Faith & Reason: And she would say, sweetly, `Let them eat Prozac'

If pain could be abolished, would there be any need for religion? Andrew Brown suggests the question is not so simple: the symptoms of an illness may be part of its cure.
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The Independent Online
In the United States, six million dollars a day are spent on Prozac. This is probably very little compared to what will soon be spent on sophisticated antidepressants; there is a ferocious research effort going on to find drugs which modify brain chemistry in similar ways, and the rewards are huge. No one knows exactly why or how these substances have their effects: we know how they change the chemical balance of the brain, but not why that should in turn produce a change in mood seven or ten days later. And we may discover that they have long-term effects that are most undesirable. But it is at least possible that we are heading for a world in which mental pain will be as controllable as physical pain.

If this comes about, the effects on religion will be immense. What on earth would religions do if there were no suffering to redeem or understand? What on earth would atheists do if the believers could smile at them with exasperating forbearance and explain that God had made Prozac and rendered obsolete all these arguments about the suffering of innocents?

I heard this prediction of a pain-free world at one of the Darwin Seminars run by the London School of Economics. They are fascinating on all sorts of levels. This one was on the question of evolutionary medicine, which, in an agreeable twist to the history of ideas, has reintroduced teleology to respectable science. I don't want to get into the vexed question of how much and how many of the just-so stories produced by this sort of thinking are true. It is enough to realise that there will be good reasons for many of the body's reactions in illness. The symptoms of an illness may in other words be part of its cure, just as the swelling around a wound is a mark of the immune system at work.

The best example given by Randolph Nesse was that of morning sickness during pregnancy, which is so widespread and so unpleasant that it seems natural to a Darwinian that it must have concomitant benefits. These appear to be an avoidance of all sorts of food which might harm the developing foetus at its most sensitive stage: coffee is a very familiar example. All sorts of plants with interesting effects become repulsive to pregnant women; and this, by a circuitous route, brings us back to drugs.

The question Dr Nesse raised was whether depression and sadness might not be in their way as adaptive as morning sickness. Certainly, reactive depression can be a warm and comforting sort of chrysalis in which to pupate. It can be a perfectly sensible way to react to loss and suffering, at least for a while. So if drugs are found that control or abolish the symptoms of depression, there is some danger that they might also diminish its healing effects.

To some extent we have been here before: at one stage in the Sixties it seemed to people that mood could be indefinitely controlled with the relatively cruder instruments that people then had, and that mystical experiences could simply be dialled into with LSD or similar drugs. But the idea is perennially attractive. Dr Nesse claimed that the earliest vessels found by archaeologists were always for fermenting in, to make alcohol. Malt has always done more than Milton to justify the ways of God (and Baal and the Goddess) to man. But it has hardly diminished the religious impulse.

This might be because alcohol is a deeply imperfect drug. It causes huge amounts of suffering, whether from hangovers, drunkenness, or the dreadful solipsism of addiction. If only some drug could be found that cheered without any of those side-effects, perhaps things would be different. Perhaps, with Prozac, they already are. People thought that about ecstasy, too, for a while, yet the fashion seems to have moved on. Yet, even if a drug were found that was affordable, at least for the middle classes, reliable, and safely abolished unhappiness in the way that heroin can abolish pain, I don't see that it would abolish religion. It would merely make it more fatuous.

The point is that human beings are not so constituted that they could really be cheerful while believing that the world was going to hell all around them. If their mood were permanently upbeat, so would their picture of the world be. A modern Marie Antoinette could look at the starving poor and say as sweetly and sincerely as her predecessor "Let them eat Prozac". And then perhaps it would turn out that a concentration on death and hell in religion was, in its way, as salutary and health-giving as depression.