Articles on a particular topic seem to come out in clusters. Shortly after doing yesterday's post on the origin of religions I see this article by Nicholas Wade in the NYTimes. He makes some further interesting points.
For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless...For believers, it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely.
It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.
The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community’s needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community. Religion also emboldened them to give their lives in battle against outsiders. Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.
Could the evolutionary perspective on religion become the basis for some kind of detente between religion and science? Biologists and many atheists have a lot of respect for evolution and its workings, and if they regarded religious behavior as an evolved instinct they might see religion more favorably, or at least recognize its constructive roles. Religion is often blamed for its spectacular excesses, whether in promoting persecution or warfare, but gets less credit for its staple function of patching up the moral fabric of society. But perhaps it doesn’t deserve either blame or credit. If religion is seen as a means of generating social cohesion, it is a society and its leaders that put that cohesion to good or bad ends.