Below are the abstracts for each of the presenters. Please contact us if you have any questions.

Religion, Evolution and Social Bonding Abstracts  

Plenary Talks

Celia Deane-Drummond 

Campion Hall, University of Oxford

Feeling and Believing: A Theological Engagement with Evolutionary Accounts of Religion.

Trying to understand the evolution of religion is notoriously difficult to undertake, not least because trying to track the coordinated changes in brain and social behaviours and the underlying cognitive mechanisms are notoriously difficult to unravel, especially in deep time. In this lecture I will focus on two very broad underlying features which I suggest are important. The question of why humanity is religious at all part of a much broader and more fundamental question of why we believe.  The question of why humanity would want to believe at all is part of a much broader question as to what might make beliefs in unseen deities appealing.  For the first part I will engage with the work of Agustin Fuentes’ and his 2018 Gifford lectures. How does belief in general understood in a theological sense correspond with belief as worked out through a broad discussion of the distinctively human capacity to commit in evolutionary terms? Secondly, an evolutionary account of more emotive aspects of belief could be worked out in terms of fear of punishment by (Big Gods) or positive attraction to unseen others. Although both elements can be found in mature religious beliefs, I will argue that the latter is more likely to be at the roots of spirituality, especially prior to the institutional development of religion. I will mention briefly a research project under development in collaboration with Penny Spikins on the deep roots of gratitude, why this is particularly important theologically, as well as ways in which this project connects with theories of the social brain. 


Simon Dein

University College, London

Transcendence, Evolution and Religion

Building on the literature on religion and social bonding, this paper examines the role of self- transcendence in this process.  Self -transcendence refers to a breakdown of ego boundaries and its significance as a basic personality trait will be discussed. Research has indicated that it is a core component of spirituality as defined cross- culturally. Every known religion has rites or procedures which can take people out of their ordinary lives and open them up to something larger than themselves.  I will then move onto two related areas. The first pertains to the role of transcendence in ritual emphasising the core components of music and synchrony.  Music, a universal feature of religious ritual, may catalyse a strong emotional response resulting in self transcendence as part of religious practice and not only breaks down self- boundaries but may also facilitate belief in a self -transcendent being. The second involves a discussion of self- transcendent positive emotions-compassion, gratitude and awe which are found in religious groups and their importance for social bonding. It is possible that these emptions emerged to help humans solve unique problems relating to caregiving, cooperation and group coordination. These emotions shift need from self to others, enhance the welfare of others, promote prosociality and bind individuals to the social collectivity.  I argue that transcendence may have evolved to facilitate bonding and social cohesion. 


Robin Dunbar

Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford 

Religion, Evolution and the Social Brain

We know a great deal about the history of religion, but we know almost nothing about its evolutionary origins. When did religion first evolve? Why did it evolve? What functions did it serve early humans? What forms did it have? And how did it get from these early forms into the modern doctrinal religions with which we are so familiar – and why? And just how different are modern religions from the ancestral ones? I shall argue that, thanks to developments in the Social Brain Hypothesis, we can now say a great deal more about this than we might be inclined to claim. This derives from three important related developments in our understanding of primate sociality. First, the Social Brain Hypothesis itself has allowed us to plot the change in community size through the evolutionary history of our lineage. Second, an understanding of the mechanisms required to bond social groups has allowed us to appreciate the time costs that this imposes, and hence the need to find ways to circumvent time crises that emerge as community size increases. A third development concerns the role that cognition plays in human sociality. A crucial component involves mindreading, or mentalising, a capacity all but unique to humans that allows us both to ask why the world is as it is and to imagine the existence of other (e.g. spiritual) worlds. I will suggest that, between them, these three dimensions allow us to triangulate both the origins and the functions of religion, and hence to better understand some aspects of the dynamics of contemporary religion.


