A Socio-Evolutionary Look at Explaining Religion

           For centuries, humans have discussed the notion of truth and have looked for answers to life in various ways. Somewhere along our evolution to the modern humans we are today, a system was developed to help solve phenomena that occur in the world. This system is religion and is defined by humans in many unique ways. Sands (2010) attributes the beginning of religion to our ancestors the Neanderthals around 50,000 years ago or possibly even earlier with the evolution of Homo sapiens, but this is only a hypothesis. When trying to determine the basis for the formation of religion, most scientists look towards trends in modern humans and primates in the world today that could help explain why religion came to be and why it still exists. In this paper I will explore some of the components of what religion is comprised of and give some possibilities of how it came to fruition. In doing this, I attempt to explain why we as a species have religion and why there are so many varying forms of it.

            Before delving into the possible reasons for formation of religion, it is important to first discuss the issue of explanation. When studying explanation, it becomes apparent that the concept of truth is purely subjective because every person brings his or her own biases and perspectives into any explanation that is given. This leads us to ask how much of what we know is contingent upon our own personal experiences and does that leave room for universal truths across the world? Is all of what we know based completely off of our sensations and perceptions (empiricism) or do we have some innate truths in us that are universal to all of humankind (nativism)? The concept of truth is derived from a person having a specific form of certainty in some knowledge that they possess. Hastrup (2004) states “knowing is a matter of perspective; there is no knowledge without someone whoknows in a particular way. Knowledge, therefore, is a social phenomenon” (456). Knowledge is not a universal entity, rather, it is culturally construed and the two concepts (culture and knowledge) cannot be separated. Knowledge is also not universal because it is only pertinent within the framework in which it is first perceived. Because it is only applicable within its structure, knowledge must also be seen as being partial and limited and the context of its acquisition must always be taken into consideration. It is also partial because it is derived completely from within ourselves. Day (2009) explains that no system, living or artificial, can explain its behavior entirely by only looking within its own self, but rather, outside forces affecting the system must be examined also and taken into account when trying to explain behavior. The limited framework in which we perceive things places biases upon what we would consider knowledge and does not examine the outside forces acting upon us. Knowledge is claimed to be empirical in nature and about the world, but if knowledge is about the world, then it cannot be considered concrete because as Hastrup (2004) states "This world is fragmented, fluctuating and endlessly shifting, partly due to individual actions and unprecedented events, partly due to englobing processes of which agents are only dimly aware of" (458).

            Taking knowledge and truth as subjective and limited, I now raise the following questions: what exactly is religion? What drives people to believe in religion? What makes these religious people put their complete veneration in stories that are scientifically improvable? Even though they cannot explain these stories empirically, they still believe in them full-heartedly. What gives these theists enough conviction within their own beliefs that they are able to condemn others for choosing not to follow their specific choice of religion and the aspects that go along with it?

            As people have pondered questions of explanation, truth, knowledge and self-existence, a common drive to search for answers has lead millions of people around the world to turn to the system of religion. Religion is a fascinating phenomenon because it is found in a variety of different types all around the world and has no real substantiated root that everyone can agree upon. Many forms of religion found around the world are mutually exclusive and claim to be the one and only real truth or kind of religion. Anthropologists, psychologists, theologians and scholars alike have debated for some time now over what exactly constitutes a religion. A definition of religion widely used by anthropologists says that religion is "a set of rituals, rationalized by myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations in man and nature" (Wallace, 1966: 107). From a psychological perspective, they often define religion as "a search for significance in ways related to the sacred…when the sacred is integrated into an individual’s life, a transformation takes place: Beliefs become theologies, behaviors become rituals, relationships become congregations, and feelings become religious experiences" (Pargament, 2002: 240). Finally, a lot of scholars when defining religion say "religion consists of recurrent core features that receive varied emphasis across cultures…such features include ritual, myth, taboo, emotionally charged symbols, music, altered states of consciousness, commitment to supernatural agents and afterlife beliefs among others" (Sosis, 2009: 319-320). Although it can be argued that religion, because of its complexities and broadness, can never be completely defined, I find myself agreeing with the combination of all three of these definitions of religion to come to the best way to encompass what religion is. An important part of defining religion that needs to be emphasized is the metamorphosis that occurs within the advent participators of religion. People who take on their religion as a lifestyle use their religious beliefs to shape every decision they make in their lives. What would be considered to outsiders as plainly a basic faith becomes much more than that to the theist who now commits himself/herself and his/her life to this faith. It no longer is just a belief, but a way of life for these people and their every action, move and thought is influenced in some fashion by their religious beliefs.

