It may be the foundation of modern biology, but fewer than 40 percent of Americans say they believe in the theory of evolution. While frustrated scientists sometimes blame religion for this knowledge gap, newly published research suggests the key factor isn’t faith per se but rather a benefit it provides that Darwin does not: A sense that our all-too-short lives have meaning.
The common shoot-from-the-hip explanation—people fear death, and religion makes them believe that it is not the end—is certainly insufficient because the human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear. Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not survive long. Also, inasmuch as some religious thoughts do allay anxiety, our problem is to explain how they become plausible enough that they can play this role. To entertain a comforting fantasy seems simple enough, but to act on it requires that it be taken as more than a fantasy. The experience of comfort alone could not create the necessary level of plausibility.
Reassuring religion, insofar as it exists, is not found in places where life is significantly dangerous or unpleasant; quite the opposite. One of the few religious systems obviously designed to provide a comforting worldview is New Age mysticism. It says that people, all people, have enormous “power”, that all sorts of intellectual and physical feats are within their reach. It claims that we are all connected to mysterious but basically benevolent forces in the universe. Good health can be secured by inner spiritual strength. Human nature is fundamentally good. Most of us lived very interesting lives before this one. Note that these reassuring, ego-boosting notions appeared and spread in one of the most secure and affluent societies in history. People who hold these beliefs are not faced with war, famine, infant mortality, incurable endemic diseases and arbitrary oppression to the same extent as Middle Age Europeans or present-day Third World peasants.