According to anthropologist Maurice Bloch of the London School of Economics: “Humans alone practice religion because they’re the only creatures to have evolved imagination.”
This is difference from the popular argument that religion evolved to promote social bonding.
… he argues that first, 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.
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.
Modern-day religions still embrace this idea of communities bound with the living and the dead, such as the Christian notion of followers being “one body with Christ”, or the Islamic “Ummah” uniting Muslims.
Bloch’s paper appears in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, an abstract of which can be found here.
(Thanks to Lexi for the link!)