A few weeks ago, I reviewed Baba Brinkman‘s new project “The Rap Guide to Religion.” It’s a show that explores the scientific and evolutionary origins of religion — through rap.
Recently, I had a chance to interview him, and we discussed everything from how religion needs to evolve, to the difference between God and religion, to how and why he decided to focus on religion for his latest project.Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: Welcome everyone, I am thrilled to be sitting here with Baba Brinkman, who is probably – I believe he is the only – peer-reviewed rapper in the world. He was actually someone who created “The Rap Guide to Religion,” which was a fantastic show that I got to see off-Broadway a few weeks ago, and I’m thrilled to be sitting here talking with him, and talking with him about this new project that he’s created “the Rap Guide to to religion.” So Baba, thank you for taking some time to be able to talk this afternoon.
Baba Brinkman: Well, my pleasure, thanks for reaching out.
Geoff Mitelman: So I want to start actually with a very simple question of how did you get interested in this topic into the subject what drove you to explore the origins of religion scientifically, through a rap lens?
Baba Brinkman: Well, I was interested in evolution, just as a concept and as a scientific discipline, and I was commissioned by an evolutionary biologist to write a show, which was called “The Rap Guide to Evolution”, kind of a precursor to “The Rap Guide to Religion.” And in it I was supposed to talk about Darwin’s legacy for the modern world. And so I have a segment in the show where I talk about evolutionary psychology, and how evolutionary theory can help us understand human behavior, and I chose one segment for that show, which was about, sort of, gangster rap and threat deterrent displays, and how people can express aggressive behavior as an environmentally contingent strategy for dealing with dangerous environments. So, I sort of use gangster rap to his example of that.
But when I was researching evolutionary, psychology for the rap guide to evolution, I came across all of this material on the evolution of religious behavior, and I was sort of tempted to use that as an example, because I found it really fascinating. But at the time I thought the gangster rap one would work better. So I sort of set aside this really interesting research on evolution of religion, thinking “one day I will write a show that explores this stuff in the detail that it deserves, but not yet.”
And that was about five years ago, and it took me that long to come back around to it. And also, you know, I have a comparative literature background, and I appreciate this sort of snake-eating-its-own-tail aspect of, you know, that the modern rejection of evolutionary science is mostly coming from religion, and evolution, ironically, can tell us about where religion comes from, and thus where the rejection of evolution comes from. So there is, you know, a sort of meta quality to this dialogue that I found – I thought it would be fun to play with as a writer and as a playwright.
Geoff Mitelman: That’s really interesting. In the idea of of religion harming – potentially harming –science, and then science actually doing something to religion in that kind of way – I’m curious, are there ways or are there places where you see there’s some connection? Was there something that struck you or surprised you about the interaction of religion and science when you were doing this work?
Baba Brinkman: Well, I guess I think a lot of the feelings that people have traditionally gotten from religion, I get from talking to and meeting scientists. I’m discovering that a lot of those feelings are evoked by science now for a lot of people. And you know, there’s a common accusation by religious people who say to, you know, atheists and people who are secular, that, you know, “you’ve turned science into a religion.” And I’ve actually had someone criticize my show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, saying I make the mistake of turning science into a religion.
And you know, it may have been a mistake, but it was done deliberately, which is just to explore the ways in which the awe and the grandeur of, sort of, these feelings of transcendence, and being part of something massive and majestic, that those feelings that have traditionally been evoked by religion, that science is equally capable of evoking them by showing us our place in the universe and our place in the evolutionary origins of life on Earth. And you know, turning science into a religion, that’s a mistake if you turn science into an article of faith, but it’s not a mistake if you turn science into a source of awe and grandeur and transcendence. So in the second sense, I really did want to, you know, show people how science can be a religion, for those of us who don’t have a background or a faith in traditional religions.
Geoff Mitelman: You know what’s interesting, when you talk about awe, and the awe that science creates, one of my favorite writers is a guy, his name is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who talks about that actually awe is the root of religion, rather than creed or belief or even action, the root of all religious experience is the ability to look out at the world and just go “Wow, that is unbelievable that we’re living in this in this place right now, I can’t even get my mind around it.”
Baba Brinkman: I would I would agree that that’s probably the case, but I would nuance, when he says the root of religion, I would say that’s probably where the founding of many faiths come from. But I don’t – I wouldn’t agree that that’s the root of religious experience, because I think a lot of people read their scriptures and go to their weekly rituals and say their prayers and you know, profess belief, without actually experiencing awe and connection to those religious activities on a daily basis. I think maybe the roots of each religion that begins – you know, you need the awe to create a sort of charismatic sense of transcendence, to get followers believing in the first place, but then once that’s launched, it tends to fall into a more mundane, you know, organizing of people’s lives, so that they have a linchpin or a touchpoint for their, sort of, meaningful experiences. And I see the sort of functionalistic and utilitarian elements of religion as sort of more core to why it exists and why it is the way it is than the transcendent elements, even though it probably couldn’t endure without the transcendent.
