The Economist reports recently that a major (if you call 3.1 million dollars major) European research project is under way in which the biological basis for the religious impulse will be studied. Much has been made in the past about a god gene, but this study will focus on whether there is a Darwinian, evolutionary advantage to belief in god, or religion in general. It is slated to run for at least three years, having already started last September, and it will involve research by scholars in 14 major universities, spread over a number of disciplines. Science is taking a proactive stance and putting religion under the microscope.
Explaining Religion is an ambitious attempt to do this. The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a “surveillance-camera” God might improve reproductive success to an individual’s Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a person’s reputation—for instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not? The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of co-operation, for what reasons, and whether such co-operation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.
There are quite a few studies already conducted that are cited in the article. Many of them use recent advances in brain imagery to detect those parts of the brain that fire up under lab induced circumstances designed to emulate religious experiences in daily life.
Though there is clearly still a long way to go, this sort of imaging should eventually tie down the circuitry of religious experience and that, combined with work on messenger molecules of the sort that Dr McNamara is doing, will illuminate how the brain generates and processes religious experiences.
One of the theories is that since religion doesn’t seem to give a selective advantage to individuals, it may do so in a group setting. Group selection as an evolutionary explanation had previously been abandoned by most biologists long ago, but this research may revive it.
Personally, I tend to think that there is an infinitely greater possibility that science will explain why we, as a society, tend to be religious, than that any religion will ever prove the existence of any particular god. However:
Evolutionary biologists tend to be atheists, and most would be surprised if the scientific investigation of religion did not end up supporting their point of view. But if a propensity to religious behaviour really is an evolved trait, then they have talked themselves into a position where they cannot benefit from it, much as a sceptic cannot benefit from the placebo effect of homeopathy. Maybe, therefore, it is God who will have the last laugh after all—whether He actually exists or not.
Critical thinking people have to love science, and a research project like this tends to underscore why. No matter the outcome, we will undoubtedly have learned much about the way the brain works, and why humans tend to seek meaning and explanation by positing supernatural entities, or otherwise believe in things way beyond what the evidence points to. There’s a delicious irony at work here too. Science is driven by evidence. Without it, science withers. The study of religion and belief will be the study of the evidence that explains such beliefs. Religion cares not a bit for evidence, yet it is evidence that will someday explain religion.
The sad thing is that even if science would indisputably show where our religious impulses come from, there will still be people who will shrug it off as more blatherskite from the pointy headed intellectuals who have it in for their god, and will go on praying.