Emmanuelle Honoré

University of Cambridge

Prehistoric religions and social bonding under the light of recent discoveries in the Egyptian Sahara

Early religions, or “religious phenomena”, have been a matter of interest for both archaeologists and anthropologists throughout the XXth century (Mainage 1921; James 1957; Leroi-Gourhan 1964). However, in the last decades, this research topic has become slightly out of fashion as the ever-growing positivist tendency of prehistory is accompanied by a certain disaffection for what are considered as uncertain terrains. To most archaeologists, the term “religion” actually implies the existence of well-structured systems that are difficult to detect. New light is being shed, however, on the subject with the recent discovery of a set of rock art images in the Egyptian Sahara (Wadi Sūra). Series of elaborated scenes involving an oversized composite creature – called the “headless beast” – surrounded by dozens of human figures testify to the existence of complex hunter-gatherer mythologies. Beyond narratives, in the large variety of scenes depicted, the differential expression of signs of individualization underlines the major role of rituals (and more largely religion) in social bonding. A statistical approach of the corpus makes it possible to reach an understanding of the subtle relations between “religious” activities, group membership and the size of the group. The display of this imagery conveys the idea that rock art sites were probably large places of gathering for hunter-gatherer groups at repeated times.



James W Jones

Rutgers University

Ritual Knowing: How Ritual Might Create Religion - A Neuropsychological Exploration. 

Several models of the evolution of religion claim that ritual creates “religion” and gives it a positive evolutionary role. Robert Bellah suggests that the evolutionary roots of ritual lay in the play of animals. For homo sapiens, Bellah argues, rituals generate a world of experience different from the world of everyday life and that different world of experience is the foundation of later religious developments.  Robin Dunbar points to trance dancing as the original religious behavior. Trance dancing both alters ordinary consciousness and so generates trance experiences that will give rise religious concepts and also, through the production of endorphins, bonds people into tightknit social groups whose social bonding gives them a survival advantage. The role of ritual in social bonding has been well established through the research on the production of endorphins by synchronized activity and the role of endorphins in social bonding. The role of ritual in generating religious experience has been much less developed. Drawing on the extensive research on the ways in which bodily activity can impact and transform our sensory and cognitive processes, and the ways in which sensory and cognitive processes are neurologically connected with somatic processes, this paper will propose one neuropsychological model of how ritual activity might give rise to religion. Starting from bodily activity means that here religion will be understood more as a set of practices and less as a set of beliefs. Theological implications of this model will be discussed.


Richard Sosis 

Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut

A Systemic Approach to the Evolutionary Study of Religion

Recently there has been increasing interest in the evolutionary study of religion; however, this has not been a unified endeavor. Researchers currently employ three major evolutionary frameworks to study religion—evolutionary psychology, behavioral ecology, and gene-culture co-evolutionary theory—each with different assumptions, methods, and areas of focus. In this talk I will offer an integrative evolutionary framework that incorporates aspects from each of the primary evolutionary perspectives and approaches religions as adaptive systems. I argue that religions are an adaptive complex of traits consisting of cognitive, neurological, affective, behavioral, and developmental features that are organized into a self-regulating feedback system. Religious systems derive from ancestral ritual systems and were selected for in early hominin populations because they contributed to the ability of individuals to coordinate and cooperate within social groups, overcoming pervasive ecological challenges. Religious systems maintain positive and negative feedback loops that inform individuals about the system’s success, or lack thereof, in terms of collective outputs, mating opportunities, reproduction, and health outcomes. When cooperation fails, or mating, reproduction, or health suffer, the religious system will generally adapt to its current environmental conditions accordingly, sometimes subtly without notice among adherents and sometimes through significant revivals that reinvigorate ritual participation. Religious systems that are unable to adapt cease to function as living social institutions that bring order to individual lives. Here I explore the implications of this model and suggest that it offers the strongest potential for real progress and broad application of evolutionary theory to the study of religion.


