At the recent SoFiA conference John Wilkins talked about religion being natural and explored some ancient history and evolutionary psychology. This started me looking into the cognitive psychology of religion which turns out to be a recent but quickly developing field.
John's blog Evolving Thoughts this morning addressed some similar themes but cited a paper by Pascal Boyer: Being Human: Religion: Bound to Believe that's worth a look.
This paper addressed much the same research area as Justin Barrett in Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Turns out that it is more natural for us to believe than not to believe: we've evolved with sub-programs in the brain that give us a predisposition to believe in gods and other supernatural entities. It's harder work to be an atheist than not.
John Wilkins at the SoFiA Conference in Melbourne mentioned the HADD: the hyperactive agency detection device. Boyer also (in his book 'Religion Explained') discusses this, and it seems at least plausible to me. In our evolutionary history it paid us to be hyper-sensitive to any signs that 'something' might be out there, for instance a leopard beyond the glow of the firelight. Over hundreds of thousands of years we have been conditioned to seeing/apprehending things that aren't there (since it helped us to survive on the occasions when there was actually something there). We're still in the habit of doing it.
Posted by Greg Spearritt