The evolutionary approach to religion is evolving itself, moving from the view that religion is a maladaptive feature carried over from primitive times to a more nuanced and varied look at faith and its role in the lives of believers. A cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine(March 4) reports that during the 1990s experts from the hard sciences, such as evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, joined anthropologists and psychologists, in the evolutionary study of religion.
There are now two camps in the evolutionary study of religion: the byproduct theorists and the adaptationists. The first group, led by such scientists as Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, and Paul Bloom, tend to see religion as an unrelated byproduct of adaptive traits. This could include certain cognitive tools that were once used to distinguish friends from enemies but are now applied by the brain to explaining supernatural agents or causes.
Adaptationists, such as David Sloan Wilson, argue on behalf of primary benefits of religion–such as hope in the face of death– and the survival advantages such adaptation may have originally brought, even if they may no longer serve such a purpose for the individual or the group. Writer Robin Marantz Henig notes that both of these theories can be used to dismiss or support religious beliefs.
Professional atheist Richard Dawkins counts himself as a byproduct theorist (harshly criticizing the adaptationists) but then so does the observant Christian Justin Barrett of Oxford University. He argues that “Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people. Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?“