Other Papers 

Christopher Bennett

Oxford University

Rebuilding the Milvian Bridge: A Defence of Evolutionary Debunking Arguments against Religion

Evolutionary Debunking Arguments (EDAs) are one of the most philosophically intriguing consequences of the evolution of religion. Approximately, they claim that because religion evolved naturally, it is therefore untrue. Many fail, but one that has generated interest recently is John Wilkins and Paul Griffiths' EDA against so-called 'religious faculties'. They propose the 'Milvian Bridge' principle. The principle states that we can only know a belief-producing process or faculty is reliable if it yields fitness by virtue of tracking truths. Hence, they assert the reliability of empirical faculties while building a platform for an assault against religious beliefs. This principle has been labelled question-begging and self-referentially incoherent and thus is thought to fail before it can even begin. In my piece, I argue the Milvian Bridge is a useful epistemic principle that helps to discern reliable faculties from unreliable ones. I argue it can defeat charges of incoherence in two ways. First, by establishing a strong link between the content of beliefs and the behaviours that they cause, EDAs answer queries about naturalism and empirical faculties. Second, against Katia Vavova's forceful attack, they can adjust their approach so that rather than presuming beliefs guilty until innocent, they presume beliefs are true unless there is reason to believe otherwise. By providing these defences of the Milvian Bridge principle, I hope to rehabilitate EDAs. They still may not debunk religious beliefs, as is their goal, but presenting this much-maligned position in its strongest form exemplifies the potential significance of the evolution of religion for religious beliefs.


Sarah J Charles and Miguel Farias 

Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab, Coventry University, UK

Religion and the Social Brain: A Cross-Cultural Field Study

Religious rituals have long been noted to increase prosocial attitudes and feelings of closeness to others in attendance. Robin Dunbar proposes that religious rituals may encourage such social bonding by utilising various behavioural mechanisms that stimulate release of endogenous opioids. Behavioural synchrony is hypothesised to be one such major underlying mechanism for the release of endogenous opioids, while pain threshold is a commonly-used experimental proxy measure for their release. This promotion of social bonding could also be one of the reasons that such rituals are ubiquitous throughout humanity, acting as an evolutionary benefit by helping maintain, and even grow, social groups. This paper presents data from a major field study which was undertaken as part of the ‘Religion and Social Brain Project’. We collected data on social bonding, behavioural synchrony, and pain threshold from 29 religious rituals in the UK and Brazil, including Christian and Afro-Brazilian. This paper is the first quantitative experimental test of the brain-opioid theory of social attachment pertaining to religion.

Acknowledgements: This study was supported by a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust. For UK data we are grateful for the assistance of: V van Mulukom, J Brown, S Rahmani, R Delmonte, H Turpin. For Brazil data we are grateful for the assistance of: R Delmonte, L Madeira, E Maraldi.


Oliver Davies

King’s College, London

Evolutionary Perspectives on Contemporary Religion in China and the West

As we learn more about our human evolution, new approaches to the question of religion become possible. These must inevitably be set within broader contexts however. The phenomenon of religion cannot be separated from the perspective of human sociality or strong bonding as such, for instance. In a parallel way, the term religion has to include strong and ancient forms of community which may not self-identify today with the Western concept of religion, as is the case in modern China. It also appears that it is increasingly difficult to separate our early sociality, which clearly underlies ‘religion’, from our technological nature. Contemporary evolutionary science draws our attention to the ‘ratcheting effect’ of these two dynamics over time, and neuroscience has much to tell us of continuities between tools, words and brain.  
In this paper I shall seek to sketch an integrative, synoptic overview of these themes as they cast light on contemporary religion, especially though not exclusively in China. I shall argue that significant advances in both evolutionary science and the study of the human brain are opening up critical new avenues of human self-understanding. These may cast light on the evolutionary forces that make us what we are, on the one hand, and on the particular challenges that confront us in global modernity on the other. On account of its long term viability and large scale, cultural expressivity, understanding religion remains vital for grasping the forces at work in our extended socialities today.


