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The Psychology of Religious Belief - good as well as bad
on 20 September 2012
The subtitle of the book "why psychology leads to atheism" is a misrepresentation of the contents and gives a false impression of what the topics addressed and tone will be. Rather than a description of how psychology leads to some sort of disproof of the supernatural forcing an atheistic conclusion, the book takes the atheist position from the start and then asks why, in the absence of any gods, does religious belief emerge and persist amongst nearly all human cultures. This question is raised across the evolution of religious form, from the worshiping of sun gods and thunder gods, female fertility symbols, soap-opera style Roman, Greek and Egyptian warring extended families of gods through to today's monotheism and Power's explanations for why these ideas came about, why they lasted and then why they were ultimately rejected for a new form are clear and persuasive. As such this is almost a follow up to Dan Dennet's "Breaking The Spell" which is an extended justification for why religious belief should be studied like any other form of human behaviour and not treated as supernatural - Power takes this as a valid starting point and begins that study.
Rather differently from many recent books taking an atheist position on religious practice, Power writes of the benefits of religion as a human practice in some of its aspects. Pointing out that much in modern life pushes us away from community living (he often quotes Putnam's "Bowling Alone" as a case study of how American lifestyles are moving away from communal experience to the purely personal) Power shows the benefits of shared religious belief as a way to bind people together such that it seems to increase scores of happiness and also to improve some health outcomes. He also points out that these effects are contextual and for some parts of the world, like Africa, increased religiosity has the opposite set of outcomes to those found in the West which shows that some complex factors are at play. Power suggests that atheism needs to take the positive benefits of religious living while continuing to reject the negative - so being a committed member of a group with shared purpose and outlook is good for you, but persecution and demonization of those outside your group for being heretics or sinners, something seen far too often in the history of religion, is an outcome that should stay rejected.