This is an investigation, firstly, of why religion is so important to us, and how it got that way. Secondly, it looks at the question of whether religion and magical thinking have demonstrable effects on the physical world. When it became clear that despite some 200 previous theories of religion, these question had never been satisfactorily answered (and The Guardian’s ‘Notes and Queries’ wasn’t going to touch them) I had to try to answer them myself, leading to an ongoing effort for some 2 decades. To my surprise—and contrary to contemporary evidence—it turned out that religion had been extraordinarily useful to us: It is what got us out of the animal kingdom, and it worked its way into our genes in the process.
It did that for us 35,000 years ago. Its function was to keep us from killing eachother, moving us beyond the ‘See a stranger, kill it!’ behavior of the chimpanzee—and of our first 160,000 years in the nearly static Middle Paleolithic. Religion (or its immediate precursor) allowed us to exchange ideas and thence become time-binding humans. (If it doesn’t keep us from killing eachother today, it isn’t a religion, just a tribal marker.)
Perhaps surprisingly, religion managed this without supernatural help. This is not to say that children can develop without stories, or people without myths, or that there is any dearth of imponderable mysteries. It says nothing about the existence, or not, of a Guiding Intelligence, for this remains an undecidable question. Interpretations (ideas about gods and revelations) change as we change. But the bottom line (the behavioral change that got us out of the animal kingdom) is fundamental. It appeared myriennia ago—whether manifested, invented, or discovered, we do not know. Consciously enunciated in the Axial Age (500±300 BCE), rediscovered by the Enlightenment, its pattern of success and failure suggests that its roots lie deeper than the vision of its prophets.
For a pair of 1- and 24-minute summaries, try the QuickStart entry in the menu above.