Armin W. Geertz

Aarhus University

The interplay of social, biological and cognitive factors in the evolution of religion

This talk is an attempt to show how evolutionary analysis might be conducted when the units evolving are sociocultural systems. In such systems, the unit of evolution can be at multiple levels and be subject to varying types of selection forces. Current models of evolution in general and of religion in particular tend to be limited because they focus on only one level, often only the biotic, with the result that they can, at best, explain only a small part of religious evolution. Many prefer this approach, arguing for incremental extensions of evolutionary models, but such models are typically so restrictive that they cannot explain all the levels of sociocultural reality that exist and the varying types of selection that drive sociocultural evolution. It is argued that theorists and researchers should recognize that sociocultural evolution is not going to be as precise because the evolutionary dynamics of the sociocultural universe are simply more complex than those of the biotic universe. This talk is based on our book The Emergence and Evolution of Religion: By Means of Natural Selection by Jonathan H. Turner, Alexandra Maryanski, Anders Klostergaard Petersen, and Armin W. Geertz. (New York & London: Routledge, 2018.)


Jay Feierman 

University of New Mexico, School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry

Religion-Specific Beliefs as Double Edged Swords 

There are two types of religious beliefs: religion-general and religion-specific. This behavioral-biology-oriented talk is about the form (what things are) and function (what things do) of religion-specific beliefs. As objects of Darwinian natural selection, they must have form and exist in the “physical” ontological realm of mass, energy, force, space, time and information. The function of any biological form is determined by empirical observation, reasoning, and at times experimentation. From a behavioral biology perspective, a religion-specific belief, as the object of study, can be defined as “a formalized quantity of instructional information, which when instantiated (“embodied”) in brain and formatted at a level above that of an individual neuron, biases (influences) religion-specific and -identifying behavior (movement) in a (probabilistically) predictable way; and where the accompanying behavior could be, if the individual is not being deceptive, constitutive of the religion-specific belief during the processes of believing.” Behavioral biology differentiates religion-specific beliefs from religion-specific belief-word-prefaced propositions, as used by philosophers, psychologists and theologians for the study of mentation or behaviorally-mediated vocal or written discourse. The argument will be developed that one of the most important ultimate biological functions of religion-specific beliefs is to divide loosely eusocial human populations into smaller, competing in-groups. They do that via their proximate function by being one of many communicative signal-markers for religious in-group breeding populations (i.e., “marry within the faith”). How this function contributes to intra-religious altruistic love-thy-neighbor cooperation and (as the other side of the double-edged sword) inter-religious conflict, will be developed. 


Christopher Knight

Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge UK

The Evolution of Religiosity and Strong Theistic Naturalism

Debates about divine action have tended to move away from the “causal joint” approach that dominated science-religion studies in the late twentieth century. In particular, the “theological turn” identified by Sarah Lane Ritchie has involved scholars from a number of theological traditions developing an alternative view – a kind of “strong theistic naturalism.” My own contribution to this development – which Ritchie labels as “panentheistic naturalism” - not only provides a distinctive approach to divine action in general terms, but is also linked in my work to a pluralistic understanding of the world’s faiths. This pluralistic understanding has hitherto had implicit links to evolutionary perspectives, which in this paper I expand. The important issue, in this context, is not any particular model of the evolution of religiosity but the way in which that evolution can be seen as a predictable outcome of the universe. This predictability arises from an expansion of Simon Conway Morris’s concept of convergent evolution. In terms of astrobiology, this means that any life that develops elsewhere in the universe to a degree of intelligence comparable to our own will predictably have a form of religiosity comparable to our own.


Lari Launonen

Doctoral student, Faculty of theology, University of Helsinki

Theology and the Evolution of Religion: What We May Learn From Philip Hefner And J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen

Theological assessments of the evolution of religion are rare. Such accounts, however, are offered in two influential works: The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion by Philip Hefner (1993) and Alone in the World: Human Uniqueness in Science and Religion by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen (2006).

