Evolutionary psychology of religion

Evolutionary psychology of religion

Evolutionary psychology of religion is based on the hypothesis that religious belief can be explained by the evolution of the human brain.

As with all other organ functions, cognition's functional structure has been argued to have a genetic basis, and is therefore subject to the effects of natural selection. Like other organs and tissues, this functional structure should be universally shared amongst humans and should solve important problems of survival and reproduction. Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand cognitive processes by understanding the survival and reproductive functions they might serve, and some have theorized that Voltaire's famous saying "if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him" can be thus be argued in a scientific context.

Psychological processes

Pascal Boyer suggests, in his book "Religion Explained", that there is no simple explanation for religious consciousness. He builds on the ideas of cognitive anthropologists Dan Sperber and Scott Atran, who argued that religious cognition represents a by-product of various evolutionary adaptations, including folk psychology, and purposeful violations of innate expectations about how the world is constructed (for example, bodiless beings with thoughts and emotions) that make religious cognitions striking and memorable.

Boyer's friend and colleague Justin L. Barrett in Why Would Anyone Believe in God? suggests that belief in God is natural because it depends on mental tools possessed by all human beings. He suggests that the way our minds are structured and develop make belief in the existence of a supreme god with properties such as being superknowing, superpowerful and immortal highly attractive [Justin L. Barrett in Why Would Anyone Believe in God p viii] . He also compares belief in God to belief in other minds, and devotes a chapter to looking at the evolutionary psychology of atheism.

Cognitive studies

There is general agreement among cognitive scientists that a propensity to follow religions evolved early in human history. However, there is disagreement on the exact mechanisms that drove the evolution of the religious mind. There are two schools of thought. One is that religion evolved due to natural selection, in which case religion conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage. This view finds some support in the extensive studies that show positive associations between religious practice and health and longevity [For example Harold G. Koenig and Harvey J. Cohen. The Link between Religion and Health: Psychoneuroimmunology and the Faith Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001 summarised and assessed the results of 100 evidence-based studies that systematically examined the relationship between religion and human well-being, finding that 79% showed positive influence ] . Proponents of this view include David Sloan Wilson. The other hypothesis posits that religion is an evolutionary byproduct, a neurological accident. Stephen Jay Gould was a proponent of this hypothesis. He believed that religion was an exaptation or a Spandrel. That is religion evolved as byproduct of psychological mechanisms that evolved on the basis of conferring other evolutionary benefits, but confers no particular benefit on its followers. Article in the New York Times [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/04/magazine/04evolution.t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&adxnnlx=1198041076-kbd5/%20mI61KP62dWEBFr6Q Darwin’s God] ] [ [http://www.psych.ubc.ca/~ara/religion%20seminar%20papers/Kirkpatrick_1999.pdf Toward an evolutionary psychology of religion and personality] ] [http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2004_10_29_religion.htm The evolutionary psychology of religion] Steven Pinker]


There are a variety of mechanisms that some scholars have proposed regarding the origin of religious beliefs. They include the hyperactive agency detection, reciprocal altruism, memes and group and kinship theories.

Hyperactive agency detection

Justin Barrett suggests that one of the fundamental mental modules is the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD). Detecting agency may confer a survival benefit even if it is over-sensitive: better avoid an imaginary predator than be killed by a real one. This would tend to encourage belief in ghosts and spirits [Barrett "op cit" Ch 3]


Richard Dawkins suggests in the The God Delusion that cultural memes function like genes in that they are subject to natural selection. According to Dawkins, because religious truths cannot be questioned, their very nature encourages religions to spread like "mind viruses".

ee also

*Origin of religion
*Mickey Mouse Problem
*Cognitive fluidity
*Psychology of religion
*Cognitive science of religion

Notes and References

Further reading

* [http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0195098919 Stewart Guthrie Faces in the clouds A New Theory of Religion] ISBN 0195098919] .
* [http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2004_10_29_religion.htm Evolutionary psychology of religion] Steven Pinker.
* [http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/haselton/webdocs/spandrels.html Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels]
* [http://books.google.com/books?id=7-3UvJk5XY8C&pg=PA235&dq=religion+exaptation&ei=IbtoR5iaD4v8sQOgn62-Ag&sig=zzFvCIcvIULWFyXx8ED5tEfh0tc#PPA238,M1 Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion ] ISBN 1593850883
*Atran, Scott [http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0195178033/ In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion ] ISBN 0195178033
* [http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/ps/docs/diesendruck/9.pdf Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function ] Pascal Boyer
* [http://books.google.com/books?id=o4J2AjN2JXAC&pg=PA43&dq=todd+tremlin&sig=JLt0_heOblsS4etSaWM-scLFAw8#PPA16,M1 Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion By Todd Tremlin] , 2006 ISBN 0195305345


* [http://www.iacsr.com International Association for the Scientific Study of Religion]

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