What is the source of these cognitive tendencies?

A related question concerns the source of these cognitive tendencies; in other words, why do these aspects of human thought and behavior emerge so readily?

(a) Cognitive accounts

The early emergence of ideas is an indication of cognitive naturalness. That is to say, given minimal instruction, humans are predisposed to represent the world in specific ways. One indication that cognitive predispositions underpin ideas is similarities in how people tend to think about concepts, including religion. One important point to keep in mind is that predispositions exist even though cultural environments can modify ideas.24

For example, consider again the theory of language acquisition that we covered in Chapter 1. Chomsky noted that people can produce and understand an infinite number of novel sentences, more than they could ever have learned. Consequentially, he theorized that we are mentally equipped with an internal preparedness for language acquisition. Taking account of mental processes and internalized rules like grammar can explain the stability underlying the seemingly endless array of language. This cognitive account also assumes that different forms of language exist and are learned. Likewise, a cognitive account can explain the stability underlying the diversity of religious representations and behaviors by highlighting predispositions and biases as criteria of what makes certain features of religion natural. This cognitive account of religion also takes as a starting point the fact that different forms of religious ideas and practices exist and are acquired by cultural learning.

Key points

  • • CSR scholars acknowledge that content biases depend upon on how humans tend to think.
  • • A focus on content biases is mostly a cognitive account of religious ideas and behaviors.

(h) Cognitive-evolutionary accounts

In Chapter 1 (Introduction), we considered the influence of evolutionary approaches in the early formations of CSR. Today, an extension of the cognitive account in CSR draws upon the evolutionary sciences to explain why aspects of human thought and behavior emerge so readily. These cognitive-evolutionary accounts locate the source of these intuitions to evolved domain-specific systems. The systems themselves, which are a product of human evolution, are responsible for these early emerging biases.

Consider the example of praying to a deity again. Representations of the concept of God can be understood as an expression of a more general and intuitive bias in the domain of psychology: that of attributing human characteristics to non-human things and events (i.e. anthropomorphism25). This tendency may well have emerged as an adaptive response to increasingly complex primate social interaction in our ancestral past.26 In other words, it was adaptive to be able to infer people’s intentions and desires, and more broadly, make predictions about their future behavior. In modern society, it is adaptive to reason about the intentions and desires of our conspedfi.es. In religious contexts, this tendency has been merely extended to special kinds of agents.

Drawing on the evolutionary sciences and formulating testable hypotheses to explain religion demarks CSR from most other approaches to the study of religion. All evolutionary accounts attempt to get at the ultimate causality behind the origins and persistence of religious ideas. Research on the human mind helps to explain the proximate mechanisms (i.e. the event immediately responsible) for causing the recurrent features of religion. Evolutionary explanations also focus on the ultimate mechanisms, or causes, of the recurrent features of religion (i.e. a distal cause, often referred to as the ultimate cause). Put another way, ultimate explanations address evolutionary functions (the “why” question), and proximate explanations address how that functionality is achieved (the “how” question).

To illustrate, take a simple example of an event, why did the ship sink? (Figure 3.2) One proximate cause is that it had a hole, and water entered the ship, and it could not stay afloat (the “how” question). One ultimate cause is that the ship was on autopilot, which was inaccurate, and caused the ship to hit a rock (the “why question”). Likewise, evolutionary scientists use proximate and ultimate mechanisms to understand religious ideas and behaviors.

Consider another example from the cultural domain. Why do people participate in high-ordeal community rituals, such as walking barefoot through burning coal fires? One proximate explanation is that fear of social ostracism from the community motivates people to participate in the ritual. One ultimate explanation is that in our ancestral history, characterized by small groups of people dependent on each other for survival, social ostracism would have meant death to the individual, and lack of cooperation, the death of humans as a species. There were fitness benefits to conforming to displays of commitment to the group, for individuals and groups. So those who have survived (i.e. modern individuals) are strongly motivated to avoid social ostracism. Both proximate and ultimate explanations are valuable and complementary in explaining religious dispositions.

