Why did religions evolve? According to anthropologist Maurice Bloch, there is nothing special with religion. It’s just a product of human imagination - in the same way as nations are, Bloch writes in an article to be published in June, the New Scientist informs.
The development of religion is dependent on the development of imagination. We had to evolve the necessary brain architecture to imagine things and beings that don’t physically exist, and the possibility that people somehow live on after they’ve died, Bloch argues according to New Scientist:
Once we’d done that, we had access to a form of social interaction unavailable to any other creatures on the planet. Uniquely, humans could use what Bloch calls the “transcendental social” to unify with groups, such as nations and clans, or even with imaginary groups such as the dead. The transcendental social also allows humans to follow the idealised codes of conduct associated with religion.
“What the transcendental social requires is the ability to live very largely in the imagination,” Bloch writes.
“One can be a member of a transcendental group, or a nation, even though one never comes in contact with the other members of it,” says Bloch. Moreover, the composition of such groups, “whether they are clans or nations, may equally include the living and the dead.”
“Once we realise this omnipresence of the imaginary in the everyday, nothing special is left to explain concerning religion,” he says.
Bloch has recently been interviewed in Vikerkaar / Eurozine and was presented as an anti-anthropologist: “It may well be that anthropology departments disappear, and that wouldn’t bother me very much", he said.
UPDATE Maximilian Forte has written a summary of the interview with Bloch, see Maurice Bloch: “Reluctant Anthropologist” or “Anti-Anthropologist”?
See also the tutorial Anthropology and Religion