This subject has come up a number of times on the forum, most recently here. Namely, does religion have a basis in biology? And if so, what could that be?
This is a topic that Dennett discusses in his recent book [i:10e655bdf7]Breaking the Spell[/i:10e655bdf7] and also David Sloan Wilson discussed in his book [i:10e655bdf7]Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society[/i:10e655bdf7].
I haven’t yet read either one, but from what I have heard about how they treat the subject, I have a feeling I’d prefer Wilson’s approach: that religion is adaptive in providing a sort of cohesive force in culture.
The two main ways that anthropologists distinguish cultures is by language and religion. It is very interesting to note the fineness of accent that we can distinguish, and how we are always using accent to determine someone’s culture or even place of birth.
Similarly, religion is often historically tied to place, with the notion that a culture is tied to that place. So Judaism is tied to Jerusalem. Christianity often to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Rome. Islam to Mecca. Hinduism to the Ganges river. And on and on. This is not the whole story, perhaps; not all religions necessarily look to "place" with the same fervency, but it is interesting.
My guess is that religion originates at its deepest level with our biologically attuned ability to recognize kin. We need that ability to know who has similar genes to us, as Dawkins showed, and so who to protect (and who not to have children with).
Humans share the ability to recognize kin with all sorts of animals and insects: we can think of the strong kin-groups with wolves, wild dogs, crows, ants, bees, and other primates. So this is [i:10e655bdf7]not[/i:10e655bdf7] some case of human special-pleading.
Then, with the rise of language, the ability to recognize kin became magnified into a general view of the world that involved a more abstracted view of "us" and "them", "in-groups" and "out-groups", and tribal alliances. Many of these later solidified into some of the earliest religions like Judaism, and the gods of the Greek, Roman and Norse myths. Nowadays we see the same role in issues of sports—which team we affiliate with—and nationalism—which city, state, country we affiliate with.
Religion is just a particularly long-lived, strong and pernicious example of this tendency, rooted in pre-human biology of kin-group recognition.
Or that’s one possible view, anyway ... discussion?