Religious people often talk about how difficult it is to have faith in God and stay on a spiritual path. They like to think of themselves as brave souls choosing the road less often taken, going against the grain of a materialist, godless, faithless culture.
Actually, there's increasing evidence that the truth is just the opposite, since the minds of human beings are hard-wired for religion. What's difficult is recognizing our instinctual propensity to believe, and choosing a course that leads in the direction of reality.
Such is one of the messages of an excellent online article in the New York Times magazine, "Darwin's God." (I believe it's only available to TimesSelect subscribers, so will make it into a downloadable Word file: Download darwins_god.doc)
The article's author, Robin Marantz Henig, says, "The debate over why belief evolved is between byproduct theorists and adaptationists."
On the byproduct side, anthropologist Scott Atran wondered why religious belief is so prevalent (92 percent of Americans believe in a personal God) when what is materially false is taken to be true, and what is materially true is taken to be false.
Seemingly it wouldn't be a productive evolutionary strategy to be so out of touch with reality. Attan says:
Imagine another animal that took injury for health or big for small or fast for slow or dead for alive. It's unlikely that such a species could survive.
So he reasoned that if religious belief wasn't adaptive, maybe it was associated with something else that was. This is like blood being red. The redness is a byproduct of having blood that contains hemoglobin and can transport oxygen.
In the same fashion, many evolutionary researchers conclude that "agent detection" aids survival. Religious belief just hops along for a ride on the adaptive train.
Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent -- which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior -- is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.
This means, says Henig, that our brains are primed for belief in the supernatural, "ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic." God hears us and answers prayers. Divine beings take an interest in human affairs and direct our destinies.
The adaptationists look upon the origins of religion somewhat differently. They wonder what survival advantage religion might have conferred to humans early on, even if it doesn't have much (if any) reason for hanging around now.
Some researchers, Henig says, think that "religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves." This made them better mates, and helped groups with self-sacrificing individuals to outlast the competition.
Jesse Bering, a psychologist, holds that belief is our fallback position—our reflexive style of thought. I can believe it. Most people are religiously minded in one way or another. It's the easiest thing to do.
But now that we've evolved to a recognition of our own habitual propensity toward belief in the supernatural, it's possible for humans to take a higher road. Henig's article ends with:
What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe.
Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down.
The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.
This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the ''God of the gaps'' view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede.
Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural.
The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.