These two broad kinds of questions, proximate and ultimate, can be subdivided into two questions each (see Table 3.5). This subdivision was an attempt in 1963 by the ethnologist Niko Tinbergen to expand and clarify the distinction between proximate and ultimate questions to explain animal behavior. It is now known as “Tinbergen’s four questions.27” These questions guide the research agendas of many cognitive-evolutionary scholars of religion. The first two

Why did the ship sink? Answering this question draws on both proximate causes (it had a hole in the deck) and distal causes (faulty autopilot steered the ship into a rock). (Image credit

Figure 3.2 Why did the ship sink? Answering this question draws on both proximate causes (it had a hole in the deck) and distal causes (faulty autopilot steered the ship into a rock). (Image credit: Astarina/Shutterstock.com).

Table 3.4 Characteristics of cognitive-evolutionary accounts.



Often found in ...




Focus on the cause immediately responsible.

“Flow” questions




Focus on the ultimate cause.

“Why” questions


questions (mechanism and ontogeny) are proximate (how) explanations That CSR scholars often employ. The second two questions (phylogeny and adaptive significance) require ultimate or evolutionary (why) kinds of explanations, and these are the kinds of questions that cognitive-evolutionary scholars also explore.

Seeking answers to all four of Tinbergen’s questions expands explanations beyond mechanisms to also describe the development, evolutionary history, and adaptive significance of features of religious thought and behavior.

For example, one observation is that people in different cultures often reason about God as luiman-like. For instance, God is assumed to be constrained even though they may subscribe to a theological view of God as all-powerful and knowing. Why have anthropomorphic concepts of God emerged and proliferated in human culture when they are introduced to populations rather than other concepts of God? One account in CSR is outlined below and developed in Chapter 7 (Supernatural Agents):

• Mechanism: What is the structure of the tendency?

Adults tend to reason about God as human-like when they are under cognitive load, or during time constraints. This finding indicates that it is less cognitively effortful to think of supernatural agents, like God, as similar to humans than to think that God is different. In other words, people have a natural tendency to anthropomorphize God.

• Ontogeny: How does the tendency develop in individuals?

Young children also anthropomorphize God, which supports the claim that people have a natural tendency to anthropomorphize God.

• Phylogeny: What is its evolutionary history?

People are constrained in their representations of supernatural agents by how they represent human agents generally.

• Adaptive significance: How have the variations influenced fitness?

These anthropomorphic biases are part of a constellation of adaptations for detecting, reasoning, and making decisions about intentional agents, which would have aided predator evasion and prey capture throughout our evolutionary history. We also, however, can acquire concepts that were not targets of natural selection. We draw inferences about extraordinary agents from our concepts of agents in general. This tendency is a by-product that does not serve an adaptive function in the context of reasoning about extraordinary agents.

Cognitive-evolutionary scholars in CSR aim to provide answers to all four questions to explain religion. This includes accounting for why aspects of religious cognition and behavior make them likely to recur in similar forms across cultures, and how these predispositions interact with the environment to produce variations of similar fonns. Hence, the subtitle of this book: Connecting evolution, brain, cognition, and culture.

In practice, cognitive scientists of religion often focus on one or several of the four questions based on their expertise and the question. For instance: (a) brain: neurocognitive and cognitive scientists tend to focus on uncovering the mechanism (what is the structure?); (b) cognition: developmental psychologists tend to track ontogeny (how does it develop in individuals?); those also versed in the evolutionary sciences (a, b, c), such as evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psychologists, ask additional questions about the phylogeny (what is the

The goal of CSR is to explain religion by connecting four domains of knowledge

Figure 3.3 The goal of CSR is to explain religion by connecting four domains of knowledge. Note that evolutionary theory can be applied to the other levels of brain, cognition, and culture, which is why many scholars label evolutionary theory as unifying approaches within the subdiscipline.

evolutionary history?) and adaptive significance of traits (how have variations influenced fitness? how has culture shaped it?)

