In the interests of ecumenism and optimism for this impending Easter holiday on Sunday (May 5 for the Orthodox) and Passover (March 25-April 2), and a healthy reverence for the market in all things pastel, bunny, and candy, I am declaring myself neither a believer nor an atheist. Yes, religion (along with war) is a predicament human culture devised instead of reason, which is still only a minor element in science fiction.
Dr. Justin Barrett, who, when we spoke to him in 2009, was senior researcher at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at the University of Oxford, is one of several researchers looking for the roots of religion in important cognitive processes we use as “shortcuts” to perceive and make sense of the world. He thinks that because of these cognitive tools, we’re primed to look for signs of intention in the world, and to think that most events have some agent, possibly a supernatural one, making them happen. In this conception, religious thinking is a kind of natural byproduct of normal mental processes. Interestingly, Dr. Barrett, a Christian, thinks that these ideas are easily reconcilable with many different religious faiths.
Dr. David Sloan Wilson approaches the science of religion from another perspective. A self-described Atheist who studies religion, he’s also a distinguished professor in the Departments of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York. He’s investigating religion as a possible adaptation – in some sense, like biological adaptations, such as the opposable thumb or the eye. He suspects that religion is a way of binding social groups together, which then gives those groups selective advantages over other groups.
Add a little Michael Shermer. And then listen to all three while your siblings and cousins run around the yard or urban war zone looking for plastic eggs filled with processed corn syrup when they could stayed home and raided the liquor cabinet – trust me, kids, Big Candy and Big Booze are in cahoots. Actually, my grandfather used to put coins in the eggs, one of which had a dollar bill. Easter egg hunts were my first opportunities to learn probabilities and get a real reward. Either that, or just spy on him as he hid the little bombs and tried to sneak a Scotch at the same time.
Yes, religion is very instructive.