Book review: Brain & Belief

by John J. McGraw


A worthwhile book, comprehensive in its treatment of the evolution of belief in the soul, and why we believe. McGraw possesses degrees in psychology, philosophy and religious studies, and he brings the three together in his writing … and in the wonderfully macabre cover of his book.

The three parts to the book are:

[1] A History of the Soul, in which McGraw leads us from our prehistoric beginnings of belief, through Shamanism, ancient Egypt, Judaism, and the famed philosopher Plato, into the development of Christianity.

[2] Part II, The Soul Matter, digs into the brain and its anatomy, the puzzle of consciousness, the effects of hallucinogens and other drugs, and illnesses such as depression.

[3] Part III, titled “Giving up the Ghost” introduces “the beautiful lie,” and attempts to carefully weigh what is gained and what is lost by perpetuating a belief in the afterlife. 

I read this book several years ago, and I’m sure there are a number of other reviews out there to tell you about it, so I’d rather just quote a paragraph from part three that resonated strongly with me:

“The theologians’ heaven—singing, majesty, contemplation of God’s beauty—implies a total transformation of personhood and its context. This existence ceases to be a personal one at all and may be considered an Easter dissolution of self into the Godhead. Once everyone ceases to do personal things and engages in a standard universal, a fawning submission before ineffable beauty, one sacrifices one’s personality. At such a stage friend and lover, brother and son, all disappear. Hunger and admiration, play and sex, all dissolve into the singular experience—the singularly inhuman experience—of God worship. Every depiction of an existence worth living for disappears with the personality. Such an impersonal existence could be immortal but the person would have ceased to exist at death as surely as if he were simply mortal.” (p. 329)


  1. I share McGraw’s distaste for an idea of the afterlife that revolves around the slavish stroking of a divine ego. But the general death of self that he seems to consider so abhorrent is, for many, a sublime prize worth devoting one’s life to.

    Many faiths, philosophies and scientific traditions stress that selfhood is a lie – a distortion of reality at best, a lonely prison at worst.

    For example, Buddhism rightly points out that if a wave were to be obsessed about how unique and independent it was, it would be both wrong and unhappy, forever afraid of its imminent annihilation. If, however, it learned to see itself not as a wave but as a part of a great ocean, it would appreciate the true purpose, majesty and timelessness of its existence. Or, as Jesus said, a person obsessed with selfhood is to be pitied, just like a seed that frets so much about ceasing to be a seed that it never lets itself become a tree.

    It’s not just the mystics searching for nirvana who long for disollution of self. It’s also the lovers who long to lose themselves in orgasm, the parents whose focus on children gives their lives higher meaning, the fans who yearn to melt into the crowd in a rock concert, the patrons of S&M clubs who long to surrender entirely to the will of another, or the hippies who cultivate a sense of oneness with Gaia.

    Of course on a basic, default level, we all have a strong instinct for self-preservation, and this is what Mcgraw seems to speak to in the quoted paragraph. That’s just part of human nature – but a part that comes largely from the more primitive, reptillian part of the brain. Many have found a worldview that centres around a preservation of selfhood is actually deeply unsatisfactory.

    If I understand him correctly, Mcgraw’s opinion is based on the premise that nothing could be better than a self-centered existence. Though I think that mainly speaks about McGraw’s lack of imagination on the subject. Just because a scared child is convinced that diving into a pool must be a horrible crime against all that is good about dry land, doesn’t mean swimming isn’t fun.

  2. A beautiful piece of writing like this shouldn’t be stuck in a comment! May I turn this in a guest post (sans the last paragraph), and maybe introduce it with something from John’s Gospel? Give a link to your blog?

  3. Yeah, the size of my ‘walls of text’ do look silly in the comments section sometimes, lol. I’m honoured that you appreciate this one so much. Feel free to repost it, edit it, paraphrase it, etc. how you see fit.

    Yes, my criticism of McGraw in the final paragraph was crudely put (if you’re reading this, McGraw, I apologise for the needlessly rude phrasing).

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