Geoff Mitelman: Although what’s interesting, and maybe we’ll also be able to get to some of this, one of your pieces that I really love, and is the way that you start the show, is this rap called “religion evolves,” and the need for religion to move beyond what it currently is. And I very much agree with you on that, that religion as it currently is practiced is often very destructive. I, though, think that religion, in a variety of ways, in practice, can be very beneficial. But I think it’s a question of how do we move beyond the evolution of just saying the same words over and over and over again, and evolving to be able to tap back into that sense of awe and transcendence, which to me isn’t specifically religious, it’s not specifically scientific, it’s human. And it could play itself out in a lot of different ways.
Baba Brinkman: Sure, and the main bone that I have to pick with religion is the sort of truth claims, faith-based truth claims, and articles of faith and beliefs in the supernatural that from the perspective of, you know, the scientific method and trying to verify beliefs with evidence, just look like they’re counterfactual. And not just counterfactual, but also lead to all kinds of tribalism and intergroup conflict and harm. So I think, like, religion that is shorn of its supernatural beliefs, and, you know, brought to a state of just transcendence and awe and connectedness to other living things, would be a beautiful thing.
And some modern religions seem to be moving that way. I guess Reform Judaism looks a bit like that, and, you know, Buddhism and some forms of karmic yogic Hinduism and some religions are really you know – that articles of faith are seen as, you know, just a sideshow, but not the majority. I think the majority of all people today are either Christians or Muslims and the true believers see articles of faith as core to their identity, and that’s a real issue for the safety of the world in my view.
Geoff Mitelman: So what do you hope people will walk away from your show with? Obviously, to be able to to laugh and to think, which is – I certainly did when I was there, but what would you love people to be able to say they’ve walked away, and they are now thinking or feeling or doing what?
Baba: Well, I guess where I want them to go depends a lot on where they started. So a religious True Believer is someone who has a belief, has a faith and hope in the literal truth of a scripture, or, you know, the literal truth of a supernatural being taking some meddling interest in our lives. I want that faith to be challenged by my show. I want to show them that just like you don’t need a religious explanation for why there are living things on this planet that move and act the way they move and act, and are shaped the way they’re shaped, and you know, you don’t need the supernatural to explain that, you don’t need the supernatural to explain the existence of religion either. And that, you know, that, for even for people who say they accept evolution, they’ll often still go “yeah, but you know, I have a relationship with the supernatural that doesn’t preclude religion existing.”
And I want to challenge people to think about how our relationship with the supernatural could be a feeling that we’ve evolved to have for an adaptive reason and that, you know, in a way, that undermines faith, it undermines the literal basis of faith, but I don’t think it undermines a lot of the feelings and effects and, you know, what many would think are the important parts of religion. So I definitely want to challenge faith. But on the other hand, atheists who come to the show are often hostile to religion, and my goal is also to show them how adaptive it has been. And a lot of atheists go around saying that religion is just a delusion based on ignorance and fear.
And I really just think that’s an inaccurate description of it. It’s something that we’ve evolved, it’s a technology, like a mental technology, that has evolved culturally and genetically to help us solve problems in our ancestral environments – doesn’t always solve the same problems in modern environments, but once we recognize its adaptive value, even an atheist can celebrate religion like an atheist can celebrate the design of a bird’s wing or the sleekness of the way a fish moves through the water. Now, if you’re appreciating the swiftness of the fish moving through the water, and the fish happens to be a Great White that’s coming to kill you, that appreciation can be, you know, aesthetic without you wanting to be stupid about it. And I think we can take that analogy to religion as well. You can appreciate it without giving into all its demands. But I think it’ll be helpful to build a rapport among believers and nonbelievers to have that appreciation, at least, of the adaptive history and value of religion.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, it’s interesting, there’s a difference between religion and God that’s also, I think, an important distinction to be made. That God is a whole other discussion, and very very complicated One of my favorite lines someone said was that “all theology is really autobiography.” What we say about God actually has to say much – says much more about us than it says anything about God. But religion is inherently a human creation. I view religion as humanity’s attempts to understand and develop a relationship with God, experience God. I think there there’s –
Baba Brinkman: Or various gods. Or ancestors, or spirits, or demons, or you know, wood nymphs, or Centaurs or, you know – I think the idea of a unified single God is a relative anachronism, right, it’s only a few thousand years old. And if you go to our species, our species had thousands of cultures 5,000 years ago, and none of them knew we would have known what you were talking about when you said “God.” They would have said “Oh, which God do you mean?”
