The Evolution of Religion
Studies, Theories, and Critiques

Edited by
Joseph Bulbulia, Richard Sosis, Erica Harris,
Russell Genet, Cheryl Genet, Karen Wyman

Published by
The Collins Foundation Press
Santa Margarita, CA 

406 page hard-back book containing 50 chapters.


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Description and Acclaim

The Evolution of Religion is a unique transdisciplinary volume that gathers the latest research, debates, and programmatic visions of scholars studying religion from an evolutionary perspective. Anyone interested in the relationship of evolutionary science to religion will find insight and inspiration in this striking collection of fifty short essays from a diverse group of renowned international scholars. Here, God meets Darwin, and the conversation that ensues provides fascinating reading for those seeking to make sense of religion’s place in nature.

This book is filled with gems of essays, short enough to sparkle with the energy of new ideas yet rich enough to show readers how to pursue each topic in more detail. It is a valuable introduction to the theme of the evolution of religion especially because, as a collaborative venture with diverse contributions, the volume demonstrates how strongly contested this theme is at the present time.

                                                            Wesley J. Wildman, Director of the Doctoral Program in
                                                            Science, Philosophy, and Religion at Boston University.

This is an extraordinary book. With stunning intellectual breadth and judicious editorial taste, it demonstrates evolution’s unique potential to provide a rigorous theory for understanding religion. Every student of religion will benefit from reading this path-breaking work.

                                                           William Scott Green, Professor of Religious Studies and
                                                           Dean of Undergraduate Education, University of Miami.

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Note from the Publisher
Dwight Collins

Preface: Bringing the Evolution of Religion into Being
Russell Genet and Cheryl Genet

Introduction: Religion in Eden
Richard Sosis and Joseph Bulbulia
Part I Evolutionary Scenarios
1 Evolution and Religion: The Transformation of the Obvious
   David Sloan Wilson

2 Cognitive Evolution and Religion; Cognition and Religious Evolution
   Harvey Whitehouse

3 From Apes to Devils and Angels:Comparing Scenarios on the Evolution of Religion
   Armin W. Geertz
4 Why People Believe (What Other People See As) Crazy Ideas
   William Irons

Part II Whose Adaptation? Individuals, Groups, Cultural Variants
5 Religion Is Not an Adaptation:Some Fundamental Issues and Arguments
   Lee A. Kirkpatrick
6 Religious Attachment Theory and the Biosocial Evolution of the Major World Religions
   Stephen K. Sanderson
7 Is Religion Adaptive? Yes, No, Neutral, but Mostly, We Don’t Know
   Peter J. Richerson and Lesley Newson
8 Is Religiousness a Biocultural Adaptation?
   Erica Harris and Patrick McNamara

9 Cultural Evolution of Intense Religiosity:The Case of “Sankirtan Fever” in the Hare Krishna Movement
   Kimmo Ketola

10 Supernatural Niche Construction Incubates Brilliance and Governs the Ratchet Effect
     David Kydd

Part III Tribes Under God
11 Pigeons, Foxholes, and the Book of Psalms:
     Evolved Superstitious Responses to Cope with Stress and Uncertainty

     Richard Sosis
12 Gods of War: The Adaptive Logic of Religious Conflict
     Dominic Johnson

13 One Species under God? Sorting through the Pieces of Religion and Cooperation
     Azim F. Shariff

14 Religion, Status, and Leadership in Neolithic Avebury: An Example of the Cauvin-Stark Religion   
     Drives Innovation Hypothesis?

     Paul K. Wason

15 Evolution and Spiritual Capital
     Barnaby Marsh
16 Humanism and the Future Evolution of Religion
     Carl Coon
17 A Biocultural Evolutionary Exploration of Supernatural Sanctioning
     Christopher Boehm
Part IV Religion and Hard to Fake Signals
18 Free Love: Religious Solidarity on the Cheap
     Joseph Bulbulia
19 Theological Expressions as Costly Signals of Religious Commitment
     Andrew Mahoney

20 Commitment Costs and Cooperation: Evidence from Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian Religion
     Montserrat Soler

21 Ritual, Agency, and Sexual Selection
     Ilkka Pyysiäinen
22 The Attraction of Religion: A Sexual Selectionist Account
     D. Jason Slone
23 Firewalking and the Brain: The Physiology of High-Arousal Rituals
     Dimitris Xygalatas

24 He Who Laughs Best: Involuntary Religious Affect as a Solution to Recursive Cooperative Defection
     Jeffrey P. Schloss
Part V Gods in Minds
25 “Religious Experience” and the Brain
     Ann Taves

26 Are We All “Believers?”
     Jonathan A. Lanman
27 Memory Systems and Religious Representation
     Michael Teitelbaum
28 The Cognitive and Evolutionary Roots of Paradise Representations
     Jani Närhi

