I was going to write a big, brilliant post on this subject, but, alas, my fame-seeking personality supplicated to laziness and sloth. Forgive me if this is scattered or underdeveloped; take it out on me in the comment section.
Evolutionary Biology and Evolutionary Psychology seek to understand how current human processes, among others, developed from way, way before pre-historic times. Early-hominid environmental conditions influenced genetic mutations whose (long-) lasting affects still influence our functioning today. As an outgrowth of these studies, the examination of the Evolution of Religion recently emerged: Is there an evolutionary benefit, among early humans, that could explain biologically and psychologically why religion perpetuated itself? Oversimplified, how and why did religion emerge?
Natalie Angier interviewed Evolutionary Biologist David Sloan Wilson in a NYT article last week. To cut to the chase, Sloan argues that religion evolved because:
it helped make groups of humans comparatively more cohesive, more cooperative and more fraternal, and thus able to present a formidable front against bands of less organized or unified adversaries. While I haven't read his new book, Darwin's Cathedral – now on my reading list - I find this explanation unsatisfactory. Group cohesion is a sociological factor, not a biological one. Religion might make groups more cohesive, but that affect would be secondary.
Enter a study done at the Missouri University. According to this study, there is a "spirituality spot" found in the brain, more specifically the right parietal lobe. This part of the brain handles self-definition (selflessness, self-criticism, self-awareness, self-focus, etc.). As such, people who are more spiritual have less active right-parietal lobes.
The finding suggests that one core tenant of spiritual experience is selflessness, said Johnstone, adding that he hopes the study "will help people think about spirituality in more specific ways."So, maybe religion evolved because the propagation of a selfless gene - and mental, physical health genes? - one that develops the right parietal lobe. People with this gene mated creating a dominant gene. This selflessness would then manifest socially through deeper, more meaningful relationships, through stronger group cohesion. I'm not an expert, but that seems to fit better.
Spiritual outlooks have long been associated with better mental and physical health. These benefits, Johnstone speculated, may stem from being focused less on one's self and more on others - a natural consequence of turning down the volume on the Me-Definer.
How does the studies on the Evolution of Religion dialogue with theology? While I think the studies of the Evolution of Religion are important and worthy, I do not think theology should take an accomodationist approach to the subject. It is necessary to have theology dialogue with these findings, especially as most theologians believe the theory of evolution. I am skeptical, however, that theologians are taking the right approach. For example, asking "Where does God fit in?" cedes too much epistemological ground; theology should not be solely reactive to scientific inquiry.
Reading books on the subject I found that Evolutionary Biologists and Psychologists are self-professed atheists, even Wilson. Remember, the questions you ask influence the answers you seek, and the answers you seek influence the questions you ask. With this in mind, as I read books on the subject, I usually found myself thinking the authors asked the wrong questions, leading to potentially – and subconsciously! – preconceived findings. And, if you don't question the assumptions, you are more likely to grant the conclusions. I don't mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater, again, this subject is worthy. There, however, should be a deeper discussion over epistemology, assumptions, and presuppositions when intertwining these studies with theology. This discussion needs to happen, but it must be fruitful not accomodationist.
My $0.02. Ca-ching!