“Todd Stiefel told me about a lecture on the neurobiology of religion that he’d heard at an American Atheists convention several years ago. It was delivered by Dr. Andy Thomson, a psychiatrist who lives in Virginia and has studied the components of religious belief.
“Thomson has become famous among atheists for an exercise that seems to demonstrate how worship services work – why even lapsing Catholics like Harry sometimes felt that ‘Sunday morning high’ after church.
“In his experiment, Thomson asks members of the crowd to pinch themselves, hard, to gauge their pain threshold, and then to put their arms around each other and sing a few verses of ‘Amazing Grace.’
“Stiefel, who participated in the exercise, says the crowd couldn’t keep a straight face. Atheists singing ‘Amazing Grace’!?! But afterward, he said, he felt bonded to this unlikely choir, and when he pinched himself again, his pain threshold had increased.
“The experiment demonstrates the power of communal rituals, Thomson told me in an interview. Joining hands and singing together floods our brain with soothing endorphins, which boost our sense of trust and cooperation.
“It’s similar to how fans bond at the ballpark, and why after singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ and standing for ‘the wave,’ we often feel good, even if our team loses.”