Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Marc Hauser have published a paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences on the perennial question of the origin of religion. Views on the subject generally divide between religion as an evolved adaptation and religion as a by-product some preexisting capacity. While labeled “opinion,” the paper relies heavily on work in cognitive science, particularly that aspect of cognitive science that focuses on moral intuitions. Here is their conclusion,
To the extent that explicit religiosity cannot penetrate moral intuitions underlying the ability to cooperate, religion cannot be the ultimate source of intra-group cooperation. Cooperation is made possible by a suite of mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion. Moral judgments depend on these mechanisms and appear to operate independently of one’s religious background. However, although religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation, it can play a role in both facilitating and stabilizing cooperation within groups, and as such, could be the target of cultural selection. Religious groups seem to last longer than non-religious groups, for example.
In the future, more experimental research is needed to probe the actual relationship between folk moral intuitions and intuitive beliefs about afterlife, gods and ancestors. It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we have discussed, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence. [references omitted]
But the abnormally interesting part is how they got to this conclusion. Give it a read; it’s open access.
My own thinking about this question, as far as I have thought of it at all, has vacillated among and between various flavors of the two major positions that Pyysiäinen and Hauser evaluate. Should it withstand additional research and critical review, their position will render unreasonable any effort to maintain that religion is an evolved adaptation. In addition, arguments from necessity and from the evidence of moral conduct for the maintenance of religious belief or practice would no longer be tenable. Not that I think they are now. Of course, religion, as Pyysiäinen and Hauser say, “play[s] a role in both facilitating and stabilizing cooperation within groups.” But in our current world, I wonder if that role is positive or negative. Whatever its origin, religion is not the only cultural phenomenon that facilitates intergroup cooperation. But it does seem to have a multiplying effect. In our current global political, economic, and environmental landscape, the most pressing of our current concerns require “facilitating and stabilizing cooperation” between diverse groups rather than within groups.
While introspection does not produce useful data, I find Pyysiäinen and Hauser’s conclusion perfectly aligned with my own experience.