This is a rare book that cites verifiable research sources and yet reads like something you could pick up at Waldenbooks. I'll link to some of these sources in this review.
The book starts off rather tedious, but I didn't know a lot of this stuff so I stuck with it. The main point seems to be that "Theory of Mind" (i.e., theory that others have minds) is behind the need to believe in some intelligence in the universe.
The next section talks about the concept of having a purpose in life. I've heard this argument many times from theists: If you don't believe in God, then your life has no purpose. Their purpose? If they're glassy-eyed fundamentalists, it's to glorify god, or perhaps just worship him. But in reality their purpose is to stay on God's good side so they won't go to Hell. Ask a Christian sometime if they would still worship God if they knew with 100% certainty they would be going to Hell anyway. I bet they've never considered that. If you've never encountered such a theist, I suggest having a listen to this caller (Clifton) on the Atheist Experience. He demonstrates both of these first two psychological needs perfectly. Note that it doesn't matter whether any of Christianity is true, only that it supposedly gives one a purpose. Believers don't cling to their religions because they really believe in everything in the ancient texts. They cling to them because these religions fulfill an existential need and they can't imagine going through life with that need unmet.
The first of these happened in Britain in 1845. A crowd of women and children gathered to watch a stunt on the river below. The bridge collapsed and about sixty children and as many as forty adults lost their lives. The local reverend urged the grieving townspeople to reflect on their sins, which he blamed for the disaster. (A local inquest blamed the design of the bridge)
Piaget's theory of the moral development of children to the rescue! We want JUSTICE! We want things to make sense. We want some parental surrogate to sort out the good from the bad and mete out the punishment to those who deserve it. This is somehow tied to a concept called "intentionality." Things happen for a reason, and someone intended things to be that way. When good things happen, it's because we're good people and we deserve it. When bad things happen we must be to blame, and some supernatural entity metes out the punishment.
So... the more you suffer, the more you believe in God. If you live in Northern Europe, you're fairly comfortable and you don't need God. If you're unhealthy and living in poverty in Mississippi you're likely to be part of the overwhelming majority in that state that believe in God. This whole thing also explains what I considered a surprising denouement in PBS' Nova episode "The Bible's Buried Secrets," that I reviewed here. When the Jews were defeated and dragged off to Babylon, they became more religious. It also explains the (false) idea that "There are no atheists in foxholes." If you believe in your own religion because it helps you deal with existential fears, the fear of death would be the ultimate. Psychological projection takes it into the realm of the other's mind (theory of mind again). It's hard to imagine another mind that isn't like our own.
I'm still only halfway through the book but I thought I'd post this half-book review, seeing as I keep digressing into my own ideas anyway!
I recommend it for anyone who is tired of the Science vs. Religion debate. The scientific method plays into this because of the studies the author cites, but it's about the psychology of belief, which I think is at the root of religion.
While you wait for me to get around to the rest of the book for the second half of my review, check out The author's site
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