This WSJ piece by Michael Shermer is well worth a look. Some key extracts:
According to Oxford University Press’s “World Christian Encyclopedia,” 84% of the world’s population belongs to some form of organized religion. That equals 5.7 billion people who belong to about 10,000 distinct religions, each of which may be further subdivided and classified. Christians, for example, may be apportioned among over 33,000 different denominations. Among the many binomial designations granted our species (Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, Homo economicus), a strong case could be made for Homo religiosus…
…belief in supernatural agents (God, angels, demons) and commitment to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals) appears to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for authority, traditionalism).
Why did we inherit this tendency? Long, long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far, far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency).
As neologisms go, “patternicity” and “agenticity” are not among the most elegant, but Shermer’s analysis of why the “God gene” came to be is intriguing. Whatever the correct explanation may ultimately prove to be (and I doubt that we will ever know for sure), we can, I think, be certain of one thing: religions will always be with us
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