            Now that we have some sense of what defines a religion and exactly what it is composed of, we come to the overarching question of how has such a system developed over the period of our evolution? There are many speculations out there for answering this age-old question, but three main perspectives or theories are often considered the most viable in the academic world and each are rooted deeply within the biological/socio-evolutionary realm of academia. Typically noted as the most dominant of the theories, the first theory is known as the by-product theory. This theory invokes the concept that religion is a by-product of our neural hardwiring that was originally intended to fulfill some other basic human need (Sands, 2010). This theory of religion being a by-product is based on the process of natural selection throughout our evolution as a human race. While studying humans and our ancestors, scientists have come to the conclusion that we as modern humans have some traits that are left over within us from our evolution that are no longer completely necessary for survival, but they are embedded within us because of the process of inheritance. One example of this would be our body’s natural reaction to get goosebumps when we are in a heightened sense of fear, in the presence of something unknown, or are just plainly cold in temperature. “Our ancestors were very hairy apes who would fluff up their fur to keep warm or to appear larger to an attacker [and] whenever you see your apparently useless goosebumps you are looking at a proof of evolution, at something you inherited from earlier primates” (Barker, 2008: 350).

            Another leftover trait that we have inherited from our earlier ancestors that can be attributed to why religion has been formed is known as our hyperactive agency detection device (HADD). The hyperactive agency detection device makes us as humans more prone to see ‘agents’ that aren’t always there. “Agent detection is a behavioral response to the environment that triggers the assumption that there is some ‘agency’ in traditionally inanimate entities” (Sands 2010, 442). This is important in natural selection because “selection favored hyperactive vigilance because the costs of assuming, for instance, that the wind is the cause of a rustling bush, rather than a tiger, are too high; hence we are designed to assume the tiger’s presence and err on the side of caution” (Sosis, 2009; 317). This agency detection is still rather prevalent today in us as modern humans and can be attributed to little kids seeing ‘monsters’ that turn out to be clothes on the ground or our initial heightened arousal reaction to looming ‘figures’ in the dark as being some form of threat or danger that turn out to be a tree’s shadow. We can hypothesize that in the past, before science, something as simple as thunder could leave our ancestors in fear and trying to explain it by using what they know. This could possibly direct them to the conclusion that some type of agent was in the sky causing this loud noise. This also could have been used by our ancestors to explain many types of natural occurrences such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, rain, droughts, floods, winds and many other things. These agents could be perceived by our ancestors as gods, deities, or any other type of supernatural power. Barker (2008) attributes this not because our ancestors had any empirical evidence to believe in a higher power of some form, but rather because they were equipped with this hyperactive agency detection device. This inherited evolutionary trait from our ancestors has left our present-day brains wired to “perceive ‘agents’ (even in their actual absence), [and] this primes humans to accept religious agents who also confound the empirical” (Sands, 2010: 442). To be fair, we must also realize that not every person is affected by these traits in the same fashion and some people are more prone to have a higher hyperactive agent detection device than others. There is of course, always a degree of variety in evolutionary processes that create a widely diverse spectrum. This is why some people will detect agencies today that others will not and the people detecting agents could possibly attribute actions to a supernatural power. According to Barker (2008), those reasons are why some people are more prone to be religious while other people fall onto the opposite end of the spectrum.

            Another form of cognitive processing that would adhere to the by-product theory of explaining religion would have to be casual reasoning. Casual reasoning in humans refers to the innate drive in us as humans to describe everything we come across using the universal form of cause and effect. We are prone as humans to attribute causes to effects that we do not empirically know the cause of. Before the age of science, many things around the world were unexplainable for our ancestors.  This innate drive we have coincides well with our ancestor’s inferences on attributing unexplainable natural occurrences as an effect of supernatural agents that could not be seen (Sands, 2010; 443).

            Theory of mind, or ‘folkpsychology’ is another cognitive trait that could be used to help strengthen the camp of the by-product theory. This theory is based on the assumption that it is natural for human beings to attribute similarities in their own minds and actions to another mind that is not always seen or felt. This attribution allows humans to perceive that they have the capability to quasi-predict other human’s actions and ultimately shape their beliefs (Sands, 2010). This theory was developed because research was done in cognitive child development and it was found out that children at a young age often view their parents as omniscient, but as they grow older they make void of that notion and become more aware of other minds around them. This allows humans to be able to differentiate other minds around them as either being a friend or foe, predator or predation. This ‘ability’ “allows a separation of body and mind which, when accepted, lays the foundation for a belief in the non-corporeal, the soul, and eventually the mind(s) of God(s)” (Sands, 2010: 443). This perceived dualism between the mind and body could be a major reason why we as humans are prone to believe in many forms of the supernatural and why many humans are drawn to the system of religion.

