London, May 28 : An evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, US, has written a simple computer program called Evogod that may explain how religion evolved.
By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish.
But religion only takes hold if non-believers help believers out - perhaps because they are impressed by their devotion.
"If a person is willing to sacrifice for an abstract god then people feel like they are willing to sacrifice for the community," New Scientist quoted James Dow, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, US, as saying.
Dow, who wrote the program, is by no means the first scientist to attempt at explaining how religion emerged.
Theories on the evolution of religion tend toward two camps - one argues that religion is a mental artefact, co-opted from brain functions that evolved for other tasks and another contends that religion benefited our ancestors.
Instead of being a by-product of other brain functions, it is an adaptation in its own right.
To find out if it was possible for religion to emerge as an adaptation, Dow wrote a simple computer program that focuses on the evolutionary benefits people receive from their interactions with one another.
In order to simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife.
He assumed that this trait was genetic.
In other words, the model assumes that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others.
They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn't spread unreal information.
The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people - those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.
Under most scenarios, 'believers in the unreal' went extinct.
However, when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.
"Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them," Dow said.
He speculated that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.
Richard Sosis, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, US, said that the model adds a new dimension to the debate over how religion could have evolved.
However, he gas warned that 'these are baby steps'.