Sibling Rivalry: Science and Religion, Twin Opposites of the Collective Brain

Anything you can do, I can better. I can do anything better than you!

This sentiment probably feels familiar if you grew up with a sibling. I happen to have a uniquely special bond with my sister, but we have undoubtedly experienced our fair share of brother-sister competition. As siblings, we naturally want to outdo; outshine; and outwit our kindred counterpart. Who is smarter? Who is “right?” Who will succeed in the eyes of our parents? (The answer is me, obviously ;) ).

Whether we are united by biological kin, community, country, or cosmos, competition always exists; part of human reality is duality, where two opposing sides compete against one another. Like the time when my sister wanted to get Thai food, and I suggested we go to Phở, instead, just to spite her (“I just, like… can’t handle curry right now…”), we usually react to our counterparts by thinking or doing the opposite of what they do.

That’s just how the mind works.

And that’s how behavior works on a collective scale, too: in the shared psyche, we are always reacting and balancing each other out. You’re a Liberal? I’m a Conservative (na-na na-na boo-boo). You believe this? I believe that (and I’m right!). You think Thai is the best Asian cuisine? I will give you 50 reasons why Phở is better (no, seriously, I can…).

The mind thinks in opposites. It is always doing its best to arrive a truth. Sometimes, it gets really attached to a certain idea or belief. But somehow, someway, that belief will be countered — whether in the individual mind, or the collective one. Psychological processes are inherently dualistic, and they will always find their opposite expressions.

Two Sides of the Same Brain

Enter one of the most famed and contentious psychological sibling rivalries: Science and Religion.

Now, you might not think of Science and Religion as siblings, at all. To most, they seem like diametrical opposites, more brutal competitors than biological kin. But I will argue here that Science and Religion are two sides of the same coin, or two halves of the same brain. As brother and sister, they reflect the shadows of one another. To get even more gooey and gushy, Science and Religion need one another. The truth doesn’t lie in one side, alone, nor does it necessarily lie in between, or in some combination of both. The truth lies outside of the duality of this relationship; it is simply the recognition that the diametric is. You can’t change the fact that your sister is your sister, and you, her counterpart.

Let’s get back to food (hungry yet?).

Imagine, now, that your sibling (or parent, or someone you know) really, really wants to go to a certain restaurant. You really, really don’t want to go. The more they want to go there, the more you want to go the other place. The dualistic mind is always reacting; the more polarized one side becomes, the more polarized the other must become. This is true whether occurring internally (the tug-of-war between our own beliefs), interpersonally (e.g., between siblings), or on a broader level (e.g., between political groups).

Science and Religion are no different. They are archetypal ideas enveloped within the same collective psyche, brother and sister beautifully (or grotesquely?) bound to each other for life.

Science is like the left side of the brain (rational, linear, analytical), whereas Religion is like the right side of the brain (emotional, nonlinear, intuitive). Two hemispheres, Brother and Sister, Yin and Yang, within our collective psyche.

Yet Religion dominated the human psyche for a very long time. The matriarchal qualities (not women, per se, but feminine qualities such as intuition, emotion, etc.) ruled much of our history. What, would you guess, was bound to happen in the collective psyche to balance itself out?

Science was born to counter religion. In some cases — as is true in our individual sibling rivalries — the relationship was unhealthy as the two grew up together: Science would say, and do, and proclaim, and brag about, something simply because Religion proclaimed the opposite (again, see: the “na-na na-na boo-boo” effect). The advent of Science was the mind grappling for a way to balance the long reign of Religion. Science was born as a reaction to Religion.

This is great. No problem. We now live in perfect harmony. Yin and Yang. Matt and Brandi (my sister) getting along perfectly.

Unfortunately this is not the reality (not my sister and I — we get along great). Science — the left brain — the masculine — the Yang — has grown to dominate our consciousness and culture.

We have become attached to Science as “the real” reality. We are left-brain thinkers who poo-poo and pity the right brain. We no longer leave room for faith as a way of knowing. If it is not observable and measurable, then it is not real. If it doesn’t conform to the idea of what we believe science is, then it is garbage nonsense conspiracy idiocy. Those anti-science idiots!

The problem is that Science, born as a powerful, reactive viewpoint to Religion — a viewpoint that, once captured by it, is difficult to see outside of (like a fish in water)— has become something to believe in. The irony is that Science has become a religion. It has become a shadow of the thing it is trying to overcome. Siblings and family do this all the time: I can try, as hard as I can, to be different from my sister and parents. If I react and suppress, without conscious awareness or integration, I will undoubtedly end up acting out the very behaviors I am trying to overcome. I may find myself dining at Thai restaurants, calling it Phở.

Science, Religion, and Consciousness in the New World

I believe this is where we find ourselves in our current social/political age. In the COVID-19 landscape, you can either be “pro Science” or “anti Science,” regardless of what the science actually says. Science is quickly becoming the name of a new belief system, rather than a rigorous and honest method of inquiry (this certainly still does exist among scientists, but perhaps not the public at large). Science is now a static thing rather than an adaptive process.

I believe we are starting to recognize this. I believe we are collectively waking up. COVID-19 is a symptom that is revealing our attachments to certain ideologies. One of these attachments is the way we see the world, in its entirety — namely, through the lens of Science.

The next phase of our cultural evolution must learn to healthily integrate science and religion; as siblings, we must learn to respect, validate, empathize with, and evolve alongside, our shadow opposite. Neither me, nor my sister, holds the entire truth. The truth is in our mutual existences, itself— diametrically opposed on the surface, but nonetheless, forever kin.

Tonight, my sister and I are going for Thai food.

Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY32423) and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. He hosts “The Middle Way” podcast and is the author of “Simple Stress-Reduction: Easy and Effective Practices for Kids, Teens, and Adults.”

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Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at USC. Host of The Middle Way podcast. Writing on interconnectedness and compassion.