            The second theory that is widely debated when it comes to the origins of religion in the academic world is the idea that religion was formed out of adaptation. “Adaptationists or functionalists posit that the emergence of belief affected the development of neural structures in evolutionary advantageous, or adaptive, ways in particular environmental situation” (Sands, 2010: 441). This theory of origin of religion really harps on the concept of religion bringing a social group closer together and the advantages that could occur from being a part of that group. Some of these advantages, that could have been the difference between life and death for our ancestors, could have been the pooling of food and resources, the abundance of mates to be selected from, and also the overall protection and security that could be found in being apart of a large group. Religious rituals were a form of showing commitment to the group in order to be accepted into the socially constructed religious community. The religious rituals are considered adaptations that are more deeply rooted then secular rituals because “commitment to religious ritual is based on belief rather than proof. Many rituals also signal individual obligation to foundational beliefs and are means of assuring group members will not stray from the group’s commitments” (Sands, 2010: 444). People who believe in this theory strongly advocate that religion is comprised of many different traits that helped our early ancestors to be able to adapt to the many ecological issues they faced on a daily basis. “These traits served to maximize the potential resource base for early human populations, thereby increasing individual fitness” and Sosis (2009) argues that “the religious system is an exquisite, complex adaptation that serves to support extensive, human cooperation and coordination, and social life as we know it” (317).

            Sapolsky (2005) also finds a direct link between religion as an adaptation and the environment in which people live in. The correlation between culture (religion being a part of culture) and the type of ecosystem in which a community of people derive from can be seen and predicted across the globe. After years of anthropologists studying the link between culture and climate, there seems to be a general agreement of a basic dichotomy between two types of societies: those who live in deserts and those who live in rainforests (Sapolsky, 2005). This dichotomy is clearly seen in the realm of religion and more specifically in the difference between monotheism and polytheism. People who live in the desert have to survive off of very few resources and this reduces the world to few basic ideas, such as how tough the world is. As religion adapted in deserts, there was a draw for one encompassing god that controlled everything. On the other hand, in the rainforest, there are many resources and the result of one resource disappearing does not typically cause a life or death situation. This adapts religion into a polytheistic realm because there are multiple factors coming into play for survival. This theory introduced by Sapolsky (2008) gives another insight on how religion was formed as an adaption and shows specifically how religion is adaptive to the particular environmental conditions in which it is originally formed. 

            Adaptationists face a lot of scrutiny over their theory and five main disagreements prevail over the rest. The first is the idea that there is no such thing as religion and if this is true, then there is no way it can be adaptive. In order for something to be adaptive, it has to exist in the first place. Some scholars around the world debate that religion as an entity does not even exist and even though they do not recognize it as a real subject, they spend their entire academic careers studying religion to prove its nonexistence (Sosis, 2009). This, in Sosis opinion, proves that religion is a true subject that can be adaptive or else these people would have nothing to study. The second disagreement comes from the people who fall into the by-product theory discussed earlier. Again, they believe that what could be construed as religious thoughts and behaviors were never intended to actually produce the genre of religion and this is why they believe religion is a by-product of our psychological hardwiring. The third disagreement calls into the validity of the adaptationist argument. These scholars regard the adaptationist theory as being untested and unproven. They claim that the theory lacks the proof necessary to be a possible truth and until more research is completed, they do not regard this theory as viable. The fourth argument made to critique the adaptationist theory states that if religion were an adaptation, then everyone in the world would be religious. Since everyone is not religious, they claim that religion therefore cannot be an adaptation. Sosis (2009) argues that there has to be discrepancies and differences in order for anything to be adaptive. It is in these differences that natural selection occurs due to the advantages the differences have relative to the framework in which the process is occurring. This is why Sosis (2009) says that not every person has to be religious in order to consider religion as an adaptation. The fifth and final argument claims that religion is way to costly for it to be adaptive. The argument is that religion involves practices that could be very costly in the sense of time, commitment, resources, and sometimes physical and emotional pain. Although it is undeniable that there is a cost to be paid to practice a religion that could be considered detrimental to the individual, Sosis (2009) argues that the cost of commitment leads to communal benefits. Being part of a community of religion could outweigh the individual costs and could be quite beneficial and thus desirable. These benefits of being in a religious community would debunk the notion that religion is too costly to be an adaptation.

