An exploration of the world’s cultures isn’t complete without examining their relationship to the divine. This season, two National Geographic series undertake that mission:
Brain Games, which began its fifth season February 14, uses mind games to unveil cultural mores and universal behavior. It devotes its February 21 episode The God Brain—shot in Jerusalem against the backdrop of the world’s major religions—to the neuroscience of religious experience.
The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, a six-part series debuting April 3, explores different cultures and religions around the world to uncover the meaning of life and ask questions of the ages: Who or what is God? Where did we come from? Why does evil happen? What happens when we die?
Brain Games host Jason Silva speculates that religion has its origin in early psychedelic ritual. "When people claim to see God or have a near death experience, the same thing that happens to them is the same thing that happens with people who take ayahuasca or DMT, a potent psychedelic from a vine in South America that’s been used in religious ceremonies," he says.
"There’s a lot of research that says the origin of many of the world’s religions is psychedelic in nature, and that early man discovered certain psychedelic agents could transform their perception of the world," he adds. "But just because it’s grounded in neurochemistry doesn’t make the experience any less real."
The episode also investigates how architecture and ritual inspire feelings of transcendence, and asks whether technology giving us godlike powers is the same as making us godlike. Silva also conducts a "mind game" in which players are offered money to say they didn’t believe in God. "Some people say whatever you want for $1,000," says Silva. "But when it comes to saying they don’t believe in God, they’re incapable of saying it, even for money. Even people who weren’t that religious. It’s as though it was 'just in case God exists.’ Like an insurance."
Silva also sees religion as mechanisms for both achievement and coping. "The urge toward any religious affiliation comes from a fear of death, fear of meaninglessness," he says. "In a world where science has disrobed so much mystery, some people see that as a marvel increasing their awe and rapture, and others as deadening, because it shows everything is explainable. Some will respond positively and build more rockets and go to the moon, while others will kill other people in the name of the nihilism of this awareness.
"I just want people to think about that," adds Silva. "I don’t think blind faith is necessarily healthy, because often it gets people to do really bad things in the name of their religions. So it’s kind of a controversial Brain Games episode. Maybe religion is the ultimate brain game."
In The Story of God, host Morgan Freeman travels to 20 cities in seven countries to examine the evolution of various religions and how they have shaped civilizations, and the similarities that bind them. "The constant through it all is that we’re all looking to be part of something bigger than us," says Freeman.
This series also looks at how neuroscience impacts religion—for example, whether the potential for digitally storing our consciousness redefines death and the afterlife. An interesting backdrop is that the series’ other two executive producers (apart from Freeman) come from science backgrounds. Lori McCreary has a degree in computer science, and James Younger, a Ph.D. in biophysics.
"We were driven to make this by seeing all the misunderstanding and difficulties centered around religion in the world today and having the impression that people thought we're so different," says Younger. "What we found was an overwhelming amount of commonalities between religions."
McCreary concurs. "We were looking at questions that all of us as humans have, which is where did we come from, where are we going, what happens when we die, are we here for a reason," she says. "And ultimately we found the answers from many different religious people and religions to be very similar, which was heartening."
The journey involved a number of existential jolts for the three. For Freeman, it was the Hindu concept of reincarnation—ongoing returns to life until you’ve mastered the lessons you needed to learn. For McCreary, it was a Vatican official’s explanation that the theological and scientific concepts of creation, evolution, and the Big Bang can coexist.
"A mind-blowing experience for me was how much I absolutely loved being at Joel Osteen's mega-church," laughs Younger. "I thought it was going to be some manufactured, watered-down version of religion, and it was such a great party and uplifting. I challenge any atheist to go in there and not have a good time."
And, like Silva, the three grappled with the purpose of evil and suffering. "If you accept that God created the world, why did he create evil, which causes a lot of suffering," says Younger. "The way in which we deal with that, in which we adapt and manage and define what it is to be good in opposition to that, and also express forgiveness, are some of our greatest achievements."