Both authors present evolutionary arguments in defending the value and rationality of early religion. Hefner emphasizes the role of myth and ritual in helping our ancestors to overcome the genetic disposition to selfishness and the limits of altruism. In fostering human flourishing, religion is seen as essentially reality-oriented.

Van Huyssteen underscores the “naturalness” of religion. Religion evolved as a response to certain challenges in the lifeworld of our ancestors. Also, it co-emerged with distinctive human cognitive skills, such as language and symbolic representation. This naturalness is the basis of the “plausibility”, “integrity”, “meaningfulness”, and “rationality” of religion.

While there is much to appreciate in these books, their attempt to vindicate religion with evolutionary science fails in the light of recent scholarship. However, they serve as case studies that may help theologians to reflect on how (not) to approach the evolution


Alastair Lockhart

Hughes Hall, Cambridge

Social Brain and Cognitive Science of Religion in the Study of New Religious Movements

Despite its longstanding theoretical importance, there has been only limited application of evolutionary theory in the study of new religious movements. The purpose of the paper is to review recent research applying evolutionary frameworks in the study of NRMs (normally

deploying cognitive science of religion approaches), and to discuss the implications of the application of the social brain hypothesis as an alternative approach. Recent studies using the evolutionarily derived CSR model in the study of NRMs include Upal (2005) 'Towards a cognitive science of new religious movements', Närhi (2008) 'Beautiful reflections: The cognitive and evolutionary foundations of paradise representation', and Lane (2009) 'Potential causes of ritual instability in doctrinal new religious movements: A cognitive hypothesis'. Following discussion of these studies, the paper examines the social brain

hypothesis, and assesses the ways in which the approach can be applied to a case study of a religious movement that emerged in the 1920s in the UK (and closed in 2012 after developing a brief worldwide profile) – the Panacea Society. The relative merits of the CSR and SBH approach in the study of NRMs are analysed, and the broader lessons suggested by the application of the SBH model to the NRM case study are discussed.


Gabriel Medeiros

University of Sao Paulo

Cognitive Science of Religion in Brazil: a review about studies and how it has been used

Cognitive science of religion is an approach based in anthropology, sociology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science among other disciplines and intent to investigate how evolution and adaptation contributed to the establishment of religions and belief systems among cultures. Is has been developed in the 1990’s by means of some works from researchers such as Pascal Boyer, Harvey Whitehouse, Stewart Guthrie, Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley. In Brazil, however, the first paper (in Portuguese language) published was only in 2007, by the psychologist of religion Geraldo Paiva. After this paper, only in 2015 a master’s research was started using this approach. In 2016, however, a study group was formed in the University of São Paulo to start investigating the concepts and methodologies used in the field and how to integrate it with other fields of investigation about belief and anomalous experiences in a more embracing way. Since them, some evens were run in Brazil discussing concepts and methods from cognitive science of religion and some works has been initialised. This paper aims to review Brazilian studies and works and how them impact in the wider field of research on religion and anomalous/religious experiences in Brazil.


Ziba Norman

University College, London

Homo Religiosus: Towards a Positive Mimetic

This moment in human evolution is characterised by an emergent transhuman identity, expressed by a desire to exceed our bodily limitations and potentially even shape the evolutionary process itself. But how will this play out on a societal level in an age of such advanced possibility? Will new belief structures emerge, ones capable of creating a flourishing society? René Girard, a thinker whose work on social evolution has been compared to Darwin’s theories of biological evolution, suggests that unconscious mimetic tendencies and sacral violence are generative of human culture. The mimetic urge, as described by Girard, can be viewed as an attempt to escape from existential incompleteness, which I will argue is most fully expressed in transhumanist desires. The pursuit of ultimate autonomy, in Girard’s view, itself leads to what he has termed the ‘mimetic law of escalation to extremes’. Girard’s work challenges us to reverse these mimetic tendencies, which can be traced back to the very earliest forms of religious practice: his work is pessimistic, though well observed. In opening these discussions, I will examine the works of René Girard, Michel Oughourlian and Carl von Clausewitz, addressing the question of how a deep understanding of the mechanisms described by Girard is essential for our continued flourishing as a species.


