Those of us who reject the claim that supernatural deities are behind the establishment of any religion must necessarily believe in a natural basis for religious belief. Fortunately, fueled by a cross-disciplinary approach, scientific inquiry into this question has significantly advanced over the last decade, and is now producing some very plausible hypotheses. A recent article in the journal Nature, Religion: Bound to believe, explores the latest understanding into the cognitive-evolutionary basis of religion. Its author, Pascal Boyer, concludes
Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.
The whole article, which is actually quite short, is well worth a read.
Explaining away competing religions has always been very difficult for the believer. While specific creeds and doctrines may differ across the various religions, the foundations of religious faith show remarkable similarity. One such common foundation is some numinous experience which the believer almost always associates with the god that is dominant in whatever culture they happen to be in. When acknowledging the same experience in other competing faith traditions, the believer nonetheless attributes it by necessity to some nefarious source, like Satan. But they never offer a valid method by which one could differentiate a divinely-inspired experience from a demonic-inspired one. How do they know that “witness of the Holy Spirit” feeling didn’t come from the Father of Lies himself? The believer simply takes it as axiomatic that it wasn’t.
Because scientific theories on the cognitive-evolutionary basis of religion offer a vastly superior explanation for belief than provided by believers, religion’s apologists will strive strenuously to undermine them. But what possible leg do they have to stand on, besides more special pleading? Such theories must be particularly troublesome for theistic scientists and other believers who accept evolution.
Surveys of religious belief, at least in the west, show a marked shift away from exclusionary claims and toleration of “different paths”. Does this represent a growing recognition, on some level, of the shared basis for religious belief? How much more difficult would it be to accept that this basis is of natural origin?