One of the major efforts in the study of human behaviour, over the last couple of decades, is the attempt to understand it in evolutionary terms. So, scientists have studied many universal human behaviours – such as music, language, and art, to try to understand if there are evolutionary reasons why our minds would produce such things. Recently, more attention has been focussed on another universal human behaviour – religion. Religion in many forms is nearly ubiquitous around the world and as far back in history as we can determine. So, a small group of scientists has begun to ask important questions, such as, why do we have religion? What is it about our brains, our psychology and our evolutionary history that drives us to search for signs of the divine? In short, how and why are humans built to believe?
Dr. Justin Barrett, who, when we spoke to him in 2009, was senior researcher at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at the University of Oxford, is one of several researchers looking for the roots of religion in important cognitive processes we use as "shortcuts" to perceive and make sense of the world. He thinks that because of these cognitive tools, we're primed to look for signs of intention in the world, and to think that most events have some agent, possibly a supernatural one, making them happen. In this conception, religious thinking is a kind of natural byproduct of normal mental processes. Interestingly, Dr. Barrett, a Christian, thinks that these ideas are easily reconcilable with many different religious faiths.
Dr. David Sloan Wilson approaches the science of religion from another perspective. A self-described Atheist who studies religion, he's also a distinguished professor in the Departments of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York. He's investigating religion as a possible adaptation – in some sense, like biological adaptations, such as the opposable thumb or the eye. He suspects that religion is a way of binding social groups together, which then gives those groups selective advantages over other groups.
Written By: Quirks & Quarkscontinue to source article at cbc.ca