FACTnet recently posted a link to an article about Washington University anthropologist Pascal Boyer, who is researching religious belief across cultures in the quest to discover why it is such a universal phenomenon. Boyer discusses cognitive processes important to human survival that also make us more open to believing in the supernatural. He also relates research findings that indicate religious belief may be adaptive, in that it can reduce stress and create greater community cohesion.
I am very curious about this research, as I can certainly remember times in my own life when subscribing to clearly outlined belief system reduced my stress. But that stress reduction was temporary in that the beliefs I held were often in conflict with the greater world and thus were both difficult to maintain and caused strife with those around me. As the world shrinks and more and more people are exposed to belief systems that contradict their own, I wonder if any actual adaptive edge will be eclipsed by the stress that comes from trying to reconcile an irrational belief system with contradictory evidence.