As usual, an interesting and insightful article, Mitchell.
I have a question regarding your concluding lines:
“If religion was a non-adaptive, non-functional byproduct, over the tens of thousands of years of its existence we would see swaths of societies without it, or it would have gone away completely. The pervasiveness and persistence of religious rituals and beliefs over time and geography mean these behaviors must have adaptive function. (See article links to byproducts below for elaboration.)
The purpose of religion is to mitigate the downsides of human consciousness.”
Don’t we already see such swaths? And wouldn’t it follow from your argument that the countries where non-religiosity prevails would be lower in happiness? Yet a cursory comparison (quick Wikipedia search) shows that those countries tend to be the happier ones. Of course I’m not saying this is a causal correlation, just that one would expect the opposite from the text quoted.
Or would you say that in those countries religious-like activities and narratives have not really diminished, that it is just that they are labeled differently? If so, that would be good material for a whole post, I think.
It could also be that religion evolved as you say, but that it gets expressed primarily when life circumstances are particularly harsh (mostly the case in our history, particularly in pre-industrial-revolution times. And it’s doubtful that life was any easier in pre-agricultural times), but not so much in times of peace and plenty. Many adaptive behaviors are like that: they are turned on or off depending on the environment. In modern industrialized countries the quality of life is on the whole very high. This might in turn assuage the anxieties that our human consciousness makes us prone to, which would in turn reduce the value of religion.
Anyway, I’m curious about your views on the manifest (apparent?) fading of religion in many countries around the world.