29 Spiritual Beings: A Darwinian, Cognitive Account
     Stewart Guthrie
Part VI Gods in Bodies
30 Not Myself Today: A Cognitive Account of the Transmission of Spirit Possession Concepts
     Emma Cohen
31 Dualism, Moral Judgment, and Perceptions of Intentionality
     Gretchen Koch

32 iPods, Gods, and the Adolescent Brain
     Candace S. Alcorta
33 Once More, With Feelings:The Importance of Emotion for Cognitive Science of Religion
     Nicholas J. S. Gibson
34 Narrativity, Emotions, and the Origins of Religion
     Tom Sjöblom

35 Memes, Genes, and Dead Machines:Evolutionary Anthropology of Death and Burial
     William W. McCorkle, Jr.

Part VII Methodology
36 Keeping ‘Science’ in Cognitive Science of Religion:Needs of the Field
     Justin L. Barrett
37 Evolutionary Psychology, Neuroscience and the Study of Religion
     Uffe Schjødt
38 Furthering the Evolution of Discussion of Religion:
     Multi-Method Study, Universality, and Cultural Variation

     Adam B. Cohen, Peter C. Hill, Azim F. Shariff, and Paul Rozin
39 Selection, Traditions, Kinship, and Ancestor Worship: Crucial Concepts in the Evolution of Religion
     Lyle B. Steadman and Craig T. Palmer

40 Reflections on the Evolutionary Study of Religion:The Importance of Individual Differences
     Brian H. McCorkle
41 On Psychology and Evolution of Religion: Five Types of Contribution Needed from Psychologists
     Nicholas J. S. Gibson and Justin L. Barrett
42 Does Talk about the Evolution of Religion Make Sense?
     Donald Wiebe
Part VIII Philosophical and Theological Themes
43 Can Religion Really Evolve? (And What Is It Anyway?)
     Luther H. Martin
44 How Sartre Inadvertently Presaged a Proper Evolutionary Science of Religion
     Jesse M. Bering

45 Four Arguments That the Cognitive Psychology of Religion Undermines
     the Justification of Religious Belief

     Michael Murray

46 Does Evolution Threaten the Soul?
     Gretchen Koch
47 Essentialism and Evolution
     Benson Saler
48 Religion: Accident or Design?
     Taner Edis

49 Theological Implications of the Cognitive Science of Religion
     Justin L. Barrett

50 Thank God for Evolution!
     Michael Dowd

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Alcorta, Candace S. - Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut

Barrett, Justin L. - Centre for Anthropology and Mind, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford

Bering, Jesse M. - Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen’s University, Belfast

Boehm, Christopher - Jane Goodall Research Center and Depts. of Anthropology and Biological Sciences, Univ. of Southern California

Bulbulia, Joseph - Religious Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

Cohen, Adam B. - Department of Psychology, Arizona State University

Cohen, Emma - Centre for Anthropology and Mind, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford

Collins, Dwight - Collins Family Foundation; Presidio School of Management

Coon, Carl - American Humanist Association; United Nations Ambassador (retired)

Dowd, Michael - America’s Evolutionary Evangelist

Edis, Taner - Division of Science - Physics, Truman State University

Geertz, Armin W. - Department of the Study of Religion, Faculty of Theology, University of Aarhus

Genet, Cheryl L. - Orion Institute; Cuesta College

Genet, Russell M. - Orion Observatory; California State Polytechnic University; Cuesta College

Gibson, Nicholas J. S. - Psychology and Religion Research Group, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge

Guthrie, Stewart - Department of Anthropology, Fordham University

Harris, Erica - Department of Neurology, Boston University School of Medicine and Boston VA Healthcare System, Jamaica Plain

Hill, Peter C. - Rosemead School of Psychology

Irons, William - Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University

Johnson, Dominic - Department of Politics, University of Edinburgh

Ketola, Kimmo - The Church Research Institute, Tampere, Finland

Kirkpatrick, Lee A.- Department of Psychology, College of William and Mary

Koch, Gretchen - Department of the Study of Religion, University of Aarhus

Kydd, David - Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford

Lanman, Jonathan A. - Centre for Anthropology and Mind, Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford

Mahoney, Andrew - Religious Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

Marsh, Barnaby - Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

Martin, Luther H. - Department of Religion, University of Vermont; Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen’s University, Belfast

McCorkle, Brian H. - Center for the Study of Religion and Psychology, The Albert and Jesse Danielsen Institute at Boston University

McCorkle, William W., Jr. - Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen’s University, Belfast

McNamara, Patrick - Department of Neurology, Boston University School of Medicine and Boston VA Healthcare System, Jamaica Plain