Lluis Oviedo

Antonianum University

The evolutionary study of religion and its relevance for theology

Religions have evolved and they continue to evolve; the historical record provides extensive empirical data that allows to revisit and reconstruct such a process. This is probably a factor somewhat neglected in standard theology, even if notions like ‘salvation history’ and some ‘doctrinal development’ are not strange for theologians since the twentieth century. However, taking into account the recent developments in the evolutionary study of religion surely implies a deeper revision of several claims in the traditional treatment of Christian revelation and faith, and posits several challenges. A the same time, theologians could help to better trace the path of religious evolution in their own tradition, helping to avoid very reductionist approaches and to improve available models, considering recent development in cultural evolution science. Theology could learn more about how a naturalistic explanation can be included in our own understanding of divine revelation and church formation, and at the same time to identify ‘explanatory gaps’ in such a process.


Paul Rezkalla

University of Oxford

Is it really the evolution of religion?

Chesterton famously wrote, “The obvious truth is that the moment any matter has passed through the human mind it is finally and for ever spoilt for all purposes of science.” By this he meant that often the object or phenomenon that is amenable to scientific examination is either only a piece of the phenomenon or completely distinct from but related to it. In the same way that morality is not identical to cooperation or reciprocal altruism but merely depends on them as precursors, so too the object of study in the evolution of religion is not itself religion but merely a precursor to it. This is because the evolutionary study of religion provides, to borrow a distinction from Elliot Sober, merely quantificational explanations of religion rather than predicative explanations of religion. CSR and evolutionary anthropology, biology, psychology, etc. can only explain why it is that groups of individuals who hold religious beliefs came to be at certain points throughout the evolutionary timeline, but they cannot (exhaustively) explain why it is that any single individual comes to believe any given religious tenet or practice any given religious behavior. Following Anscombe, I argue that no descriptions of “external” phenomena can fully account for the inner life of the individual, especially regarding intentionality for belief and behavior.


Neil Spurway

University of Glasgow

Evolution, Epistemology, Theology

Van Huyssteen, in his 2006 Gifford Lectures, urged theologians to pay serious attention to the evolutionary understanding of human knowledge, promoted by Lorenz and successors under the label ‘Evolutionary Epistemology’ – and by Ruse and Munz as ‘Darwinian Epistemology’. I suggest that van Huyssteen’s contention has been insufficiently heeded.
What we know is determined by our sensory apparatus, which recognizes only a very limited number of possible information-sources, different from those of many other species. Yet judgments underlying hazardous actions, such as a leap between branches by an arboreal primate, had to have been right, or the historical individual would not have been one of our ancestors. Less crucial judgments, e.g. concerning social interactions, must over the generations have massively influenced our thriving or otherwise. On such bases, it is argued that highly-Darwinian selection processes have determined the conceptions we are able to form of our world. The edifice of cultural understanding is extraordinary, but it is built with naturally-selected bricks.
All these processes are adaptive or otherwise for conceptions concerning this terrestrial world, not one outside space and time. Darwinian selection provides no basis for accepting any conceptions of a non-sensory world – if even allowing them meaning. We can think only within the confines of time, space and matter. Yet Moses’ just-not-encounter with God on Sinai (Exodus 24), highlighted in Pseudo-Dyonysius’s Mystical Theology, provides a scriptural model for the metaphysical situation in which Darwinian thinking places us.


