“Faith in a higher being is as old as humanity itself. But what sparked the Divine Idea? Did our earliest ancestors gain some evolutionary advantage through their shared religious feelings? In these extracts from his latest book, Robert Winston ponders the biggest question of them all.”
From The Guardian:
…it is easy to suggest a mechanism by which religious beliefs could help us to pass on our genes. Greater cohesion and stricter moral codes would tend to produce more cooperation, and more cooperation means that hunting and gathering are likely to bring in more food. In turn, full bellies mean greater strength and alertness, greater immunity against infection, and offspring who develop and become independent more swiftly. Members of the group would also be more likely to take care of each other, especially those who are sick or injured. Therefore – in the long run – a shared religion appears to be evolutionarily advantageous, and natural selection might favour those groups with stronger religious beliefs.
But this is not the whole story. Although religion might be useful in developing a solid moral framework – and enforcing it – we can quite easily develop moral intuitions without relying on religion. Psychologist Eliot Turiel observed that even three- and four-year-olds could distinguish between moral rules (for example, not hitting someone) and conventional rules (such as not talking when the teacher is talking). Furthermore, they could understand that a moral breach, such as hitting someone, was wrong whether you had been told not to do it or not, whereas a conventional breach, such as talking in class, was wrong only if it had been expressly forbidden. They were also clearly able to distinguish between prudential rules (such as not leaving your notebook next to the fireplace) and moral rules.
This would suggest that there is a sort of “morality module” in the brain that is activated at an early age. Evidence from neuroscience would back this up, to a degree.