Religion commands the world. It’s hard to argue with a statement like this one as we can see, on a daily basis, how religion and religious beliefs guide people’s behavior and thoughts. Studying religion – the institution of religion, not its claims – is therefore a fundamental step in order to understand human action. Of course, as a touchy and rather personal subject as it is, doing so tends to create tension between believers and non-believers. It would not be a surprise that a theory that postulates religion as a side effect of sex would be greeted with outrage.
It just so happen that it’s a theory of the sort that John Horgan discusses in a guest post at the Scientific American website. Horgan starts by referring to the theory of sex as a side effect of theory of mind. He then goes on to explain the theory proposed by Andrew Newberg that religious experiences have some overlap with sexual arouseness in terms of neural activity:
Another intriguing theory of religion—or, more specifically, religious or mystical experiences—has been proposed by the radiologist Andrew Newberg. Using single-photon emission computed tomography, a variant of the better-known positron emission tomography, or PET, Newberg has scanned the brains of praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhist monks, and he has found some overlap between their neural activity and that of sexually aroused subjects (scanned by other researchers). The correlation makes sense, according to Newberg. Just as sex involves a rhythmic activity, so do religious practices such as chanting, dancing and repetition of a mantra. Like orgasms, religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence and unity; that may be why some mystics describe their raptures with romantic or even sexual language.
Horgan states in the end that just because religion can be seen as a side effect of either sex or the theory of mind, that doesn’t mean that it has no value or purpose. Which I quite agree, although it reads more like a political statement than a scientific one. You can read the post here.