A propensity to learn the religion of one’s community became so firmly implanted in the human neural circuitry, according to this new view, that religion was retained when hunter-gatherers, starting from 15,000 years ago, began to settle in fixed communities. In the larger, hierarchical societies made possible by settled living, rulers co-opted religion as their source of authority. Roman emperors made themselves chief priest or even a living god, though most had the taste to wait till after death for deification. “Drat, I think I’m becoming a god!” Vespasian joked on his deathbed.

Religion was also harnessed to vital practical tasks such as agriculture, which in the first societies to practice it required quite unaccustomed forms of labor and organization. Many religions bear traces of the spring and autumn festivals that helped get crops planted and harvested at the right time. Passover once marked the beginning of the barley festival; Easter, linked to the date of Passover, is a spring festival.

Could the evolutionary perspective on religion become the basis for some kind of detente between religion and science?