Here’s an interesting discussion at Scientific American: “Is Religion Adaptive? It’s Complicated.”
Schloss’s point is the one that gets most people thinking. “That’s all fine and dandy about the scientific research, but what does it all tell us about the existence of God?” What if, as I suggested in my answer to this year’s “Annual Question” at Edge. The data suggest that God is actually just a psychological blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? Would you still believe if you knew God were a byproduct of your evolved mental architecture?
What if, indeed? That’s easy. If (and it’s a very big if) the data showed God was just a psychological blemish on my brain, then I could no longer believe.
That the question could even be asked is telling. “Could you believe in God if you knew he didn’t exist?” The question only makes sense if belief means something divorced from what we know to be true about the world. It’s another illustration of the commonly observed fact-value dichotomy: facts are about objective knowledge, while values (which include what we decide to believe) are private matters with no necessary connection to external realities, or so it is thought. For whatever reason, far too many Christians, even, have bought into this relativistic dichotomy.
Christianity, properly understood in its evangelical historical form, makes objective concrete statements about reality, and if they are wrong, then Christianity is wrong. Our belief is that God actually created the world, called Abraham, formed the nation of Israel, brought them out of Egypt through a parted Red Sea, spoke through the prophets, was incarnated in Christ who lived, died, and rose again in real history. If I ever came to know that these things were false, how could I “believe” they were true? As J.I. Packer wrote as long ago as 1972,
Nor is this all. Scepticism about both divine revelation and Christian origins has bred a wider scepticism which abandons all idea of a unity of truth, and with it any hope of unified human knowledge; so that it is now commonly assumed that my religious apprehensions have nothing to do with my scientific view of things external to myself, since God is not ‘out there’ in the world, but only ‘down here’ in the psyche. The uncertainty and confusion about God which marks our day is worse than anything since Gnostic theosophy tried to swallow Christianity in the second century.
(Knowing God, Foreword)
Amen to that. It hasn’t become noticeably better in 37 years since then.
As to the question posed in the article’s title, the answer is of course religion is adaptive. Any dummy knows it could never have evolved if it weren’t! Either it’s adaptive in that sense, or (and they apparently spent precious little time considering this) people are religious because there’s a reality beyond nature that we know we need to tap into. I’ll buy that latter option, myself.