Geoff Mitelman: Absolutely. Although the flip side – and again this comes back from our evolutionary history – but there are a lot of universals across cultures, and one wonderful example is that the idea of the golden rule – treat others as you would want to be treated, or don’t do to others what you would not want to be done to you –
Baba Brinkman: Yeah.
Geoff Mitelman: That undergirds every single religious tradition, because that was critically important in our evolutionary history. So you don’t need, necessarily, God to be able to say, “don’t be a jerk.”
Baba Brinkman: The devil’s in the details if you read the fine print. The definition of “others” can be highly malleable, and you know, “do unto others” in many religious traditions, by my reading, only means others of the tribe, and people outside the tribe, you can do what you want to them. And I think the Hebrew Torah has some pretty nasty examples of what’s permissible to do outside the tribe that would never be accepted inside the tribe.
Geoff Mitelman: Yes, although here there’s a great book called “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright, that I think part of where humanity is going is an expansion of who the “other” is. I think that religion does evolve, and continues to evolve, and should continue to evolve. Particularly to be able to expand that sense of “who is the other” in that kind of way.
Baba Brinkman: Absolutely, yeah.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think where religion – at least where I come down, where religion is very helpful is that it allows us to be able to give a particular language, to talk about, a very a lot of complicated questions. And nobody speaks “language.” Someone speaks English or French or German or Chinese, but we all need language to be able to communicate. Similarly, we all have a desire to feel a sense of awe. We all have a sense of morality. We all have a sense of a desire to be part of a community, in a particular community there, and so how that community plays itself out is going to vary from place to place, but that desire to feel awe and connection is deeply ingrained in what it means to be human.
Baba Brinkman: Can I ask you – I haven’t actually read “The Evolution of God”, but I’ve read reviews of it and synopses of it. So, do you agree with his argument? Do you believe in Robert Weights’s God? I think he kind of argues that God can be seen as a sort of – almost like a moral mathematics that people are moving towards. And as we expand the logic of reciprocal altruism and cooperation to larger and larger spheres, that religion can be seen as tracing this idea of God, which is really just the sum of a sort of moral – like a moral grounding that life plays out against, and is shown in progress, but actually maybe something that exists outside of anything we’ve experienced or discovered so far, because of the logic of reciprocal altruism, in a way. Do you think that’s a good description of our concept of God that he puts forward?
Geoff Mitelman: I like it a lot, and it fits into a larger theology that I buy into called process theology – that is, the idea that everything is changing, everything is evolving, including our experiences of God. And so the – with a recognition that God and our experience of God may be different things, but the idea of the process of understanding and growing and becoming more compassionate is something that I very much buy into. And the idea of, for example, process theology. I don’t believe that God heals; I do believe that I experience God in the healing process. So I believe that we need the best medical treatment we can find, but I also believe that when you are compassionately there with another person, for me, I experience God’s presence in that moment. How does that sit with you?
Baba Brinkman: I say I agree that healing exists and is good, and I believe that compassion exists and is good, and I have no problem if you want to call those things God.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, and as you talk about it too, I remember one of the songs in there is about the challenge of being able to express gratitude if there’s no one to receive that sense of thanks.
Baba Brinkman: Yeah.
Geoff Mitelman: And on some level, I think even just the process of giving thanks, even if we don’t know who we’re giving it to – the attitude of gratitude is inherently a positive thing for humanity, and religion gives us a language to be able to do that, but the process of just giving thanks is a good in and of itself.
Baba Brinkman: Yeah, I guess in that song I was trying to explore the tension of – I totally agree with you, that being in a space of gratitude makes for a better life, and makes you a better person, and sort of enriches all of your social interactions. But that doesn’t work if you’re only being grateful to individuals, it has to be a sort of general aura of gratitude that you put out there. But it conflicts with logic for me, anyway. It creates this tension of “who am I thanking and why?” and it feels weird to thank nobody, and I don’t think there’s anyone listening, so a “this feels silly” kind of thing, you know, like talking to yourself.
Geoff Mitelman: Sure, sure. Although there’s a lot of great research that does but even just doing that the gratitude is a positive there. So–
Baba Brinkman: Well, I do keep a journal, so you know, like, talking to nobody, that’s a foundation of literature in a way.