William Struthers

Wheaton College

The Return of Pharmaco-spirituality: From the 1960s to the 2020s

Religious attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors can vary widely across cultures as well as within them. Religious experiences, however, are commonly understood to have a particular ‘spiritual’ component. Because of this, the degree to which these experiences are due to common neurobiological, pharmacological, and genetic factors is of interest to those studying the relationship between science and religion. There are numerous psychoactive compounds (i.e. alcohol, cannabinoids and opiates) used for medicinal/therapeutic and recreational purposes, and these substances can be used as part of religious rites. Within religious contexts, substances are occasionally consumed to induce or facilitate these spiritual/mystical experiences that are understood as providing spiritual insight embraced by that religious tradition. A significant contemporary challenge for those who wish to understand the role of pharmacologically induced spiritual/mystical experiences lies in the ability to discern not only the mechanics of neurotransmitter receptor activation and the impact of these pharmacological compounds within the nervous system, but to frame this understanding with a sensitivity to how these drugs are used across different cultures and religious systems. The purpose of this presentation is to provide a short historical review and offer a framework to understand drug classes frequently used to induce spiritual experiences within a broader cultural conversation about drug use and religion.


Konrad Szocik 

University of Information Technology and Management, Rzeszow, Poland 

Why sexual selection theory explains religion better than adaptive and cognitive account do 

The recent study published by Harvey Whitehouse and colleagues (2019) in Nature questions the moralizing gods hypothesis and pro-cooperative power of religion. In some sense, all studies criticizing prosocial functions of religion challenge the idea of functionality and adaptivity of religion. I this paper, I want to explore two ideas. One of them is based on the bio-behavioral approach to culture and states that human biology and ecological pressures are sufficient explanatory factors and main forces in the evolution of cooperation and social relations. Another idea states that the sexual selection theory should be applied in a more extensive way to the study of religion. While the possible role played by religion in the evolution of morality and prosociality is highly ambiguous, there are good reasons to explain evolution of religion in terms such as Zahavi’s handicap principle, runaway sexual selection or fitness indicator, just to mention a few. This paper discusses evolution of religion and its adaptivity in terms of male-male competition and female choice. 


Léon Turner

University of Cambridge

Recontextualising the Individual in the Evolutionary Study of Religion

Debates about the theological implications of recent research in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion have tended to focus on questions surrounding perceived threats to theism. Other potential implications, including possible disagreements about the conceptualisation of various aspects of individual human being typically receive much less attention. In this paper, I argue that all the major strands of evolutionary and cognitive accounts of religion lean heavily upon a model of mind and cognition that unwittingly supports abstract conceptions of individual human being, and which causes difficulties for several key contemporary theological anthropological principles. Taken as a whole, the field leaves sufficient room for more theologically amenable supplementary theories but in practice, no effort has been made to engage, or even to accommodate any other views. An evolutionary account that attends to the psychopharmacological basis of religion’s social bonding functions, grounding them in emotional rather than merely cognitive processes may be easier to reconcile with theological claims. Partly this is because such an account supports a strong relational view of individual personhood, according to which individuals are not seen as constellations of traits or qualities abstracted from any particular context, but as constituted in part by their historically contingent relations with each other and with their physical and socio-cultural environments. But it is also partly because such an account presents a view of the religious community and religion itself that is more in tune with theological notions of the individual in relation.


Joseph Watts

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany

Cultural complexity but not existential threat is associated with hunter-gatherer religious specialists

In early human societies people were widely believed to differ in their level of religious expertise, but few people were able to become religious specialists. Religious specialists received payments for their roles and services, providing relief from regular means of subsistence. Examples of early religious specialists include priests and priestesses, as well as some shaman and healers. Religious specialists often held great social authority, and are suggested to have facilitated the emergence of organised social and religious systems in human history. However, religious specialists also imposed substantial costs on other community members by requiring ritual offerings, tribute and payment. This has led some to claim that religious specialists exploited people’s existential insecurities about threatening and unpredictable life events, such as extreme weather events and disease epidemics. Here I use comparative cross-cultural methods to test the social and ecological factors associated with the presence of religious specialists in 85 historical hunter-gatherer societies. Consistent with theories about the role of religious specialists in the emergence of social complexity, I show that religious specialists were more likely to be found in hunter-gather societies with larger populations, greater social hierarchies, and stored food surpluses. However, in contrast to the claim that religious specialists exploit people’s existential concerns, religious specialists were less likely to be found in societies that inhabit unpredictable ecological environments, or geographic regions with high pathogen loads. This shows that professional religious specialists mark a major transition in the emergence of socio-political complexity, and challenges the claim that early religious specialists exploited people existential insecurities.


