Most of us know about the hemispheres of the brain—that is, that the brain is split into two segments, like a walnut, the left and the right—and research has shown that each hemisphere has specialized to perform certain types of skills. The left hemisphere handles language, math, and logical tasks. The right is specialized for spatial abilities, creativity, and imagery. The imagination. Dividing the two sides, running through the middle like a neural traffic cop, is the corpus callosum: a highway of white matter that transmits signals from one side to the other.
It’s a marvel of evolution, and yet not altogether surprising, considering the symmetry of the human animal. Our bodies have left and right sides—two arms and legs here, two arms and legs there. Two eyes, ears, and nostrils. Just about everything about us points to duality. Yin and yang, as the Buddhists might say.
Consider the saying “I’m of two minds about it.” We can sometimes feel that we actually have two minds and that they are talking—even warring—with each other. One side says, “Yes, go for it!” while the other says, “Hmm, no better wait.” Put it into a cartoon, and you can almost see the “angel” on one shoulder and the “devil” on the other.
Such is the endless conflict between opposites. Left and right, night and day, up and down. Our drive for the good and our drive for the bad. (Notice that I don’t say “good and evil” as if these were autonomous entities that exist outside of our volition. They don’t. They ARE us.)
When you start discussing religion versus reason, the dualities become blindingly clear.
Religion draws from the part of the brain that deals with emotion and imagination. It provides a strong reason to feel love (for God), an indisputable reason to feel hate (for sins and those who commit them, Satan and all his representatives), and purported reasons to feel fear (an eternity of punishment).
You probably also know of the “fight or flight” instinct that all animals possess. Expanding this one emotion further, and adding human terminology, we have:
Hate = Fight
Fear = Flight
Love = Embrace
These are our most basic, most primal emotions. They’re what we feel at three hours old and what we feel throughout our lives.
Safe in the community of a religion, people find outlets and havens for these basic emotions, which is all fine and good. I’m all for healthy emotions.
Enter the left hemisphere, the part of the brain that’s specialized for reason. Reason and rational thinking are necessarily divorced from emotion. It is this part of us that allows us to be dispassionate when needed, to analyze rather than panic (as an example, the EMT who must think clearly and stay focused in times of crisis), to negotiate rather than bomb.
The evolution of our frontal lobes and our reasoning abilities has been the backbone of humanity’s progress over the millennia. Our scientific discoveries, our technological advances in math, physics, medicine, and the exploration of the largest (the cosmos) and the smallest (quanta) have been possible, to a large extent, because of our left brains.
When logic butts up against emotion, you have scenarios that are as cliché as Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk. One thinker and one feeler. You see the same dichotomy in many marriages. It’s the age-old “opposites attract” situation.
As well, we have theists and a-theists. Yin and yang.
So in our evolution as a species, this is where we’re at. We’re at the point in the long history of homo sapiens where we are bicameral and dualistic. The two halves of our brains foist us into conflicts that can manifest at every level from two strangers bumping into each other in the street to two nations threatening each other with nuclear annihilation.
At the level that’s completely individual and internal, there is always that voice inside that says “But I do believe … but I don’t believe …”
For now, with our dualistic brains and the opposite-sides-of-the-fence cultures of believers and nonbelievers, we are going to have to learn to coexist peacefully. Like the pot-smoking hippies who live next door to the buttoned-down, Republican couple. We have to acknowledge our differences, our diversity, and our opposite natures, just as we understand the duality of our neural structures.
But as we move into the future—not over decades but millennia—I hope that our reason will take the stronger lead over the emotional impulses and fabula, or theater, of religion.
Creativity cannot and should not be excised from our lives. But the pablum of religion—that is, when it is an infantile clinging to supernatural Mommy and Daddy figures—ultimately thwarts our progress as a species.
Perhaps eventually, day by day, era by era, our species will develop the autonomy that allows us to let go of the fearful part of the brain, the part that seeks reassurance in religion, and find the courage to face our own adulthood.