Murray, Michael - New College, University of Oxford

Närhi, Jani - Department of Comparative Religion, University of Helsinki

Newson, Lesley - School of Psychology, University of Exeter

Palmer, Craig T. - Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia

Pyysiäinen, Ilkka - Department of Comparative Religion, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki

Richerson, Peter J. - Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California-Davis

Rozin, Paul - Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania

Saler, Benson - Anthropology Department, Brandeis University

Sanderson, Stephen K. - Institute for Research on World-Systems, University of California-Riverside

Schjødt, Uffe - Department of the Study of Religion, University of Aarhus

Schloss, Jeffrey P. - Biology Department, Westmont College

Shariff, Azim F. - Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia

Sjöblom, Thomas - Department of Comparative Religion, University of Helsinki

Slone, D. Jason - Religious Studies, Webster University

Soler, Montserrat - Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University

Sosis, Richard - Anthropology, University of Connecticut; Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Steadman, Lyle B. - Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University

Taves, Ann - Department of Religious Studies, University of California-Santa Barbara

Teitelbaum, Michael - Religious Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

Wason, Paul K. - Science and Religion Programs, John Templeton Foundation

Wiebe, Donald - Trinity College, University of Toronto

Whitehouse, Harvey - School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford

Wilson, David Sloan - Departments of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University

Wyman, Karen - North American Science and Religion Foundation; Claremont Graduate University

Xygalatas, Dimitris - Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen’s University, Belfast

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Religion in Eden
Richard Sosis and Joseph Bulbulia

In early January 2007, scholars from around the world gathered in Makaha Valley, Hawaii to attend the first International Conference on the Evolution of Religion. Scientific research on the origin and evolution of religion has made rapid advances in the past two decades. The conference assessed how far the biological and social sciences have come toward explaining religiosity and religious culture, and looked for ways of improving and integrating distinctive naturalistic approaches. The conference also provided venues for those with philosophical and theological interests to raise questions about the relevance of this new research to questions internal to religious faith and practice.

Scholars came from Canada, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, United States, and throughout Europe. They represented an array of religious backgrounds (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism) and beliefs (secularists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, theists, and even a self-proclaimed "creatheist"). More importantly, the spectrum of disciplines represented was extraordinarily wide, including cognitive psychologists and anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, behavioral ecologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, religious studies scholars, philosophers of science, historians, physicists, astrophysicists, neuroscientists, ecologists, archaeologists, and theologians.

One of the most successful aspects of the conference was that it brought together three scholarly groups who have otherwise had little sustained contact: religious studies scholars, cognitive scientists of religion, and evolutionary scientists interested in studying religion. While there have been fruitful collaborations between religious scholars and cognitive scientists, and evolutionary and cognitive scientists have also lately begun a productive dialogue, scholars from all three areas rarely find themselves under the same roof. This is unfortunate for many reasons. While evolutionary scientists have garnered considerable media attention from their recent forays into the study of religion, this work has often been pursued independently of, and often uninformed by, current religious scholarship. At this January 2007 conference, evolutionary scholars were pleasantly surprised at the depth of empirical research that already exists within the field of religious studies, and encouraged by the openness of some religious scholars to evolutionary ideas, but were somewhat dismayed by the recurrent misunderstandings of how selectionist theories are applied to human behavior. For their part, many religious studies scholars were skeptical about the potential of evolutionary approaches in explaining diverse religious patterns and trends. Most were curious about the possibilities of integrating evolutionary perspectives into their work, but many were cautious, and others were openly antagonistic. As would be expected in an emerging field such as the evolutionary study of religion, calls for more empirical and theory driven research were heard almost daily. Also heard were claims that religious scholarship has already produced an abundance of descriptive materials ready for evolutionary analyses and available to test rival theories. However that debate is decided, all would agree that the number of exciting studies and promising theories presented each day of the conference was impressive.

A fourth group of participants contributed to our understanding of the implications of evolutionary research to practical, political, and spiritual life. These individuals were interested in the future of religion, including its impact on sustainable development, the role that evolutionary science can play in the spiritual transformations of contemporary religions, and the dynamic relationship between humanism and religion. For those of us with our heads buried in research, it was refreshing to see how those outside the academy are interpreting, grappling with, and employing our findings.

As all participants will attest, the conference was physically and intellectually exhausting. There were more than 50 talks over five and half days, and no sessions were run in parallel. Sessions and workshops ran all morning and afternoon, and the daytime activities were capped off every evening with a distinguished plenary address.