Fraser Watts

ISSR, University of Lincoln

The Evolution of Religious Cognition

Two stages are often distinguished in the evolution of religion, the first is shamanic, animistic or imagistic; the second is more doctrinal.  There are important differences in the modes of cognition associated with these two phases. In terms of Philip Barnard’s cognitive architecture, interacting Cognitive Subsystems (ICS), the cognition of the first phase is more Implicational, that of the second phase more Propositional. In terms of the McGilchrist’s theory of brain lateralisation, the first is more right-brain, the second is more left-brain. The cognition of the first phase is more embodied and participatory; that of the second phase is more detached from bodily and social context. It is also suggested that the cognition of the first phase is less differentiated, in being less characterised by conceptual distinctions; the latter phase is more conceptually differentiated. This parallels the evolution of the meanings of words, described by Own Barfield, from figurative, double-aspect meanings to more literal meanings. This sheds new light on the idea in the Cognitive Science of Religion that religion is associated with counter-intuitive domain violations. In contrast, it is suggested that in earlier forms of religion domains are not yet sufficiently distinguished for intuitions about what is appropriate to a domain to be fully formed. The psychology of religion has often distinguished experience practice and beliefs. It is suggested that these three facets evolve in roughly that order; and also that in recent centuries there has been a historical recapitulation of that sequence.

Hans Van Eyghen

VU Amsterdam

Biased for evil?

Recent research into the cognitive underpinnings and adaptive value of religious belief point to a link between religion and in-group bias (e.g. Boyer 2018). Religion, and especially signaling religious affiliation, would sometimes foster group-think and out-group hostility. The research shows that humans have a deeply rooted propensity towards doing evil towards out-group members which is very hard to overcome. Some authors noted that the link between religion and in-group bias radicalizes the old problem of evil (Teehan 2011, De Cruz and De Smedt 2013). They focus on the implications of deeply rooted evil for any claim towards an initial state of perfection as believed by most Christian traditions. They usually argue that a deeply rooted propensity towards doing evil makes it unlikely that humans were ever free from evil or sin. In my paper, I will focus on another problem. If humans indeed have a deeply rooted propensity towards evil that is hard to overcome, it seems that humans have a very limited potential for moral perfection or sanctification. I will argue that while the new research might change our standards of who can be considered praise- or blameworthy, it does not rule our moral perfection or sanctification.

Boyer, P. (2018). Minds make societies: How cognition explains the world humans create, Yale University Press.

De Cruz, H. and J. De Smedt (2013). "Reformed and evolutionary epistemology and the noetic effects of sin." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 74(1): 49-66.

Teehan, J. (2011). In the name of God: The evolutionary origins of religious ethics and violence, John Wiley & Sons.


James Van Slyke

Fresno Pacific University

Sexual Selection and the Evolution of Religion

This paper/presentation will investigate several possible functions religion may serve in various aspects of sexual selection including mate guarding, mating strategy signaling, life history associations, and increased fertility. Religion helps to support individual mating strategies through the usage and inspection of individual religious beliefs as a costly signal for characteristics associated with a potential long-term partner. Religious values often emphasize sexual purity and commitment to marriage, which is often monitored by members of a religious community and may act as a form of mate guarding. Religion has been associated with a slow life history strategy in that when environmental stressors are low (low violence, relative safety, food resources, etc.) persons are more likely to invest in children and parenting rather than mating with a larger number of partners. At the group level, religion may be a type of cultural adaptation through managing different aspects of individual mating strategies, which is ultimately beneficial for the entire group. World religions often emphasize marital commitment and child rearing and marriage is associated with a decrease in several socially detrimental behaviors including crime, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse and neglect, and spousal abuse.