We develop a cultural evolutionary theory of the origins of prosocial religions and apply it to resolve two puzzles in human psychology and cultural history: (1) the rise of large-scale cooperation among strangers and, simultaneously, (2) the spread of prosocial religions in the last 10–12 millennia. We argue that these two developments were importantly linked and mutually energizing. We explain how a package of culturally evolved religious beliefs and practices characterized by increasingly potent, moralizing, supernatural agents, credible displays of faith, (...) and other psychologically active elements conducive to social solidarity promoted high fertility rates and large-scale cooperation with co-religionists, often contributing to success in intergroup competition and conflict. In turn, prosocial religious beliefs and practices spread and aggregated as these successful groups expanded, or were copied by less successful groups. This synthesis is grounded in the idea that although religious beliefs and practices originally arose as nonadaptive by-products of innate cognitive functions, particular cultural variants were then selected for their prosocial effects in a long-term, cultural evolutionary process. This framework (1) reconciles key aspects of the adaptationist and by-product approaches to the origins of religion, (2) explains a variety of empirical observations that have not received adequate attention, and (3) generates novel predictions. Converging lines of evidence drawn from diverse disciplines provide empirical support while at the same time encouraging new research directions and opening up new questions for exploration and debate. (shrink)
In our response to the 27 commentaries, we refine the theoretical claims, clarify several misconceptions of our framework, and explore substantial disagreements. In doing so, we show that our framework accommodates multiple historical scenarios; debate the historical evidence, particularly about “pre-Axial” religions; offer important details about cultural evolutionary theory; clarify the termprosociality;and discuss proximal mechanisms. We review many interesting extensions, amplifications, and qualifications of our approach made by the commentators.
Previous research suggests that how people conceive of minds depends on the culture in which they live, both in determining how they interact with other human minds and how they infer the unseen minds of gods. We use exploratory factor analysis to compare how people from different societies with distinct models of human minds and different religious traditions perceive the minds of humans and gods. In two North American samples (American adults, N = 186; Canadian students, N = 202), we (...) replicated a previously found two‐factor agency/experience structure for both human and divine minds, but in Fijian samples (Indigenous iTaukei Fijians, N = 77; Fijians of Indian descent, N = 214; total N = 679) we found a three‐factor structure, with the additional containing items related to social relationships. Further, Fijians’ responses revealed a different three‐factor structure for human minds and gods’ minds. We used these factors as dimensions in the conception of minds to predict (a) expectations about human and divine tendencies towards punishment and reward; and (b) conception of gods as more embodied (an extension of experience) or more able to know people's thoughts (an extension of agency). We found variation in how these factors predict conceptions of agents across groups, indicating further theory is needed to explain how culturally generated concepts of mind lead to other sorts of social inferences. We conclude that mind perception is shaped by culturally defined social expectations and recommend further work in different cultural contexts to examine the interplay between culture and social cognition. (shrink)
Supernatural beliefs are ubiquitous around the world, and mounting evidence indicates that these beliefs partly rely on intuitive, cross‐culturally recurrent cognitive processes. Specifically, past research has focused on humans' intuitive tendency to perceive minds as part of the cognitive foundations of belief in a personified God—an agentic, morally concerned supernatural entity. However, much less is known about belief in karma—another culturally widespread but ostensibly non‐agentic supernatural entity reflecting ethical causation across reincarnations. In two studies and four high‐powered samples, including mostly (...) Christian Canadians and mostly Hindu Indians (Study 1, N = 2,006) and mostly Christian Americans and Singaporean Buddhists (Study 2, N = 1,752), we provide the first systematic empirical investigation of the cognitive intuitions underlying various forms of belief in karma. We used path analyses to (a) replicate tests of the previously documented cognitive predictors of belief in God, (b) test whether this same network of variables predicts belief in karma, and (c) examine the relative contributions of cognitive and cultural variables to both sets of beliefs. We found that cognitive tendencies toward intuitive thinking, mentalizing, dualism, and teleological thinking predicted a variety of beliefs about karma—including morally laden, non‐agentic, and agentic conceptualizations—above and beyond the variability explained by cultural learning about karma across cultures. These results provide further evidence for an independent role for both culture and cognition in supporting diverse types of supernatural beliefs in distinct cultural contexts. (shrink)
A complete picture of shamanism's cultural evolution requires an understanding of how the professionalization of shamanism affects the distribution of knowledge within societies. We suggest that limiting knowledge to fewer people could impede the accumulation of functional knowledge within shamanism. On this basis, we make further predictions about how the domain of shamanism could change and collapse.