            The last theory I want to discuss is entitled maladaptive. This theory is not so much on the origin of religion as it is on the contemporary negative effects religion has on us. Although, in order to talk about the modern day negative effects of religion, the people who fall within the maladaptive category also need to discuss the derivation of religion in general. Barker (2008) theorizes that as children, we have a strong dependency on our parental figures within our lives. This is necessary because we would not last very long as a species without the guidance of an older example during our earlier formative years. The issue that comes into play is as we grow up and acquire all the knowledge necessary to survive and become less dependent on our caregivers, Barker (2008) hypothesizes that we still have the desire to be obedient to a parent like figure. This obedience also brings about a sense of comfort and trust in thinking that a more knowledgeable entity is guiding us in the most profitable direction in life and is looking to ensure our safety. Again, there is a wide varying spectrum of time in which people cling to this desire for a guiding parental figure.  With many people, this desire stays with them into their adulthoods and it leaves them feeling like they have a hole inside of them that needs to be filled. This leads them to look for something to help them feel that comfort and simplicity again that comes along with being a child. Combining this drive to search for something more powerful and our proneness as humans to detect agency in nature, it could easily be seen how a human conscious could derive a father or mother figure out of any agent that does not exist. People within the maladaptive camp would propose that a sign of a mature adult would be the rejection of the father-figure agent. They claim that this is a healthy sign of maturation and the truest form of being independent/grown-up (Barker, 2008). A major contributor to the maladaptive cause, Richard Dawkins, “suggests that religion has become a toxic evolutionary accident” and “it is no longer selected for or even possibly useful in situation not defined by contemporary religious beliefs” (Sands, 2010: 444). This group of maladaptionists is composed mostly of scientists and atheists that use their time and efforts to show how the costs of religion can be quite detrimental to the society as a whole and to the individuals engulfed in a religion. They feel that religion is no longer necessary to our development as humans and that the world would be a better place void of all religions.

            Religion plays a crucial role in the lives of every person in the world either directly or indirectly. Whether a person believes in a specific religion or not, the people around them might and their religious beliefs may influence their actions. Religion surrounds us all. For example, the word god is used often throughout the United States. It is used in the declaration of independence, the pledge of allegiance, and even on the currency. Also, many politicians today who are making the decisions on how this country should be run are religious people and some would be willing to confess that they base their decisions solely off of their religious beliefs and convictions. Religion is the basis for many wars happenings in the world right now and in the past; it has caused genocides and even massive revolutions. With so much religion surrounding us all, it is imperative for us to look at religion from many different angles so as to create the best explanation of religion as possible. We need to study the origins, the history of development and the possibilities for religion in the future. Some argue that in trying to explain the phenomenon of religion, we are just taking one mystery and replacing it with another (Day, 2009), but I think this is used as an excuse for otherwise trying to tackle a very in depth, often confusing, and extremely controversial subject. Pargamant (2002) believes that we should not try to explain religion away, but rather we should incorporate many different modes of explanation to look at religion and the connections it has to many other human processes in order to have a better look at human nature in general.  I believe with Pargamant that we must use every source possible to look at religion in order to help explain its origins and development, but in doing so, it is imperative to use our reason in order to eliminate the crutch that religion has become in our world today. We can find in our physiological hardwiring many reasons for why religion might have been advantageous for our ancestors, but it serves no purpose for survival in the modern world. It has become an agent used to numb the masses from the harshness and cruelty that is unavoidable in the world. Death, sickness, famine, natural disasters, diseases and droughts are all natural occurrences that have always taken place and there will always be more to come. People now use religion to cope with these otherwise difficult phenomena, but in doing so they sacrifice their own logic and reason. It is frightening to think that decisions that affect the well being of millions of people in today’s world are being made by world leaders who are basing their decisions solely off of their own personal convictions to this idea of religion, a by-product of our evolutionary history. It is our duty as human beings to try to understand our past and use this information to better our future. In the realm of religion, I believe it is becoming clearer as more research is being conducted on explaining religion that the context in which religion was originally formed is not the context of the modern world and religion in general is no longer needed.  Convincing people of the non-necessity of religion will take many generations, but the research shown in this paper is a start in the correct direction. In the future, by using the information provided in this paper and future research, hopefully we will be able as more independent, freethinking, cognitively mature human beings to remove the left over evolutionary crutch that is religion and regain our personal reason and logic once again.


Barker, D. (2008). Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. Ulysses Press.

Day, M. (2009). CONSTRUCTING RELIGION WITHOUT THE SOCIAL: DURKHEIM, LATOUR, AND EXTENDED COGNITION. Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, 44(3), 719-737. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Hastrup, K. (2004). Getting it right: Knowledge and evidence in anthropology. Anthropological Theory, 4(4),  455-472.  

Pargament, K. I. (2002). Is Religion Nothing But ...? Explaining Religion Versus Explaining Religion Away. Psychological Inquiry, 13(3), 239-244. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Sands, R. R. (2009). Guest Editor's Introduction: The Science of God: Natural Origins of Religion in an Evolutionary Perspective. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, 3(4), 437-457. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2005). Monkeyluv. Scribner. 161-169.

Sosis, R. (2009). The Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate on the Evolution of Religion: Five Misunderstandings of the Adaptationist Program. Journal of Cognition & Culture, 9(3/4), 315-332. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Wallace, A.F.C. (1966). Religion: An Anthropological View. Random House.

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