Scientists are committed to studying almost everything; that is their virtue. Scientists are willing to say almost anything—which is not quite as virtuous.
The latest scientific salvo fired across the bow of religion concerns, of all things, the size of the religious brain. Here’s the storyline as reported in the media:
“Study suggests ‘born again’ believers have smaller brains” (USA Today)
“Study suggests ‘born again’ believers have smaller brains” (Beliefnet)
“Born-again Christians have smaller brains” (Houston Chronicle)
In fact, that’s a somewhat selective list of stories on the findings of a highly selective study. Involving less than three hundred people, the study looked at the brain volume of a group of people it divvied up according to religious affiliation (Protestant, Catholic, “born again” and unaffiliated). (Un)born again Protestants apparently won the brain volume prize.
Bracketing the question of who devises studies like this and who funds them, the conclusion the reader is supposed to draw from the headlines is obvious: the evangelically and “born again” religious are pinheads. Small brain means little intelligence. Which is about as pinheaded a conclusion as one can imagine.
The study concluding that born-again Christians have, on average, smaller brains than the norm might be helpfully juxtaposed with cognate studies at the University of Wisconsin indicating that Buddhist monks and others who meditate regularly actually activate entire regions of the brain that remain unactivated in the rest of us.
There are any number of weird implications and outright contradictions in these sorts of studies. The first is this: do the authors of these studies believe that religious belief or practice has the power to effect the size of the human brain? If so, that would seem to grant an astonishing power to religion to effect real world, and very nearly miraculous changes.
Or perhaps the claim is less miraculous-seeming than that. Perhaps they are not suggesting that religiosity can effect the size of the human brain, but rather that there is an elective affinity between brain size, brain activity, and religiosity. If you’ve got a small brain then you’re more likely to be born again, and if you have a more active brain then you’re more likely to be a Buddhist. Those are pretty strange claims, too.
They echo claims made by the now-suspect 19th century science of Phrenology.
The idea there was that by studying the human head—its size, shape, and general morphology—you could tell a lot about the intelligence and even the moral character of the person under consideration. There were criminal craniums; that was the main idea. Naturally, the Nazi pseudo-science of racializing the human head and face dealt a deserved death-blow to such nonsense.
But in studies like this one, Phrenology’s back again in a new form, implying this time that the size of the brain is any indicator of human intelligence. We’ve all been told countless times that the human brain is a highly redundant organ, and that each of us uses only a fraction of it in normal circumstances. Given that established scientific truism, it would be passing strange if brain size bore any relation to intelligence.
An extraordinary organ, the human brain is most responsible for making us distinctive as a species (though opposable thumbs and vocal chords help, too). Our brain is unique in being the singular organ that is capable of studying itself; that is the marvel of human intelligence. And as I say, it is the rare virtue of modern science that it endeavors to do so.
Theology has long had a cognate interest. It has to do with the age-old question of why God (who is perfect and in need of nothing) would create something else, something in addition to and separate from God. In particular, why create human beings? The traditional answer is that God created human beings in order to create the possibility of being in relation. One needs another person if one wishes to be in relation. And such relations involve being seen: the altogether singular experience of looking at another being who is looking at you simultaneously.
Seeing and being seen is the very essence of love. And of scientific study.
But there is nothing loving in this study of the born-again brain. And let’s be very clear: the unstated motivation for much of this new science is the desire to unseat a certain sort of religion by making it seem stupid. Becoming a Buddhist will make you smarter, but submitting to the regime of born-again Christianity will make you dumber. It’s intended as an insult, obviously. But less obvious is the logic behind the insult.
Isn’t it just the latest version of the perennial masculinist insult that size matters—that if you’re small, you’re less of a man?
Needle-dick. Pin-head… They’re flipsides of the same insult. What’s astonishing is that grown scientists would engage in that sort of thing.