Revising Cognitive and Evolutionary Science of Religion : Religion as an Adaptation

Springer Verlag (2021)


This unique and pioneering book critically appraises current work from both the cognitive science of religion and the evolutionary study of religion. It addresses the question: Why does the believer possess supernatural or religious beliefs in the combined context of his cognitive biases, their adaptive usefulness measured in terms of survival and reproduction, and the impact of social learning and cultural traits? The authors outlines a pluralistic approach to the study of religion that does not treat religion as an accidental by-product but an adaptation selected by natural selection. Chapters discuss the role of religious components for the evolution of cooperation and altruism, and explore the development of atheism and secular ideas, in cognitive and evolutionary terms. Topics such as the usefulness of religion, the transmission of religious beliefs, and a Darwinian approach to religion are among those addressed. Contrary to standard views, religious biases are regarded as shaped by cultural influences and not merely by natural dispositions. This monograph will particularly appeal to researchers who are looking for a scientific explanation of religion and religious beliefs but who do not stop at the level of narrow cognitive and evolutionary accounts. The work will also be of interest to students of philosophy, sociology, religious studies, theology, or anthropology who seek to explain such fascinating, complex, and unequivocal phenomena as religion and religious components.

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Author's Profile

Hans Van Eyghen
VU University Amsterdam


Religion as Adaptive 4: Sexual Selection of Religion

After having discussed biological adaptationist and cultural adaptationist approaches, we lastly discuss sexual selection theory of religion. This chapter introduces the main concepts and theories in sexual selection. Then, possible applications to the evolution of religion are offered. While there ... see more

The Cognitive Approach

This chapter presents some of the main theories and assumptions of cognitive science of religion . The main CSR theories and concepts discussed here include the concept of religion as by-product, the naturalness of religion, HADD, MCI hypothesis, theory of mind, and promiscuous teleology. Critical r... see more

Arguments for Adaptationism

This chapter offers arguments for adaptationist explanation of religion. We argue that cognitive explanations are mainly proximate explanations that do not explain the long-term evolutionary context of religious components. Only adaptationist theories offer an ultimate explanation of evolution of re... see more


The final chapter discusses the cognitive and evolutionary contexts of atheism and non-belief. While atheism is considered by CSR scholars as a secondary phenomenon which is unnatural and non-intuitive, there are good reasons to study its evolutionary history. This chapter states that there are stro... see more


We presented the case that religion evolved because it served an adaptive function. We criticized the competing view that religious components were selected as a functionless by-product of other adaptive traits and surveyed arguments that religion (either components or religion as a whole yielded an... see more

Religion as Adaptive 2: Adaptationist Approaches

This chapter discusses adaptationist theories of religion which consider religious components such as beliefs and/or behaviors as adaptations. Such adaptationist theories of religion include Broad Supernatural Punishment Theory, Big God Theory, costly signaling theories of religion, the concept of r... see more

Religion as Adaptive 1: Background

This chapter presents the basic concepts of evolutionary biology that are applied in adaptationist theories of religion. We discuss concepts like the unit of selection, or individual selection versus group selection. This chapter also discusses the puzzling explanatory challenge of the evolution of ... see more


This chapter discusses the idea of explanation of religion in its historical and cultural contexts. First attempts of understanding and later explaining religion in naturalistic terms were made by philosophers in the modern era, beginning with the philosophy of Spinoza. There are good reasons to exp... see more

Religion as Adaptive 3: Cultural Evolution

This chapter discusses evolution of religion in terms of cultural evolution. We argue that there are good reasons to study religion in terms of cultural evolution. Basic concepts and theories within cultural evolution studies are discussed such as memetics, sociobiology or dual inheritance theory. T... see more

Religion as Cultural: Culture Shapes Cognitive Mechanisms

This chapter shows how cultural processes can account for the emergence of religious components. We argue that cultural processes can shape the operations of cognitive mechanisms so that they easily and automatically produce religious components.

Is Religion Still Natural?

This chapter explores the concept of naturalness of religion. Religious components may be regarded as natural in the sense of being intuitive and cognitively effortless. Such theories and concepts are critically evaluated.

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