Harvey Whitehouse (Oxford University) opened the conference on January 3, with a detailed overview of cognitive and evolutionary studies of religion. He carefully laid out the major issues confronting evolutionary studies of religion, summarizing the leading hypotheses, assessing the current state of understanding, and presenting critical methodological and empirical questions future research must address. The next morning we began the first full day of the conference. By lunchtime we had considered several scenarios for the evolution of religion and initiated discussions about whether religion is adaptive. That evening, noted historian and religious studies scholar, Luther Martin (University of Vermont and ICC, Queens University Belfast), delivered an impassioned and illuminating attack on evolutionary analyses of religion. He thoroughly outlined the concerns that evolutionary scientists must deal with and resolve if evolutionary studies of religion are to successfully impact traditional historical scholarship. His talk stimulated equally impassioned discussion and debate.

The second full day of the conference focused on the adaptive benefits of supernatural beliefs, commitments, and practices. We also considered the application of signaling and sexual selection theories for understanding the evolution of religion. In the evening, Anne Taves (UC Santa Barbara) directed our attention to under-examined questions about cognition and the body, the construction of the self through narratives, and the role of "religious experience" in religious life. Taves urged that the "sui generis" model of this category impairs scientific progress. In its place, Taves motivated an "attributive model of religious experience." Successful re-introduction of "religious experience" to naturalistic approaches appears to provide one of the more promising horizons for scientific exploration.

The third full day of the conference focused on cognitive research in the evolutionary study of religion, including new experimental and observational studies. Renowned philosopher Daniel Dennett (Tufts University) was the evening speaker. Dennett reinforced an important theme of the conference, namely that the intergenerational flow of information is not restricted to lineages of genes. He also presented an account for the taming of wild religion, urging that substantive transformations in the nature of religious information occurred during the major transition from foraging to agrarian and urban lifeways. Dennett’s talk generated a spirited discussion on many fronts, about the utility of memetics for understanding the evolution of religion, the relationship between evolutionary research on religion and the lay public, as well the relationship between evolutionary researchers and their (religious) study populations.

On the penultimate day of the conference, we focused on the transmission of religious concepts and the narratives through which religion is understood. We also looked at the function of supernatural concepts and practices through the study of religious brains. That evening, North America’s ‘evolutionary evangelist’, the Rev. Michael Dowd, shared his experience of teaching and preaching a sacred, meaningful view of cosmic, biological, and human evolution. He offered a possible solution to the dead-end debates between theists and atheists, and argued that evolutionary theory may be essential for a deeply inspired life. It was a rare meeting between academic and religious worlds, for both audience and speaker. Despite having delivered hundreds of talks to secular and religious audiences across the theological spectrum, this was Dowd’s first presentation to an academic audience.

We closed the conference by addressing foundational questions about the naturalistic study of religion, as well as questions about the economic, spiritual, and political benefits and costs of religious belief and practice. Biologist and religious scholar, Jeffrey Schloss (Westmont College), closed the conference by detailing the various threads of argumentation linking naturalistic (generally functionalist) inquiry about religion to wider theological questions. Schloss also used the example of laughter—which he skillfully induced frequently in his audience—to illustrate an important theme of the conference: the role of commitment signals in authenticating genuine religious commitments. The talk stimulated much discussion over the relationship of religious commitment to science and morality, the reliability of religious signaling, and the role of religious feeling in its evolutionary history.

In addition to the research sessions and evening talks, there were three scheduled afternoon workshops aimed at assessing recent advances in the evolutionary study of religion, and setting an agenda for areas of progress and integration. The three sessions were distinguished by their focus on anthropology, psychology, and overall reactions to the evolutionary study of religion. Popular demand initiated a fourth workshop on group selection and cultural evolution, which was gratefully organized by David Sloan Wilson (SUNY Binghamton) and Peter Richerson (UC Davis). This workshop afforded an opportunity for conference participants to ask questions about selectionist theories and their application to the study of religion.

There were numerous healthy debates that permeated discussions throughout the conference. One of the most constructive debates concerned whether or not religion should be considered an adaptation or a by-product. While no consensus was reached in this debate, various positions were clearly articulated, and future research that will be necessary to resolve this issue was discussed. There were also sustained discussions on the applicability of various evolutionary models to religious phenomena, including sexual selection and signaling models, cultural group selection, and meme theory. One of the livelier debates centered on defining religion, and the claim that if we cannot define it, then it is incoherent to claim we can develop its evolutionary study, for there is no stable "it" to study.

This volume offers many of the excellent talks that were presented in Hawaii. Chapters are intentionally short, at least shorter than the authors would have wished. Our task was to keep the volume affordable, while capturing the full range of conference presentations. Nevertheless, we are impressed by the clarity, scope, and precision consistently displayed throughout this volume. During the conference there were significant theoretical and methodological disagreements among scholars, but we think that all would agree that the new interdisciplinary study of evolution and religion is off to an outstanding start, and its future looks very promising. We hope this volume attests to that.


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