Given the growing number of interdisciplinary institutes dedicated to cognitiveevolutionary research on religion, it appears that the next generation of graduate students in training will come to inherit a wide range of methodologies and perspectives. Interdisciplinary research and methodological pluralism will continue to be important because together, researchers can provide answers to these four questions, explain and map religious predispositions, and their cultural expression. Not all questions have been given equal attention and progress has been made for some aspects of religion on some questions and not others. There are also more disagreements on the answers to some questions. Eventually, it will be possible to provide a list of predispositions and data to inform answers to all four questions. To date, this endeavor is a work in progress.

Key points

  • • Evolutionary accounts attempt to get at the ultimate causality behind the origins and persistence of religious ideas.
  • • Evolutionary accounts focus on the ultimate mechanisms, or causes, of the recurrent features of religion (i.e. a distal cause, often referred to as the ultimate cause).
  • • Ultimate explanations address evolutionary functions (the “why” question).
  • • Adaptationist theories explain religion as adaptations that enhanced fitness.
  • • By-product theories explain religion as by-products of predispositions and biases.
  • • Four questions guide cognitive-evolutionary accounts. These are related to mechanism, ontogeny, phytogeny, and adaptive significance.

So far, in this section, we have discussed evolutionary accounts as ultimate explanations that address evolutionary functions (the “why” question). Considerations such as ontogeny, phylogeny, and adaptive significance of the trait provide explanations beyond mechanisms and are pursued by many cognitive scientists of religion. Cognitive scientists of religion sometimes disagree over the answers to Tinbergen’s four questions for aspects of religious concepts and behaviors. They may also disagree on the level of selection of the trait, namely, whether this occurs at the genetic, individual, or group level as well as the historical origins and current function.

Answers about the historical origin and current function of a trait give rise to two main accounts of the precise role of evolution in the emergence and spread of religion in the cognitive-evolutionary sciences. One takes the form of adaptationist arguments, explaining at least some aspects of religious systems as biological and/or cultural adaptations that enhanced the fitness of individuals or groups. Some scholars argue that natural selection has favored the psychological propensity for religious practices and representations about the afterlife, intelligent design, and moral obligations because they provide benefits that increase the fitness of the individual or group. Some of these postulated benefits include encouraging socially advantageous attitudes and behaviors and promoting better physical health.28 For example, religious commitment and ritual participation are associated with marked improvements in physical well-being, including less coronary artery disease, hypertension, stroke, immune system dysfunction, cancer, and overall mortality as well as mental health benefits.29

Another account proposes that standard features of religious systems are byproducts (i.e. unintended consequences) of cognitive predispositions and biases, rather than biological and/or cultural adaptations that enhance fitness. These predispositions and biases give rise to standard features of religion. However, they are ultimately by-products of cognitive machinery that evolved for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. They evolved because of their success in other nonreligious domains. For example, construing the tendency to represent invisibly but monitoring supernatural agents in the environment as an unintended consequence of the inclination of humans to perceive agency in the environment. This tendency is known as hyperactive agency detection device (HADD), or more recently, agency detection device (ADI)).30 This inclination may have evolved to help support the detection of predators and prey, but not ghosts or gods.

While the adaptationist and by-product perspectives contrast, they do not necessarily contradict one another, even when they refer to the same trait. This state of affairs is because the origins of a trait (Table 3.6) and the trait’s function may well change over time. In other words, a trait’s current use (function) does not necessarily explain its origin.

For instance, like biological traits, most adaptations start as by-products or spandrels (i.e. traits that are not especially adaptive but are retained because they are not harmful). They can be co-opted (i.e. have a use other than the one for which natural selection has built it) because of their benefits, and are then selected. For instance, the earliest feathers belonged to dinosaurs not capable of flight, so they must have evolved for something else, like attracting mates or keeping warm.31 Later on, feathers became essential for modem birds’ flight. Similarly, ritualization might emerge as a by-product, but if it helps reduce anxiety, it can be selected for. Another important consideration in evolutionary accounts of religion is the level of selection; in other words, the heritable variation underpinning differential fitness. In CSR, the levels are typically genetic, individual, and group.

Table 3.5 Tinbergen’s four questions commonly expressed today.


