Following up on 2016’s The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing (Prometheus), computational biologist and neuroscientist John C. Wathey, Ph.D says he is “opening the hood and looking into the messy machinery behind human behavior” in his new book. The idea for The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe (Prometheus, Oct.) arose while he was writing his earlier work. “I wanted to write a chapter or two about neuroscience, but it just exploded. I just kept finding more fascinating things and I had to resist the urge to oversimplify. The chapter just grew and I realized that this is another book.”
In The Illusion of God’s Presence, Wathey focused on what he calls “behavioral questions” and evolutionary questions about religion in particular. For example, why does this behavior—spiritual longing—happen? What purpose does such a belief in God serve in advancing survival? In The Phantom God, however, the emphasis is on “the how questions, the mechanistic questions," he says. The book "looks at what’s really going on in the brain" and explores how biology gives rise to religious beliefs.
According to Prometheus Books editor Jake Bonar, The Phantom God specifically asks, “What is happening in our brains when we experience religious emotions?” He adds, “Beyond taking the simple and dogmatic stance of ‘anti-religion,’ Wathey’s book is important because it acknowledges religious belief as something completely natural to our biological and neurological roots.”
Wathey relates the belief in God to a common experience among those who have had amputations. “When an arm has been amputated, very often the subject will still feel that the arm is present,” he explains. This phenomenon is known as a phantom limb, in which the subject “still gets these illusory sensations from their fingers or their hands. They are just so certain that their arm is still there even though they know that it isn’t.”
“It’s not that they are delusional,” Wathey clarifies. “They understand that it’s missing, but they have this compelling illusion that it is there.” In some cases, “they may try to answer a phone or something with their phantom limb because the illusion is that compelling.”
Wathey attributes this reaction to the workings of the human brain, which he describes as a “highly structured, genetically-programmed thing that has a lot of information already programmed in it." This information includes what newborns should expect from the world. One of those expectations is “the existence of this other being out there who knows everything, has the power to nurture and protect, and provide food and water and warmth. It’s a vague idea of the existence of a mother.” Wathey hypothesizes that this programming “can give the illusions of God’s presence.”
“This expectation of savior, left over from infancy, is very analogous to the phantom limb sensation,” he says.
Wathey calls The Phantom God “engaging and accessible to someone who is not a scientist, but also scientifically rigorous.” He hopes the book speaks to “intelligent readers who are curious about neuroscience, religion, and where religion comes from.”
Marketing and publicity for the title will include media tie-ins with authors’ talks and lectures, promotions on the Prometheus website, and inclusion in Globe Pequot’s distribution and trade catalogs, in addition to outreach to national web, broadcast, and print media, including major philosophy and atheism outlets such as American Atheist, ThoughtHub, Science of Mind, and First Things.