This excellent, highly readable book discusses how neurobiology interacted with our belief systems to create the meme-plexes we call religion. -- Scott Bidstrup, Truth and Reason Web site 2003
From the Publisher
The*sis, n.; A position or proposition which a person advances and offers to maintain, or which is actually maintained by argument. Hence, an essay or dissertation written upon specific or definite theme; especially, an essay presented by a candidate for a diploma or degree.
Syn*the*sis, n.; The combination of separate elements of thought into a whole, as of simple into complex conceptions, species into genera, individual propositions into systems.
There are numerous references in the book to consilience, which means to combine objective information from different disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation, i.e., synthesis. In addition, on page 1 the author provided the following guidance to the reader:
"Understanding the biology of belief involves understanding aspects of knowledge ranging from astronomy to zoology. As with weaving cloth, weaving these knowledge disciplines into a coherent fabric of understanding requires time to put the various threads of knowledge into place. The discussion of consilience in the Preface explains what the reader can expect as the early chapters begin to assemble these necessary-but at times seemingly unrelated-threads of knowledge into a fabric of understanding."
"Fabric of understanding" equals synthesis. That being said, at times the author suggests ways of considering things, such as the mechanism underlying the cultural transmission of beliefs, which question well known ways of thinking, such as the logic behind meme theory. If I may address another misconception in this reader's review, the central concept of this book is not a variation on Richard Dawkins' memes. It is that the conflict between emotion and reason, which characterizes human history, is directly traceable to limbic and neocortex brain structures that evolved over millions of years and aided the survival of our ancestors. In other words, biological evolution is a major influence on human belief system formation. This is the reason for the title referring to biology and for about half the book describing micro and macro biological influences on the process of perception and belief system formation. I am pleased that the reviewer from San Francisco found the book "very entertaining with many tidbits of information from a wide range of disciplines." However, those "tidbits" were carefully chosen to demonstrate various aspects of the fibers of understanding the author wove for most readers into a fabric of understanding. I agree that anyone looking for a serious treatment of cognitive science and what it says about human capacity for belief should read other authors. However, in this age of specialization, it is likely that they will be reading a thesis and not a synthesis. Two final thoughts. The Amazon.com system provides readers with a book excerpt, customer reviews and editorial reviews. If these resources were examined before a reader purchased a book, it is unlikely that the reader would be "mislead" by the title. Four word titles that are unambiguous are rare. Also, I believe the reviewer's "gifted amateur" description lacks perception. Becoming expert in any subject today doesn't permit the luxury of keeping up with everyone else's specialty. Anyone who can authoritatively integrate a dozen complex and technical subjects into a readable and meaningful explanation of how humanity works would be an expert in one or two subjects at most and necessarily an "amateur" in all the rest.
Publishing a scientific analysis of how belief systems are formed in a country where 78% of the population believes in miracles makes the plight of spawning salmon look easy. Religion motivated terrorism here and abroad must be understood if we are to overcome it. This understanding requires an objective look at the science and history behind how belief systems are formed. "The Biology of Belief" brings together an understanding of biological, cultural and historical influences in a frank analysis of how this process works. As part of his analysis, the author takes a critical look at the reasons for the errors and accomplishments of religious and other belief systems. Although it is expected that some reviewers will not like what was written or how it was written, it would be refreshing if those reviewers refrain from shooting the messenger and focus on the message.
In 2003, "The Biology of Belief" was either a text or reference in the following courses:
Boston University School of Theology Religious Experience, Cognitive Neuroscience Research seminar for doctoral candidates
Breyer State University, Idaho Clinical Hypnotherapy Perception: Biology, Beliefs, and Biases
Eastern Michigan University Department of History & Philosophy Course: History 100
International University Bremen, Germany School of Engineering and Science From Cell to Community: Understanding Animal and Human Societies Course: 020005-A
Mary Washington College, Virginia Philosophy Department Readings in Philosophy Course: 481
Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada Department of Religious Studies The Interpretation of Religion Course: RELS-353/853
Umeå University, Sweden Department of Religious Studies Neurology, Cognitive Psychology and Religion Course: RELC71