Geoff Mitelman: Right, well, and actually the Hebrew word “to pray” is – it’s a reflexive verb, it’s “hithpael”, which really means to judge or examine yourself. So even to be able to to do things for ourselves is a way of being able to express longings and thanks and gratitude. So I want to thank you for taking some time to be able to talk, and I appreciate the insight that you’re doing. As we come to an end, I would love, if you would, to be able to do just a little excerpt of the first song for ”The Rap Guide to Religion,” of “religion evolves.”
Baba Brinkman: All right, no worries, I can do that. So I’m gonna drop the beat here. I’m on my way to the show a little later tonight, I’ve gotta leave in like an hour to go perform this off-Broadway, right, so I’ll give you guys a little sneak preview.
I spent my whole life perplexed by religiousness,
Front doorstep-debating with Jehovah’s Witnesses,
I was a teenaged empirical thinker, a spiritual seeker,
Obsessed with rap, I considered it lyrical research,
this was the medium that I could think and speak in,
Flippin’ ridiculous figures of speech over beats like every weekend.
My CD collection became my personal gospel,
I was an apostle, like Thomas, wondering was it impossible
To rock shows and still be thoughtful, so paradoxical,
Speakin’ in tongues over the drums like the Pentecostals
I figured if I could master the craft I could start a new religion
Devoid of superstition, a descendant of secular humanism
With the ecstatic rituals of ancient mystical shamanistical
Visions, except based on philosophical naturalism.
Which means no counterfactual claims,
no supernatural, nothin’ but reason and evidence, troops salute the rational
In my religion the truth is sacred, and science adjudicates it,
And meditation is cool if you wanna find your Buddha nature,
But human nature exists too, and it’s not rude to face it
Enlightenment comes when we understand how evolution shapes it
It’s a demon-haunted world, you can take it from Carl Sagan,
whether Christian or Pagans, religion evolves,
whether it benefits one of us or whether it benefits all
Adaptive problems are gonna get solved, religion evolves.
The bigger the scale of the society, the bigger the gods
People will get along when someone’s watchin’ them, religion evolves
We’ll send a rocket on a manned mission to mars
If the holy wars don’t kill us first, let’s hope religion evolves.
There you go.
Geoff Mitelman: All right, thank you.
Baba Brinkman: I’ll drop one more verse, all right?
I’ll turn my religion upon itself like an ouroboros
Religion evolves, it adapts, ask a biologist,
a cognitive psychologist, a sociologist,
an anthropologist, a behavioral ecologist, religion is all of this
Two or three new religions get founded a day
They’re just like rap artists, most of them won’t be around in a decade
They all compete for space and followers and human devotion
Religion evolves because many are called but few are chosen
Approximately ten thousand religions are currently active
So forgive me if I don’t ask which exact version you practice.
The chances are, flip a coin, it’s probably Abrahamic,
Half the planet is Christian or Jewish or Islamic
We can track the demographics, study the epidemiology,
but human beings have been religious since before the holocene
Twelve thousand years ago, agricultural revolution
Prior to that, most of our significant evolution
Small scale societies, surviving in the pleistocene
Had a strong incentive to unite like a hive of bees
Religion is a device for binding people tribally,
And if you’re in my tribe well then I’ll die for you, you’ll die for me.
It’s a demon-haunted world, you can take it from Carl
Sagan, whether Christian or Pagan, religion evolves,
Whether it benefits one of us or whether it benefits all
Adaptive problems are gonna get solved, religion evolves
The bigger the scale of the society the bigger the gods
People get along when someone’s watchin’ them, religion evolves
We’ll send a rocket on a manned mission to Mars
If the holy wars don’t kill us first, let’s hope religions evolves.
There you have it, the opening of the show.
Geoff Mitelman: That’s right. Well, I highly recommend that you go see it, it was terrific, and it definitely got me thinking, I’m sure it gets everyone in the audience thinking. And you’re really doing a wonderful service to be able to get people thinking about this interaction of religion and science in a way that – I don’t know anyone else is doing. A rap guide to religion, looking at it particularly scientifically. So thank you, Baba, for the important work you’re doing, and for taking some time to be able to talk.
Baba Brinkman: All right, well thanks for your great questions and commentary, and I hope your readers find the stuff interesting at least, and for those who are not in New York, there’s an album that you can download as well from music.bababrinkman.com, which allows you to listen to most of the songs, even if you can’t see the live show.
Geoff Mitelman: Fantastic. All right, well, thank you very much, and thank you Baba.
Baba Brinkman: All right, cheers Geoff. See ya.