experience. It is an empirical approach – at least it was until Christianity generated an intellectual imperative to see things differently – theology. This was more speculative and sometimes more about trying develop an argument to make a pre-determined doctrinal assertion sound rational – when it was actually objectively not. This then evolved into Western philosophy, which abandoned the faith foundation and restored empiricism via science. However, it is an error to imagine that religion per se is anti-science. It isn’t. Christianity isn’t anti-science at all. Many great scientists were Christian.

On the other hand, many materialistic devotees of science are anti-religious. They like to hold Galileo up as a hero. But he was a Christian who was subject to house arrest for being intemperate in how he expressed his views. Sure, there were some dogma-based politics to be navigated – and he was impolitic. The Church was not anti-science so much as wanting to control how Galileo’s discoveries were released. That’s thought control. It’s not good, but other contrarians were tortured and murdered. They get no consideration because they espoused mystical ideas.

Religion has become a dirty word because it is readily attached to all the negative perceptions of dogma and thought and social control. But that’s a political ploy driven by atheists and materialists who have their own emotional motives to deny something that remains native to them. The religious impulse remains, of course, in all of us. It is innate and fundamental to humans (others as well) because it connects the physical to the metaphysical. Without it we cannot be wholly who we are.

If we took the same careless approach to condemning religion itself, we would condemn eating or sex, and abstain from both, purely because we had negative or traumatic experiences. Such experiences can be deeply harmful, but the core theme remains valid regardless.  Denying something fundamental to us because of a negative experience could be the result of trauma – or it could be intellectual arrogance and laziness blended with emotional immaturity (a sadly common mixture among the more vociferous materialists). 

We must not be persuaded by extreme opinions. It is in our nature to have sex, to eat – and to be religious. If we are rational and in a healthy emotional state, we will engage in all three in a balanced way. We need to appreciate that ardent adherents to extreme positions will seek to persuade us that their extreme is virtuous and even necessary. But let us also be aware that they are not usually successful. Extremists are well-named. They inhabit the extremes beliefs and are in a minority. This is normal and it applies to all beliefs. It has nothing to do with the attributes of a particular belief or tradition of a particular religion. 

When it comes to religion (and probably most other things) we have two extremes – those we call fundamentalists and those we call saints. That also creates a tension between two possible ways of being. Most of us live in that middle ‘normal’ zone between the extremes – in a state of fundamental tension.


The most important thing to develop in religion was a sense of relationship between self – as a tribe or family group – and everything else. This was before the idea of the ‘individual’ as we know it emerged. The obvious thing would be to ‘behave well toward everything else, and it will behave well toward us.’ It’s how we operate now on a micro individualistic level. We can see this in what we call ‘the golden rule’ – a universal logic that asserts treat others as you would have them treat you. We have lost that earlier relational sense that saw broader reality as a community of Thous.

How that plays out in real life becomes more complex as cultures evolved. Intellectually, reality is divided into hierarchies of agencies – which became the objective forces of modern science. And, as quantum science progresses, are likely to be redefined in a way asserts a foundation of consciousness to everything. This is now a realm of vigorous debate. 

As we evolve, nothing fundamentally differs. The contexts and the levels of complexity are changing from an intellectual perspective – but that’s all. For all the vast and magnificent evolution of the acts of eating and drinking it still comes down to a fundamental biological urge to eat and drink. The fact that we now frame that in the context of three Michelin stars and $1,000 bottles of red wine does not change that core reality. We are still eating and drinking to meet essential biological needs (physical and communal) – and then adding a massive level of embellishment that no has biological justification. You can’t evolve Gordon Ramsay using coherent Darwinian logic.

It is impossible to develop a balanced view of being human without embracing religion as an essential attribute of our psyches that comes from a source other than biology. Efforts at crafting an entirely materialistic model are as bad as trying to create an entirely Bible-based model of being human. These are extremist views, and the claims of intellectual and spiritual virtue are equally incoherent. 

McGilchrist observes that our culture has gone too left brain. That is an extreme reaction against a misperception of religion. In fact, a good deal of Christianity was itself a left-brain version of religion, which is why it failed to hold sway over European culture. 

From that extreme state, we are, I believe, transitioning back toward a holistic balance. It seems like a perilous journey at times. But the reality is that it is a spiritual journey – an evolution. Along the way there will be material perils and things will get broken. 

I like to see this as akin to a chick breaking the shell of the egg that has contained and nurtured it. I know that statement will instantly generate a lot of questions. Maybe another essay?

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