The biology of religion and non-belief

nuncscio_sistinechapel The human brain is a confusing thing. I say this for two reasons: first, I am periodically startled by things that have always been in my house, like my toaster. This is strange. Second, the whole "religion" thing.

I've been experiencing a small measure of cognitive dissonance in my RSS feed. On the one hand, I've been reading about how the evolution of the human brain created the necessary mental architecture for the belief in God, and that we, as a species, are prone to "purpose-seeking" explanations for natural phenomena. Otherwise known as "promiscuous teleology", this proclivity expresses itself in statements like "birds exist to make pleasing noises" or "God created man in his image." The upshot of both of these studies is that humans are actually hardwired for religious beliefs.

On the other hand, I've been running across quite a few stories that state things like "four out of five Britons repudiate creationism" or "America becoming less Christian, survey finds." The latter article is particularly interesting, as it points out that not only do more people identify themselves as non-Christian, they also reject relgious beliefs altogether. In other words, American Christians aren't becoming Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist. They are becoming atheists.

So, we're left with a conundrum. Our propensity for religious belief appears to be  in some sense biological, built into the fabric of our brains. At the same time, more and more people are turning away from religion. My humble response: religion is no longer a necessary condition for human survival. From an evolutionary perspective, religion was a functional explanatory and moral code. Once our brains developed the capacity for religious thought, they acquired a useful means for regulating social relationships. As long as this regulatory function remains, religion persists.

But now, other belief systems - science, codified laws and secular morality, among others - are supplanting the regulatory function of religion. And, because these new codes fit equally well within our mental architecture with the added bonus of observable proof, they offer stiff competition to the revealed truth of religious belief. You might even say that we're evolving out of our need for religion which, when you think about it, is pretty ironic.

Of course, we could be on the cusp of a global religious revival which will make this post look like so much bleating. Conversely, if current trends continue, religion may soon become another vestigial tail or appendix in the body of human civilization. It's up for debate whether that's a good thing or not. But it will be awfully interesting to watch.