“The Evolution of Religion”

I highly recommend a review article by Scott Atran and Joseph Heinrich, “The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions.” It’s a great summary of current thinking about scientific explanations of religion. (Thanks to Konrad Talmont-Kaminski)

Sample quotation:

In sum, religion, as an interwoven complex of rituals, beliefs, and norms, plausibly arises from a combination of (1) the mnemonic power of counterintuitive representations, (2) our evolved willingness to put faith on culturally acquired beliefs rooted in the commitment-inducing power of devotions and rituals, and (3) the selective effect on particular cultural complexes created by competition among societies and institutions. None of these evolved for religion per se. The mnemonic power of minimally counterintuitive representations appears to be a by-product of our evolved expectations about how the world works and our fitness-enhancing requirement to pay attention to anomalies. The faith we sometimes place in culture over our own experience and intuitions is a cognitive adaptation, resulting from our long dependence on vast bodies of complex cultural knowledge. Reliance on costly displays evolved to provide partial immunity against manipulation. The power of rhythm and synchrony in ritual to build solidarity (Wiltermuth and Heath 2009) likely arises from our imitative and ToMabilities. Cultural evolution, driven by competition among groups, exploits each of these cognitive processes to fashion sets of counterintuitive beliefs, rituals, and norms that spread by intergroup transmission, conquest, or reproductive differentials. As a result, for large-scale societies, these complexes tend to include potent supernatural agents that monitor and incentivize actions that expand the sphere of cooperation, galvanize solidarity in response to external threats, deepen faith, and sustain internal harmony.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10546265581296919974 Rob

    Another paper worth reading, and one which explicitly complements Atran & Henrich's, is Graham & Haidt's Beyond Beliefs: Religions Bind Individuals Into Moral Communities.

    Also, thanks to Talmont-Kaminski for his editing of the "Cognitive Science of Religion" Wikipedia page.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14016304294151589119 cayuse

    Religion is a broad term for example you have the Christian Church and the teaching of Christ. If you read the "red letters" end to end over and over you see what they said he said. There were no churche or bible in Christ times or in his teaching. He simply taught Righteousness, the right action of Good over Evil and to Transcend the ego self or waking state consciousness to the Super Consciousness or Cosmic Consciousness the Spirit of the Universe, I call GOD.

    This also was taught by Buddha and Krishna