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The Miao and the Feminine in China’s Cultural Politics

If a Neandertal mistook a tree creaking outside his cave for an assailant, he suffered no adverse consequences other than a moment’s panic, Guthrie argues. If the Neandertal mistook an assailant for a tree, the consequences might have been dire. As natural selection bolstered our anthropomorphic tendencies, Guthrie writes, they extended to all of nature, and we persuaded ourselves that “the entire world of our experience is merely a show staged by some master dramatist”—that is, God.

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.