In fairness, it is very difficult for a social scientist to write a book about religion that does not fundamentally distort its nature. Those who can write such a book usually have a background in the humanities — Peter Berger comes readily to mind. Most attempts sponsored by atheistic materialists do not explain, they merely explain away.
Indeed, the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.
We now know that human brains have a set of security and precaution networks dedicated to preventing potential hazards such as predation or contamination. These networks trigger specific behaviours such as washing and checking one’s environment. When the systems go into overdrive they produce obsessive-compulsive pathology. Religious statements about purity, pollution, the hidden danger of lurking devils, may also activate these networks and make ritual precautions (cleansing, checking, delimiting a sacred space) intuitively appealing.
How does this help us understand why people spend their Friday night driving aged parishioners to holy hours or refuse to save their lives during a Rwandese massacre by abandoning fellow believers to their fate? Something is obviously missing from his explanation.
One thing missing is accuracy about obsessive-compulsive pathology. An obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) sufferer knows that her obsessive compulsions are nonsense. That is, she knows that her son will not die if she fails to count all the windows in her apartment building all over again. But due to bad brain wiring, she feels the fear. (See The Spiritual Brain, pp. 129-30.)
Indeed, encouraging the patient to substitute thinking for feeling is the basis of a successful non-materialist treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, pioneered by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. So OCD would explain religious ritual only if the typical worshipper felt an inner compulsion to engage in the activity while believing it useless – not a common scenario, and hardly a convincing basis for a theory of religion. That anyone would advance such an explanation in a science journal shows how limited the appetite for accuracy is in this area.
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See also at MercatorNet: The payoff for straining the brain – how focus and sleep really do improve your academic performance