Evolution of Religion

Religion. "Praise be to God." "Awakening the Buddha within." "Allāhu akbar." Just phrases at first sight.. But what comes to mind? Depending on your background or your personal situation, each of these might prime you with anxiety, or with comfort. Equally so, wars have been (and are) fought over whose way is ‘The Way’.

Then this title: Evolution of Religion? Should it not be Religion or Evolution? No, and we will explain why.

Among of the natural allies (or for that matter among the opponents!) of religion, the social sciences have often encountered great difficulties dealing with transcendental or mythical ideas, because of the own nature of these sciences and because of the ambiguities concerning religion. Also, as a result of the secularization hypothesis in the twentieth century in sociology, religion has become an often-ignored topic in the social sciences. A very brief and rough explanation of the secularization hypothesis holds that religion would disappear worldwide under the influences of modernization, as has been witnessed in Western Europe. However, this hypothesis is discredited as an overall explanation now by sociologists (e.g. Casanova, 1994), and in many social sciences a resurgence and reexamination of religious phenomena is taking place (cf. Barsalou, Barbey, Simmons, & Santos, 2005; Van der Veer, 2006). For our purposes, we want to examine what the function of religion is, from an evolutionary cultural perspective.

When discussing the topic of religion in the social sciences, a disclaimer appears necessary. As social scientists, we are not equipped to deal with questions about transcendence or with out-of-this-world phenomena. Quite frankly, it is not even in our interest to do so at this stage. Thus, we will not engage in any such theological arguments. Moreover, we will also not engage in the sociological issue to define what religion is from a theoretical perspective. Through our article, we hope to analyze religion, as religion per se is a fabulously interesting phenomenon from a cultural, psychological, or evolutionary perspective. Thus, in this article, we want to dig deeper into the why and what of the development of religion in terms of psychological and evolutionary perspectives. We will examine this through supplying a framework of the content of belief, on the necessity for people to believe in cause and effect, which we will attempt to unify with a needs-based perspective. We first attempt to explore the question as to why people participate in religious rites and traditions, then, we go into the questions as to why people actually would believe. By no means do we believe this analysis to be complete, but we hope to give some evolutionary background as to how and why religion developed as a social psychological construct.

The traits of religion: a framework

A vital question when looking at religion from a scientific, evolutionary perspective is ‘Why do people believe in deities?’ Through this question, we do not want to deny the possibility of the existence of a deity, but merely want to investigate the social psychological aspect; hence, we will analyze deities separate from transcendental theories. Based on Boyer’s (2003) approach to religion and deities in particular, we will propose the idea that deities should be approached from a mythic point of view: the tales told about the deity explain how people think about the deity and approach it. It is therefore important to know that deities are not the only myths people believe in – there are also legends, folktales and fantasies, for example. Boyer (2003) suggests that religious notions such as deities are just one example of a wide array of mythical or supernatural thinking, and discusses the features that allow supernatural notions to spread themselves. These features are based on evolutionary developed abilities, such as  Social Exchange Theory and  Theory of Mind. This makes religion (as a psychological construct) basically a by-product of pre-existing, evolutionarily shaped cognitive abilities. If this is the case, one would expect a certain universality of religious notions around the world, since one can assume that everyone possesses a similar set of cognitive capabilities, with the exception of mental disorders. Atran and Norenzayan (2004) extend this notion of universality in a framework of religion. While they focus on the properties of supernatural agents, we extend this framework here to Boyer’s (2003) notion of myths. In their framework, they propose that a) widespread  counterfactual and  counterintuitive beliefs in myths, such as supernatural agents, exist, b) that hard-to-fake public expressions of costly material commitments are offered worldwide in relation to these mythical properties, c) that these mythical properties answer people’s existential anxieties, and d) that a), b) and c) are orchestrated in a ritualized, rhythmic sensory coordination.

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