I was raised to be skeptic, by two loving and well-educated parents. I probably also have my grandfather Lorn to thank for my scientific worldview. Ever the scientist, my mama-papa always encouraged me to ask questions, to think in new ways, and to just plain figure out how things work.
Even so, my familiy was (and still is) quite religious, although the Methodist church to which most of my family belongs is on the more liberal end of the American religious spectrum, and these days my closest relatives are less observant than when I was a child.
So I wonder: in this modern world, where rational explanations are sought for everything, what purpose is served by religious belief?
Ever since I began to question religion at an early age, I have wondered why people held religious beliefs so strongly. Studies in biology, along with what I learned from my two psychologist parents, informed my thinking into this matter. When I began to learn more about evolution in college, and particularly evolutionary psychology, I began to wonder what adaptative advantage a gene endowing its owner with religious belief might bestow. In other words, perhaps a tendency toward religious faith — thought not overtly advantageous today — was advantageous at some time in the distant past.
Some years ago, this theory began to take shape in my mind. In the environment during which the human brain was undergoing its last surge of evolution, language and consciousness appeared on the scene. For the first time, it became possible for humans to examine themselves mentally. With these newfound abilities though came perils. When one can comprehend one's own mortalilty, for example, this understanding can be debilitating. Perhaps a predisposition towards mysticism allowed people to posit (or accept from others) quick-and-dirty solutions to the unfathomable problems made possible by human cognition.
Imagine two of our ancient ancestors: one guy who pondered his mortatlity but found no comforting answer, and another fellow who had the same questions, but answered them with a story about an afterlife. Apply the same idea to other areas of religious belief: heaven & hell, the observance of rituals, and so on. Perhaps, my thinking went, the guy who had a quick answer to the unanswerable questions was more able to just get on with life than his cohort who lacked the easy answers.
Yesterday my dad — the brother and son of Methodist ministers — sent me a link to a fascinating article in the New York Times. The article covers in a fair amount of detail the current state of research into the evolution of religion. I'm glad to see that some of my ideas are shared by renowed scientists, and that the topic is getting the attention it richly deserves.