These last years, the field of evolutionary studies of religiosity and religions has thrived due to the impact of a growing number of scientists and projects such as the Explaining Religion network or those dynamic Biology-of-Religion-conferences at Delmenhorst (2007) and Bristol (2010). After my doctorate thesis on religion & brain sciences, I have been happy to concentrate on the empirical study of religious demography - the peculiar fact that the religious tend to have far more children and to pass on their genes more successfully (on average) than their non-religious peers.
All fascination with these and other findings notwithstanding, I have been reluctant to interpret them in philosophical or theological terms. The first and (to me) most important reason is that I am devoted to empirical studies and do not want to jump into premature conclusions maybe blurring my perspectives on the data. And the second reason is that I feel that we have just begun to tap into a deeper understanding of the evolution of religion - a topic started by Charles Darwin himself but nearly forgotten for more than a century.
But then, a key finding has come up so constantly and repeatedly in the field, that I think it could and should be discussed. Let's call it the motivational power of personification.
Religious traditions seem to derive their motivational, cooperative and then reproductive potentials from the belief in superempirical agents - ranging from deceased ancestors to various spirits, angels and demons to gods, bodhisatvas and alien visitors from outer space to God. (Here is a slide from my presentation in Bristol.)
In fact, non-personal systems such as early Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism (etc.) had to adopt superempirical agents (such as bodhisatvas, khami, tirthankaras, the Lord Tao and many more) in order to survive demographically. The underlying logic is rooted into evolutionary theory itself: As human beings, we might be ready to accept commandments from supreme "personalities"- but not from abstract and non-living objects or principles.
As Friedrich August von Hayek rightfully observed: A theistic commandment such as "Be fruiftul and multiply" (Genesis 1, 28) may be accepted by religious believers as authoritative and even beneficial, although it cannot be verified empirically. By personification, religion is able to attribute value to forming families and having children.
In contrast, to accept empirically tested hypotheses as "teaching" normative commandments would constitute a natural fallacy contradicting our evolved feelings as well as philosophical lore. Although modern definitions of Darwinian or Evolutionary Fitness agree on the importance of reproductive success in evolutionary processes, we are simply not ready to accept any "commandments" thereof.
The second factor of religious potential is the belief that the superempirical agents are watching our behaviors - beliefs affecting our behaviors as shown by numerous contemporary experiments. Therefore, shared beliefs in superempirical agents as watching and judging personalities tend to bring about higher levels of in-group-cooperation.
Evolution towards Assuming Personal Agency Shaping the Universe
As all empirical and especially evolutionary studies are working on historical data, I am reluctant to accept "prophecies" concerning any kind of "evolutionary progress". Nevertheless, I think that philosophies and theologies should start to debate the importance of the ongoing convergence towards "personification" in the evolution of our species mental traits. And I was intrigued to find thriving networks doing just that, such as the collaborative blog "Evolutionary Landscapes" discussing related topics. And YouTube-User "the pathlesspath" did a nice job in presenting the evolutionary ("integral") philosophy of Ken Wilber and the evolutionary ("Point Omega") theology of Teilhard de Chardin in a well-done clip.
As a Protestant voice, Michael Dowd's "Thank God for Evolution" could also be mentioned - and I am interested in finding more. Although I will stick to the empirical work of evolutionary studies in my work, I am intrigued by the philosophical and theological implications of evolutionary studies increasingly discovered and discussed abroad.