Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution remains our best reason in explaining how living things have evolved to the physical and behavioral features they have now. This theory states that organisms changed over time to adapt features that would ensure their survival and reproductivity. And religion, being a critical factor at which human beings anchor their survival and reproductivity, is no exclusion to this theory.
There are two popular theories on the evolution of religion: functionalism and by-product theory.
Functionalism, often also referred to as adaptationism, is a pure interpretation of religion in the framework of Darwin’s theory. It states that those with religion are more likely to survive the environment compared to those who do not have it. This theory suggests that religion brings a competitive functional advantage to those who possess it. This theory compares religion as that of the behavior of animals forming packs to either hunt together or to defend together against threats, rallying to a single cause. It then highlights that religion can only be interpreted inside its social context; that it only exists with the main objective of making the group advantageous. This same trait is shared by the second theory: by-product.
The second one claims that the actual capacity to think, feel, and interact with other creatures were the actual traits that evolution forced to advance, religion was just a by-product of these traits. A further understanding of this theory would suggest that because creatures have become so skilled in thinking and interacting that religion became a form of support to the more productive behaviors of the members of the society. However, this theory also claims that the removal of religion does not devolve society. Individuals without religion can remain productive and progressive members albeit potential conflicts.
Overall, understanding the origin of religion gives us the liberty of concentrating on what is relevant.