Atheism’s Best Salesman Baba Brinkman's "The Rap Guide to Religion"

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and others take note: Baba Brinkman sells atheism with a smile and elicits more than a few belly laughs in his brilliant new one-man show, The Rap Guide to Religion, currently at the off-Broadway SOHO Playhouse in New York City.

“Rap,” Brinkman says, “is today’s epic poetry form.” And this hip-hop tour of the evolutionary origins of religion, advertised as a “peer-reviewed rap performance on the origins of faith,” is part concert, part stand-up comedy, and part TED talk. In ninety minutes, The Rap Guide to Religion explores how humans have created and evolved religions in the last forty thousand or so years—“without any idea of what the hell we were doing.” In Brinkman’s parlance, “It’s time to eff with the ineffable.”

In one of the show’s opening numbers, “Religion Evolves,” Brinkman raps:

Religion is an evolved mental technology, definitely
But did it evolve culturally, or did it evolve genetically?
Or is it a side effect of several other mental capacities
That evolved independently and separately function adaptively
Like agency detection systems triggered hyperactively
Or theory of mind, which means reading people tactically
Like, I know that you’re thinkin’, who the hell is Baba Brinkman?

Who the hell is Baba Brinkman? He is a thoughtful, funny, erudite, and amazingly likable talent. Within ten minutes, he had his audience (mostly middle-aged the night I attended) rapping along to his choruses. That “peer-reviewed” qualifier noted previously is not one of the evening’s jokes; with a BA in English literature, a master’s in medieval and Renaissance literature, and extensive study of evolution and primatology, Brinkman is a serious student who says all his lyrics are fact-checked for accuracy.

His previous shows and CDs include Ingenious Nature, The Rap Guide to Business, The Rap Guide to Human Nature (evolutionary psychology), The Canterbury Tales Remixed, and, most famously to date, The Rap Guide to Evolution, a hip-hop homage to Charles Darwin that Brinkman first performed in Britain for the Darwin bicentennial in February 2009 and for which he received the U.S. National Center for Science Education’s (NCSE) 2013 Friend of Darwin Award.

Riffing in stand-up fashion on celebrities like Justin Bieber, Jay Z, and Matthew McConaughey who piously thank God or Jesus for their awards in front of worldwide TV audiences, Brinkman explains that the “faith” they share “is a sincere faith that God has hooked them up.” Then he launches into his own mock-dedication in “Give Thanks”:

… Hence my unshakable faith in god
Talk about an underdog
A middle class Caucasian rapper, what are the odds?
I ain’t even gotta fake my past
I never been shot at, or stabbed
And somehow I rap for a living?
The lord is generous and forgiving
I ain’t even got the X-Factor
Least likely to make it as a rapper
And I rap about science
You can’t explain that without divine guidance!
So I dedicate this award
To the lord…

After an hour and a half of exploring the evolutionary inevitability of religion, Brinkman concludes on a realistic, humanist note: “I can imagine a world with no religion, but I don’t hold my breath, so instead I imagine a world with religion, only less.”

And I can’t imagine any future discussion of religion in which I don’t think of Baba Brinkman.

Quick, humanists, order your tickets for The Rap Guide to Religion. Even though success has extended the original five-week run, this brilliant, funny, and serious show needs its reach to evolve even further.