The evolution of religion is too big of a topic to cover in one blog entry or, as I am discovering, in a single encyclopedia entry (as I begin to work on the revised edition of Encyclopedia of Evolution). Religion, as Richard Dawkins points out, is a set of memes that propagate themselves through genetically- and socially-based instincts. Nevertheless, we can speculate about the evolutionary functions of some components of religion. I will speculate on one of them here.
On Memorial Day weekend, I met with some of my family at a cemetery to place plastic flowers on graves. This is nothing if not a religious ceremony. Winganon Cemetery is out in the country, several miles into the hills from Chelsea, a very small town in Oklahoma, which is over twenty miles from Claremore, which is a small city, which is over twenty miles from Tulsa. This is where my parents are buried, as well as the parents of my two cousins, whom we joined there. Also buried there are the grandparents and the great-grandparents that we all shared. Had my daughter not been kept away by a medical emergency, there would have been five generations, living and dead, represented at that place.
Religion is all about connectedness—in fact, that is what the word means, from the Latin ligere, from which the word ligament comes. We were there because our identities are not just who we are at this moment, but as descendants. The human mind operates in four dimensions—we are always thinking about the past and the future. Most humans, except for atheists, include an unseen spiritual world as part of this connectedness; even agnostics leave open this possibility.
We did not look very religious. We were trampling all over our parents’ and ancestors’ graves as we forced plastic flowers into adobe-hard ground. Then we stood in the sun or sat in meager shade to talk about current situations or about the experiences of our predecessors. One cousin and I shared war stories told by our deceased uncle. We did not have sanctimonious ceremonies. But we were doing exactly what our ancestors would have wanted us to do, had they been able to see us: we remembered them, and then built more connections. Neither my cousin or I had heard the stories told by the other.
The human mind works in four dimensions all the time. I realized this later as I reclined on the bed, beside a fan, with one of our cats. I just let my mind wander, and I suppose the cat was doing the same. But the cat was presumably thinking only about its comfort at the present moment, which vague memories of territoriality and food, and vague anticipation of hunger. My mind, however, wandered exclusively in the fourth dimension, remembering past events (most of them trivial) and wondering about the almost infinite possibilities for the future (many of them disturbing). The human mind, even at rest, lives in a cosmos of connectedness, which is to say, religion, broadly defined.