Not long ago it was intellectually fashionable to declare that religion's time had passed. Religious experience -- and, even more so, religious dogma and superstitions -- were regarded as drags on human progress. Supernatural belief bound the individual to pre-rational states of consciousness and choked societies with doctrines invented in pre-modern times. Marxists assailed skyward-looking religions for lulling the downtrodden into accepting a wretched existence here on Earth. Nietzsche proclaimed, "God is dead." Meanwhile, secular humanists held a mirror to themselves, turning to humankind and human culture as the only aspects of heaven and Earth worthy of reverence. We ourselves were the beginning and end of all meaning and value.
Smug disregard of the religious impulse has recently fallen out of fashion. Many people now realize that a sense of the sacred need not be based on superstition and supernaturalism. Joseph Campbell, who held that religion was whatever put one "in accord" with the universe, delighted in the mythic metaphors of diverse religious heritages while savaging those who corrupted the metaphor by claiming its material truth. For Huston Smith, religion is that which "gives meaning to the whole." Lawrence Kohlberg judged religion to be that which "affirms life and morality as related to a transcendent or infinite ground or sense of the whole." Theologian James Gustafson puts forth a definition of religion that is as accessible to atheists as to theists and that, moreover, offers possibilities for making peace with the Earth. In Gustafson's view, the religious capacity manifests as "a sense of dependence, of gratitude, obligation, remorse or repentance, and of possibility." Philosopher Loyal Rue defines religion simply as "an integrated understanding of how things are (cosmology) and what things matter (morality). Note, therefore, that one need not be a theist to be counted among the religious. Rue is such an example; his religion, which is shaped from a scientific (specifically, evolutionary) understanding of the cosmos, is religious naturalism.
The human religious capacity is also being taken seriously today in part because of the work of biologists with impeccable credentials as scientific materialists. These scientists made the astonishing discovery that the religious impulse (for good or ill) may be too deeply rooted to be rooted out.
A Surprise from Sociobiology
Jacques Monod was a molecular biologist who combined the authority of a Nobel laureate with a passion for philosophy and a gift for words. In his 1971 masterpiece, Chance and Necessity, Monod surmised that the capacity for religious experience and the hunger for religious explanation were molded by the same force that shaped our opposable thumbs: natural selection.
Evolution of mental capacities that bolstered group cohesion beyond the innate genetic concern for close relatives would have helped members of larger groups cooperate for the good of all. Scientists writing after Monod recognized thai even if loyalty, valor, and the surety of meaning offered by religious belief took a toll on the fitness of warriors who died defending the tribe, such seemingly altruistic acts nevertheless benefited copies of warrior genes carried in the chromosomes of remaining kin. Members of groups made coherent and strong by shared religious conviction thus would have been favored by evolution. "We are the descendants of such men," Monod wrote. "From them we have probably inherited our need for an explanation, the profound disquiet which goads us to search out the meaning of existence. That same disquiet has created all the myths, all the religions, all the philosophies, and science itself."
That this "imperious need" is inborn, Monod continued, that it is now inscribed in the genetic code, "strikes me as beyond doubt." Through the millennia, not only the capacity but also the need for a religious framework entered our very DNA. …