Evolution of Religion

Barrett and Keil (1996) conducted research on the concepts of God among students and found out that people seem to apply two different schemata to this deity. Though on the one hand people agree that God is omniscient, omnipotent and beyond time and space (as is the official religious dogma), people will treat God in daily life as an enhanced human being. When asked to interpret various stories about God that had some ambiguity about God’s abilities, people generally gave God traits and abilities that were not omniscient (God would for example look the other way), nor beyond time and space (God could not see a rock if a herd of buffalo ran over it) nor all-powerful (God could only help one person at a time). So though officially the God of the Judaic tradition is believed to be all-powerful, perfect and beyond comprehension, he is no more so than any classic deity in people’s daily lives. Even when dealing with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing deity, who exists beyond time and space and can read every thought ever conceived, people still have the urge to address this immense creature with explicit prayer, talking and rituals as if it was just a super-powerful human being who couldn’t hear you otherwise. A stronger example of how the categorization process shapes our deities is hardly available.

Mythical Properties Answering People’s Needs

As mentioned above, mythical explanations can potentially answer people’s existential anxieties. One route that often appears to be followed in answering as to why religions exists is a functional one; religions serve to answer human needs or motivations that are universal. A more extensive description of universal motivations has been given by Baumeister and Leary (1995). They claim that the implications of these motivations go beyond mere psychological functioning; in fact, if a motivation is truly universal, “it should be capable of offering viable and consistent interpretations of patterns observed in historical, economic, or sociological studies” (p. 499). We will discuss a couple of examples of fundamental human needs (following Williams, Forgas, & Von Hippel, 2005). This is by no means a complete discussion on fundamental human needs, but serves as an illustration as to what function religion can play in society.

Four of these needs are discussed in Williams et al. (2005), although we shall only mention two here to illustrate what these needs entail and how they relate to religion: (1) the need to belong, and (2) the need for meaningful existence.

Baumeister and Leary (1995) argue that humans have an innate preparedness to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of interpersonal relationships (the need to belong). As such, they contend, this is evolutionarily based: this capacity has survival and reproductive benefits. Prime examples of why the need to belong is fundamental are that if the need to belong is frustrated, people have a significant chance of dying at a younger age, suffer depression or anxieties, and have a poorer immune system. The need to belong might even prevail above other needs, as some theorists argue that the fear of death is a result of being socially excluded from others (Williams, Forgas, & Von Hippel, 2005).

Casanova (1994) gives examples of increased Brazilian and decreased Western European religiosity. Casanova (1994) mentions De Tocqueville, who predicted “new and expanded possibilities for the construction of communities of all kinds as voluntary associations” for the Western world, poorer Brazilian communities ‘used’ religion as a means of fulfilling the need to belong. Moreover, taking the perspective of overcoming the fear of death, the union with God after death in traditions of ‘the Book’ (i.e. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) could ultimately fulfill this need. In fact, unification with God could potentially replace the earthly problem of being socially excluded from one’s earthly environment.

Next, goal setting theorists posit that setting goals is at the foundation of human behavior – the need for meaningful existence (e.g. Austin & Vancouver, 1996). Crocken and Neur (2004) for example suggested that individuals who are trembled by fear lack clear goals; whereas other people who have increased levels of motivation possess a clear sense of meaning and purpose. Hence, a religious cosmology could answer the aforementioned existential anxieties, and instill motivation and clear meaning in religious communities.


In this article, we took a close look at religion and deities from a social-psychological point of view. We conclude in general that though religion is a widely spread phenomenon with countless differences in the details of each religion, certain traits of religion are universal.

First of all, present research has shown universal patterns and predictions about deities, how people structure the supernatural world and what traits their deities have. In general, these findings support and complement the general conclusion that deities are a construct created almost automatically (assuming that people have an awareness of cause and effect). These constructs are further expanded and colored by myths. The popularity of various myths is likely to be affected by our innate fascination for counterintuitive features. Based on these ideas, religions grow and aid people in fulfilling their second function: fulfilling powerful and universal needs such as giving a sense of belonging or meaningful existence, amongst others.

article author(s)