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This review is from: The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief: Searching for Angels and the Parent-God (Hardcover)
"Religion doesn't work because it's true," said William James, "but is true because it works." The reason it works, according to MD Faber, is because religious notions tap into our deepest feeling-state, which is the symbiotic relationship we had with our primary caregiver during infancy. As he says in the middle of the book, "we turn to God as a child in distress turns to its mother." While he acknowledges Freud's insights about the connection between infancy and the religious impulse, he advances Freud's basic argument by highlighting the role of the primary caregiver (usually the mother) and by fruitfully linking psychology and neuroscience.
Drawing upon such close observers of infant behavior as DW Winnicott and Margaret Mahler, Faber leads us carefully through the developmental phases of early childhood, with the goal of tying the affective states of this life period to the feelings induced by religious rituals. Infancy is a period when we go through thousands of instances where we want something and someone provides what we need. During the earliest phases of life, we don't distinguish our self from the caregiver; later we see our self and our caregiver as a symbiotic team, working with one purpose and one all powerful will. We may not be "wired for God" as the famous phrase has it, but since "repeated patterns strengthen synaptic connections'" our brains are wired for asking and receiving from a caregiver who appears omnipotent to our childish eyes.
Then, amazingly, we forget this powerful formative experience, a process labeled infantile amnesia. (That we can't recall infant experiences is corroborated by imaging studies that demonstrate that the structures needed to form memories aren't functioning in babies.) Prayer and religious ritual become means of getting back to a preverbal sense of primal dualism - just us and our caregiver, in complete accord. Belief in God allows us to return to the state of bliss we had as infants, when we lived under the hallucinatory impression that an omnipotent caregiver could divine our every need and minister to our every want, just because we wished it to be so.
Once the toddler begins to separate in earnest from the caregiver, joy in his increasing powers is mitigated by feelings that he's losing his tight connection with the caregiver. The anxiety caused by separation from the parent can linger for a lifetime, and Faber posits the inner tussle between separation and connection as a major source of adult stress. Religion pours balm on this stress by allowing us to be ourselves but be under the care of an all-powerful, all-knowing protector. Other psychological aspects of early childhood get tied to religious practices. For example, infants and children are able to evoke imaginary companions to share in their behaviors and discoveries. As Edward Taylor says, animism - belief in unseen forces such as ghosts, souls, fairies and angels - is part of every religion in every culture in the world.
Assuming you're open to a natural as opposed to supernatural explanation of why our brains take so readily to religious ideas, Faber's arguments are cogently presented. There are, however, other paths along this track that beg to be explored. For instance, while he touches on inconsistent parenting (which causes the infant to create a good mother/bad mother paradigm) he doesn't dig in to the effect of erratic or non-existent parenting on religious impulses. Do people who had bad infant experiences yearn more or less for God than normals? Knowing the answer to this would be a good way of deepening Faber's thesis. Also, Faber focuses on the connection between the religious impulse and affective states of dependency and bliss achieved during infancy. But as the Hindus say, there are many paths to God. How do these stonier, thornier paths - self-denial, flagellation, rational thought, physical self-sacrifice, cannibalism, voodoo - tie in to attachment theory? Finally, religion is a social as well as personal practice - a way of separating people you can trust from people you can't, for example, or a way of organizing and motivating people to achieve specific political ends. How does the psychological pull of group dynamics tie back to the primary affective source of religious belief?
The pleasure one can take in Faber's well-reasoned arguments is somewhat marred by the writing style. The main problem is an overuse of quotations, which clogs the narrative flow. Some chapters, such as Prayer and Faith and Angelic Encounters, are so dense with quotes that the sense of an authorial voice nearly disappears altogether. But if you can work through that, you'll find a stimulating and provocative theory: we never stop wanting that state of perfect connection with an all-powerful caregiver we imagined we had as infants; religion is the magic castle we've constructed so we can return again and again to that lost state of symbiotic bliss.