Last month the Economist reported on an ongoing study called Explaining Religion. The project's social scientists have spent the last three years gathering data on various aspects of religious practice with a focus on the "moral behaviour that religions often claim to govern." As the article puts it,
RELIGION is ubiquitous but it is not universal. That is a conundrum for people trying to explain it. Religious types, noting the ubiquity (though not everyone is religious, all human societies have religions), argue that this proves religion is a real reflection of the underlying nature of things. Sceptics wonder why, if that is the case, it comes in such a variety of flavours, from the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea—each of which seems to find the explanations offered by the others anathema.
The ultimate question from the scientific point of view is this - was the presence of religious rituals and attitudes crucial to the evolution of successful tribes?
One theory of the origin of religion is that it underpins the extraordinary capacity for collaboration that led to the rise of Homo sapiens. A feature of many religions is the idea that evil is divinely punished and virtue is rewarded. Cheats or the greedy, in other words, get their just deserts. The selflessness which that belief encourages might help explain religion's evolution. But is the idea of universal just deserts truly instinctive, as this interpretation suggests it should be?
While still in the stamp "collecting phase" the researchers are just starting to publish their results. Something to keep an eye out for.