Religion is a hotly debated topic both among scholars and the general public, and a new paper authored by researchers from the University of Helsinki and Harvard University is only likely to up the level controversy surrounding the subject. Published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the study suggests that intuitive judgments of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments.

"Some scholars claim that religion evolved as an adaptation to solve the problem of cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals, while others propose that religion emerged as a by-product of pre-existing cognitive capacities," explains study co-author Dr. Ilkka Pyysiainen from the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Although there is some support for both, these alternative proposals have been difficult to investigate.

Citing recent empirical work in moral psychology, the authors argue that despite differences in, or even an absence of, religious backgrounds, individuals show no difference in moral judgments for unfamiliar moral dilemmas.  

"This supports the theory that religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation for cooperation, but evolved as a separate by-product of pre-existing cognitive functions that evolved from non-religious functions," says Dr. Pyysiainen. "However, although it appears as if cooperation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing cooperation between groups."

"It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence," concludes co-author Dr. Marc Hauser.

Citation: Ilkka Pyysiäinen, Marc Hauser, 'The origins of religion : evolved adaptation or by-product?', Trends in Cognitive Sciences, February 2010; doi:10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.007