Evolutionary Accounts of Religion

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    Atran, Scott and Ara Norenzayan

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    Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion

    "Religion is not an evolutionary adaptation per se, but a recurring cultural by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape that sets cognitive, emotional, and material conditions for ordinary human interactions. Religion exploits only ordinary cognitive processes to passionately display costly devotion to counterintuitive worlds governed by supernatural agents. The conceptual foundations of religion are intuitively given by task-specific panhuman cognitive domains, including folkmechanics, folkbiology, and folkpsychology."
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    Dow, James W.

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    The Evolution of Religion: Three Anthropological Approaches

    "This article examines three anthropological theories explaining how religion has evolved and continues to evolve. They are: commitment theory, which postulates that religion is a system of costly signaling that reduces deception and creates cooperation within groups; cognitive theory, which postulates that religion is the manifestation of mental modules that have evolved for other purposes; and ecological regulation theory, which postulates that religion is a master control system regulating the interaction of human groups with their environments. An assessment of the success of the theories is offered. The idea that the biological evolution of the capacity for religion is based on the group selection rather than individual selection is rejected as unnecessary. The relationship between adaptive systems and culturally transmitted sacred values is examined cross-culturally, and the three theories are integrated into an overall gene-culture view of religion that includes both the biological evolution and the cultural evolution of behavioral systems."
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    Johnson, Dominic D. P.

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    God’s Punishment and Public Goods: A Test of the Supernatural Punishment Hypothesis in 186 World Cultures

    "Cooperation towards public goods relies on credible threats of punishment to deter cheats. However, punishing is costly, so it remains unclear who incurred the costs of enforcement in our evolutionary past. Theoretical work suggests that human cooperation may be promoted if people believe in supernatural punishment for moral transgressions. This theory is supported by new work in cognitive psychology and by anecdotal ethnographic evidence, but formal quantitative tests remain to be done. Using data from 186 societies around the globe, I test whether the likelihood of supernatural punishment—indexed by the importance of moralizing 'high gods'— is associated with cooperation."
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    Rossano, Matt J.

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    Supernaturalizing Social Life: Religion and the Evolution of Human Cooperation

    "This paper examines three ancient traits of religion whose origins likely date back to the Upper Paleolithic: ancestor worship, shamanism, and the belief in natural and animal spirits. Evidence for the emergence of these traits coincides with evidence for a dramatic advance in human social cooperation. It is argued that these traits played a role in the evolution of human cooperation through the mechanism of social scrutiny. Social scrutiny is an effective means of reducing individualism and enhancing pro-social behavior. Religion’s most ancient traits represent an extension of the human social world into the supernatural, thus reinforcing within-group cooperation by means of ever-vigilant spiritual monitors."
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    Sosis, Richard

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    Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols

    "This paper considers religion in relation to four recurrent traits: belief systems incorporating supernatural agents and counterintuitive concepts, communal ritual, separation of the sacred and the profane, and adolescence as a preferred developmental period for religious transmission. These co-occurring traits are viewed as an adaptive complex that offers clues to the evolution of religion from its nonhuman ritual roots. We consider the critical element differentiating religious from nonhuman ritual to be the conditioned association of emotion and abstract symbols."
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    Wilson, David Sloan

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    Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses about Religion with a Random Sample

    "Theories of religion that are supported with selected examples can be criticized for selection bias. This paper evaluates major evolutionary hypotheses about religion with a random sample of 35 religions drawn from a 16-volume encyclopedia of world religions. The results are supportive of the group-level adaptation hypothesis developed in Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Wilson 2002). Most religions in the sample have what Durkheim called secular utility. Their otherworldly elements can be largely understood as proximate mechanisms that motivate adaptive behaviors. Jainism, the religion in the sample that initially appeared most challenging to the group-level adaptation hypothesis, is highly supportive upon close examination. The results of the survey are preliminary and should be built upon by a multidisciplinary community as part of a field of evolutionary religious studies."