Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution draws a bright line from reciprocal altruism to abstract reasoning, and then through to religious belief:
Game theory…suggests that individuals who interact with one another repeatedly tend to gravitate toward cooperation with those who have shown themselves to be honest and reliable, and shun those who have behaved opportunistically. But to do this effectively, they have to be able to remember each other’s past behavior and to anticipate likely future behavior based on an interpretation of other people’s motives.
Then, language allows transmission of historical patterns (largely gossip in tight-knit social groups) and abstractions about ethical behaviors until, ultimately:
The ability to create mental models and to attribute causality to invisible abstractions is in turn the basis for the emergence of religion.
But this can’t be the end of the line. Insofar as abstract beliefs can attribute repetitive weather patterns to Olympian gods, or consolidate moral reasoning to a monotheistic being, the same mechanisms of abstraction must be the basis for scientific reasoning as well. Either that or the cognitive capacities for linguistic abstraction and game theory are not cross-applicable to scientific thinking, which seems unlikely.
So the irony of assertions that science is just another religion is that they certainly share a similar initial cognitive evolution, while nevertheless diverging in their dependence on faith and supernatural expectations, on the one hand, and channeling the predictive models along empirical contours on the other.
Alain de Botton has an interesting suggestion in the Wall Street Journal: create restaurants that are communal and that are designed to foster social interaction with an almost religious quality. This follows fairly closely on the heels of Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley’s suggestion that maybe a good religious substitute can be found in mass sports events.
Why is a secular substitute for religion needed? It’s not completely clear. Each author argues that there is something fundamentally missing from our modern, cosmopolitan lives. What is missing is a sense of wonder, a sense of transcendence, a sense of community involvement, a sense of egoless participation, a universe of interactions based on something other than commercial interests, non-creepy greetings (de Botton)…something.
But they both neglect one of the crowning achievements of the modern world. Organized sports are largely passive events for the spectators. Restaurants are far too much about eating and not about ideas. What we do have, however, are university systems that are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and are accessible (with all the caveats of price) to almost all of the population. Only in university systems are people organized around a commitment to knowledge, science, and art. Economic status is less important than intellectual capacity. Ideas reign and social interaction is driven by common cause.
What we need is more ivory towers. After all, even the phrase may have been sourced from the Song of Solomon:
Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus