Richard Dawkins asks What Use is Religion? and finds that this is completely the wrong question.
His thesis calls to mine an ongoing debate that I once got to witness in person between philosopher Daniel Dennett and the late Stephen Jay Gould. At a fascinating seminar held at Dartmouth College a decade ago, these two (among many luminary thinkers) came to discuss a whole raft of topics. Gould, at one point, brought up his view that language and culture are “spandrels.” His reference was too the triangular sections you get between four arched doorways and the round dome above it. At each corner, you get this triangular shape which is only the space between the dome and the arches. It is, essentially, a by-product. But renaissance artists used them to create beautiful works that worked in concert with the architecture. They were by-products that themselves became very important.
Dennett argued that that was incorrect. Spandrels in the architecture were intentional just as language and culture are essential rather than a by-product.
The argument was actually quite interesting as I was sitting right behind Dennett and got to hear his angry “he’s at it again” muttering to his colleagues in the audience during Gould’s talk. Finally unable to contain himself, he stood up and thus began the sparring match.
Anyway, this article harkens to that somewhat and is quite interesting.