religion is widespread I agree, and A Darwinian faced with something which is ubiquitous in a species naturally starts to wonder, what is the Darwinian survival value of that thing , and so the fact that religion is universal in all cultures – not in all individuals but in all cultures – should lead us to ask that question. And I think there’s got to be, in some sense, an evolutionary advantage – although not necessarily to religion itself. We need to rephrase that question, as we often need to rephrase questions about Darwinian survival value. The question should be, “What is the Darwinian survival value of having the kind of brain which manifests itself in religion under some circumstances?” – under some cultural circumstances, in this case. A helpful analogy is moths flying into candle flames. [details moth analogy deleted]This is a classic objection to atheism. Why do humans seem wired towards religion? Does it not at the very least prove religion has been good for the human species? Of course that does not prove it is true. It does make one wonder why any atheist would want to rid the world of religion. If that is the normal human way to be then why try and get people to stop being that way? If being religious is like having hair and being atheist is like shaving your head bald then it is OK to be bald. Still why go around insisting others should shave their hair?
Children need to believe everything their parents tell them. On average, the rule of thumb, believe what your parents tell you, is a good rule of thumb for a child, because in a world in which wild humans lived, children could not afford to learn for themselves what to do, and what not to do. You can’t learn from experience not to bathe in the river because there might be crocodiles, you have to believe your parents who say it’s dangerous to bathe in the river. You can’t be programmed in advance with all necessary knowledge, but the rule of thumb is programming in advance that is designed to cope with whatever knowledge, whatever information, whatever statements your parents give you.Children do believe their parents to a point. As they get to be teens they trust them less and less. Each generation tends to accept the wisdom of the past but also question it. Eventually the reasons are explained and when they become adults they decide whether it still makes sense. They might move to a different area where the river does not have crocodiles.
And that kind of programming is automatically vulnerable to parasitic information, to mental viruses.So a brain which is designed to believe statements like “Don’t bathe in the river because of the crocodiles!” can’t help believing information like “Sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon to appease the gods.” How can the child tell the difference between those two? Bathing in the river you’ll be eaten by crocodiles, if you don’t sacrifice a goat the gods will get you. It’s the equivalent to the moth and the candle flame argument.People are going to get ideas about religion from their parents. It is silly to that could be the only reason they continue to practice their faith. At some level they must being getting something from it or they would stop doing it. Why does the idea of appeasing the god make sense? They must feel they have offended the gods in some way.
We feel guilt. Modern society keeps telling us not to feel guilty about anything. It does not really work. We know we did wrong. If that feeling came solely from our parents then it would be gone from society by now. It isn't. It goes deeper than that. In fact, many feel it implies the existence of God. It is called the moral argument for God. Read the first couple chapters of Mere Christianity be CS Lewis if you want an example of that line of argument.
Given that children have that kind of brain, it’s almost inevitable that they will pick up some false information along with the true information. And once that false information has been picked up and believed, there’s no reason it can’t be passed on to the next generation and therefore the next and the next, and so what you would expect to find, and do find, is that beliefs like “sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon” are passed down from generation to generation. The beliefs themselves are always different in different areas, as you would also expect. It is entirely arbitrary what that information is, the point is you believe it because you’ve been told it by strong authority, and you pass it onto your children with equally strong authority, and so onThe truth is it is not "entirely arbitrary." That is a false dichotomy. That is either religions must be 100% in agreement or they are entirely arbitrary. They have a lot on common but some very important differences as well. There are a few outliers but most have commands like: Do not lie. Do not kill. Honor you father and mother. Do not steal. We have even seen some of the outliers disappear. Polytheistic religions are almost gone.
So there seems to be a convergence of religious ideas and that convergence seems to be growing over time. That is not the data you would expect of the content of the religion was entirely arbitrary. It is more what you would expect if people were trying to discern some truth and experiencing errors. That is to say the evidence from multiple religions fits better theism better than atheism. It is more consistent with there being some truth out there then religion being a totally irrational exercise.