I've been away for a week in Cyprus - an excellent time to get some R&R, and do some reading. One book I read was Ben Goldacre's Bad Science. Goldacre is the editor of the Bad Science website, and his book is well-written, heartfelt and engaging.
At one point of the book (in a chapter entitled 'Why clever people believe stupid things', in a section on why we often prefer chat show endorsements to empirical evidence), he writes the following:
'Communal reinforcement' is the process by which a claim becomes a strong belief, through repeated assertion by members of a community. The process is independent of whether the claim has been properly researched, or supported by empirical data significant enough to warrant belief by reasonable people. Communal reinforcement goes a long way towards explaining how religious beliefs can be passed on in communities from generation to generation...' (page 253).I've spoken several times on whether belief in God is merely a psychological crutch, and this is a commonly occuring theme in popular culture (see my review of the Brit flick Franklyn, for example). I'd come across 'communal reinforcement' in thinking about voting patterns before, and it got me thinking further about communal reinforcement in Christian circles. (In passing, I think it's harder to make this claim of Christian belief than, perhaps, theocratic beliefs like Islam, where confession influences much wider aspects of a society's culture).
It's certainly true that communal reinforcement inevitably does occur within Christian circles. This is shown by the fact that when someone professing as a Christian loses the community around them (typically leaving to go to university), many cease professing further. Additionally, it is not difficult to envisage that Christian conferences (for example) might leave delegates with an emotional high that is of merely psychological benefit. Conferences are wonderful but it's important we don't let them become emotionally manipulative. To do this might actually drive some away from authentic belief in Christ.
But like the normal 'psychological crutch' argument, just because some belief can be proven to be communal reinforcement, this does not necessarily go 'a long way' in explaining Christian belief. For one thing, it does not account for Christian belief where Christian community is minimal or non-existent (or where a person's community is primarily with those that are not Christians). Certainly Scripture represents belief in Christ as something based on historical fact (see John 20:30-31, 1 John 1:1-4 and so on), and not hunch or family faith.