My friend and I have been arguing over this topic for the last couple of weeks. The question is, if religion had never existed, would society have been able to evolve to where it is today? For the purposes of this argument, I'm classifying religion as the organization of some set of myths as a social institution.
He insists that religion has only retarded societal progress, while I disagree. I have argued that although today the world may be better off without religion, religion was necessary for society to develop to where it is today.
My main point is that evolution in society (referring here to not the strict cross-generational biological evolution, but to just the idea of something changing with respect to time) occurs along slow inclines, small steps, and it doesn't happen in cliffs and large steps. It seems to me that across the development of human society, there has been an evolution of the mean level of curiosity of the day, i.e. at some point we went from wondering what is behind that tree because we were concerned about threats to our immediate survival to wondering what is behind that tree simply because we would find it rewarding to know. Religion seems to me to be the first organization of a system for explaining things which humans are curious about in order to accomplish goals other than immediate survival. We want to understand why the sun operates the way it does, so we call it a God and muse on His daily schedule, and then preach that to our children.
The question I usually put to my friend is, explain to me how you go from a survival-concerned ape to a creature with an understanding of the scientific method without religion as a middle step? What could be an alternative middle step?
Let me know what you think about the topic. We have been searching for clarity on this argument for a while.