Thirty-five years ago, I signed up for a college course in comparative religion because, as a hopelessly idealistic 18 year old freshman, I figured religion in general would last for 10 more years, then die out, and I wanted to see what the hullabaloo was all about before it was gone forever.
Of course, I could not have been more wrong about something. Looking back, I had made — not just one — but at least two cognitive mistakes. First, I was thinking of religion as mostly a primitive attempt to explain things — a proto-science. That is, I had bought into the ancient and outdated notion that folks had invented the gods in order to explain what caused thunderstorms, diseases, love, and other such catastrophes (however much outdated, that notion is still around, though).
That first mistake led directly to my second cognitive mistake: I believed science could and would replace religion because it seemed natural and inevitable to me that truth would replace falsehood.
In other words, I thought (1) religion largely offered us little more than false explanations for things, and (2) true explanations would inevitably displace false ones.
Nowadays, I think I have a somewhat more accurate view of how we humans came to be religious animals. In fact, I think there is more than one cause of our religiosity. But one of the things I do not think played much of a role in the evolutionary origins of our religiosity was any need to explain things.
It might be true humans are an animal that feels some need to explain things, but I do not believe that need gave rise to human religiosity. For one thing, religions in general seem to place much more emphasis on the antiquity of their beliefs than they place on their explanatory power. But if religiosity arose as an explanation of things, then wouldn’t that be turned around? Wouldn’t people be much more inclined than they apparently are to demand that their religious beliefs accurately explain something?
Today, I think there might be as many as a dozen reasons humans are a religious animal. But I think, of those dozen reasons, two are by far the most important.
First, I think Theory of Mind offers us a powerful explanation for how religiosity originated in our species. “Theory of Mind” is a name for the human tendency to assume that other people, besides we ourselves, have minds. The polar opposite of Theory of Mind would be the notion that we (i.e. you yourself) are the only thing in the universe with a mind. If one wants to know how we humans evolved religious behaviors, then I think one could do much worse than to study how we humans evolved our Theory of Mind.
The second most important cause of human religiosity, so far as I am concerned, is the mystical experience. The mystical experience occurs when subject/object perception comes to an end while awareness yet continues. If you are passionate enough about mysticism to be interested, I have written about that mystical experience on this blog, including in my post on the vital topic of “How to Marry a Beautiful Woman by Discussing Mysticism“. I firmly believe the post should be required reading in all kindergarten level courses in comparative religion.
Near as I can figure out, a large proportion of mystical experiences involve what can be described as “an experience of god”. But even those that do not involve “an experience of god” tend to have a wee little inspirational effect on people. I, for one, can easily imagine any and all mystical experiences as likely to inspire religious behaviors.
Those are my best guesses these days for how human religiosity came about. Perhaps oddly enough, if either one of those guesses is true — let alone if both of them are true — then human religiosity is not going to die out of our species any time soon. In fact, if those guesses are true, a strong case can be made for the notion that humans will be religious so long as humans are Homo sapiens.