The Lizard Brain: Why Fear Makes Bad Religion and Bad Politics

I’ve been on vacation with my family at the beach this past week. Great time. We always love the ocean.

Walking back to the car from the beach last evening, the wooden plank walkway took us through about 300 yards of marsh. Lots of lizards, snakes, and bugs. In particular, there were tons of dragonflies … and mosquitos—which, if you know much about entomology, makes sense, since dragonflies (or “skeeter hawks” as they’re sometimes called down South) love mosquitos. Dragonflies feast on mosquitos. Some species of dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitos a day.

So, dragonflies are a good thing, right? I know in my mind they are. I can read Wikipedia just like anyone else. I’m a rational human being with a Ph.D and a library card. But dragonflies make me cringe. I have this thing when dragonflies are around, a thing that apparently comes from someplace deeper than my prefrontal cortex.

Know why?

When I was six years-old, Danny Gray told me that if you get bit by a dragonfly, you can become paralyzed.

Yep. That’s it. I don’t think with wonder about the prospect of wholesale mosquito assassination when I see a dragonfly. In fact, I don’t think at all, I react. My body, without any input from the cognitive portion of my brain, responds to the signals sent from my Amygdala (the so-called “lizard brain,” or, as I’ve termed it, the “chihuahua brain”). When I see a dragonfly, I don’t see—as most rational people who don’t carry my emotional baggage—a mosquito hit man; I see a paralysis delivery system.

Some work with a cognitive therapist could help me recalibrate my emotional response to dragonflies, but it’s not particularly debilitating, not something that affects my life much. So, unless I wanted to become an entomologist, I don’t suppose there’d be any reason to overwrite my emotional hard drive in this case.

But there are some imprinted emotional responses it might be worth it to overwrite, somehow to recalibrate the fear imprint.

I’ve been thinking a lot about religion and politics lately—as you do. As ever, I’m struck by the intensity of the debate. (I know, I know. I contribute to the noise, too. Please don’t email me.) People feel strongly about this stuff, emotional really: Central American children seeking asylum, poor families on food stamps, the prospect of same sex marriage.

What I find troubling is the fear imprint. Here’s what I mean: I can’t quite get over the panicky reactions with which some people confront their religious beliefs and their politics. They seem to assume that some dastardly plot is at hand, which will somehow reward the undeserving and punish the righteous.

But I’m having a hard time figuring out how a theology or a politics that starts with the sneaking suspicion that somebody’s trying to game the system or to take something (e.g., money, honor, tradition) from me can be squared with a commitment to following the one who says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matt. 16:24-26a).

[Oh, I know this is “mixing religion and politics,” a charge that, when leveled by religious people, usually means: “You’re interpreting political issues in a theological way I don’t approve of.” But see, the question is never, “Are we going to mix religion and politics?” (we are) but “Are we going to mix religion and politics honestly and with the requisite amount of humility?”]

Just listen to how this religio-political lizard brain fear sounds to ears untrained by a particular kind of socialization:

1. Illegal immigrants. The “illegal” is all we need to know. No matter the reason, no matter that they’re children, they’re illegal. Period. And if that weren’t enough, they’re stealing from us … our jobs, our children’s education, our social welfare services. These people are subverting law and order, taking advantage of the system for stuff that rightly belongs to us.

2. Poor families on food stamps. They’re all drug addicts and welfare con-artists. We shouldn’t be supporting people who choose not to work.

3. Same sex marriage. Traditional marriage between a man and a woman has been the normative civil arrangement Biblically and throughout most of history. We shouldn’t be throwing over millennia of interpretive tradition and historical convention just to please the politically correct masses clamoring for it. They’re weird. They pose a threat to traditional marriage. By giving them a seat at the ecclesiastical and cultural table, we’re risking having our children molested … and if not molested, then proselytized to adopt the “gay lifestyle.”

  • It doesn’t matter that Biblical interpretation has evolved on any number of issues over the years [e.g., slavery, women’s role in the home and the church), or that the idea of “traditional marriage” as the voluntary relationship between a man and a woman for the purposes of love and not for economic or political stability is a fairly modern arrangement—without the weight of tradition.
  • It doesn’t matter that LGBT people do not molest children at a higher rate than heterosexuals.
  • It doesn’t’ matter that you can’t convert straight people. It doesn’t matter that not one heterosexual marriage is threatened by same sex marriage, that “the sky hasn’t fallen” in the nineteen states that allow same sex marriage; it seems certain that somebody’s getting something they don’t deserve, and it’s costing the rest of us.

I could go on: The questioning of Israel’s contribution to the civilian casualties in Gaza, opposition to the Affordable Care Act, opposition to any gun control legislation, denial of climate change science, etc. You get the point. Regardless of the issue, some people’s position on it is formed by the lizard brain fear that somebody is getting something they don’t deserve … and that it’s coming at my expense.

Look, I’m not saying there aren’t things to be afraid of. There are. But if you happen to follow Jesus, shouldn’t the things you’re most afraid of be that you’ll get yours at the expense of someone else?

We all have fears we react to. It’s the way we were created. But some fears should be recalibrated, some emotional hard drives should be overwritten.

All I’m saying is: If we claim to be on Jesus’ team, shouldn’t we be afraid that the fears we have imprinted on our brains run contrary to the movement of the reign of God—a reign in which we seek to deny ourselves in favor of others, in which we cease worrying about securing our lives rather than laying them down?