Object of explanation


Kind of explanation



What is the structure of the trait?




How does the trait develop in individuals?




What is the trait’s evolutionary history?




Adaptive significance

How have the trait variations influenced fitness?



Table 3.6 Example of accounts of the origin and function of religion. Note that there are many combinations of possibilities related to the historical origins and current functions.


Historical origin

Current function

Example of theory


Adaptations that enhanced the fitness of individuals or groups.

Enhance the fitness of individuals or groups.

Ritual participation enhances well-being.


Unintended consequences of an adaptation.

None, or neutral: do not enhance or detract from the fitness of individuals or groups.

Ability’ to infer the presence of intentional agents favors the spread of religious ideas about agents.

For example, consider ritual participation again. One adaptationist account, covered earlier in this section, proposed that religious commitment and ritual participation increase physical well-being and were selected for at the individual level because of the individual benefits. Another adaptationist account at the group level proposes that rituals are culturally successful because they enhanced the survival of the group. In small-scale and traditional societies, being part of a group was essential for survival, and yet group-living also brings the risk of free-riders, who are not committed but reap the benefits of group living. Rituals may serve as costly signals and credibility enhancing displays to convey one’s commitment to the group and facilitate their acceptance as a reliable and collaborative group member. This explanation is at the group-level, because of the group benefits. Of course, aspects of ritual behavior may have both individual and group benefits. Likewise, some may be adaptive and others, by-products, so the explanatory picture of religion can become complicated.

While the by-product account came to influence early conceptualizations of GSR, today, scholars differ according to their endorsement of particular theories and research on the evolutionary origins of religious ideas and behaviors. This evolutionary' approach includes fundamental questions such as whether, and to what extent, religion is a by-product of cognitive processes and practices that evolved for other purposes and because of their success in other non-religious domains.

So far, in this section, we have considered examples mainly where the mechanism of selection can be described as “natural selection”—that differential survival and reproduction of individuals is due to differences in heritable traits characteristic of a population over generations. It is important to note, however, that this is not the only possible mechanism of selection. For example, another is sexual selection, differences in reproductive rates, and cultural selection, differences in rates of cultural transmission of ideas and behaviors.

After natural selection, cultural selection is the second most popular school of evolutionary theorizing about religion in GSR. This model of cultural selection very much resembles natural selection. The key difference is that while natural selection concerns genetic inheritance, cultural selection deals with cultural inheritance not necessarily connected with human reproduction. For example, a behavior can be transmitted to others who are genetically unrelated.

Cultural evolution is faster than genetic evolution and thus influences it. For example, by age five, most children cannot break down the sugars in milk; they are lactose intolerant. Lactase persistence, which allows drinkers to access milk’s nutrition, is very much under genetic control. Yet one culturally involved package that influenced the emergence of lactase persistence was the domestication of cattle around 10,000 years ago, which pennitted people to extract nutrients from milk into adulthood. In short, culture influences genes. Proponents of cultural selection advocate for the role of culture beyond the genetic level to the individual and group level also. An example of cultural evolution as the mechanism of selection in religion (at the group-level) is the theory encountered earlier in this section, that ritual participation cultivates cooperation to benefit the group.

In sum, evolutionary theories deal with ultimate questions about the emergence and persistence of religious phenomena. Still, they sometimes differ in terms of the mechanism of selection proposed the level of selection and the origins and function of the mechanism (Table 3.7). The goal of this chapter is to enable students to identify the basic differences in evolutionary explanations for religion. A more thorough discussion of the intricacies and relationships between and within evolutionary accounts is beyond the scope of a general introduction to CSR. Still, students can refer to the citations of scholars cited in Table 3.7 for further reading on the topic.

Although there is an ongoing debate about the origin, function, and exact role of evolution in religious ideas and behaviors,33 most scholars agree that understanding the evolutionary causality behind the origins of ideas and behaviors leads to a better explanation of religion overall.31 Most cognitive scientists of religion assume that evolutionary sciences are, or should be, essential to a cognitive

Table 3.7 Mechanism of selection often featured in evolutionary explanations of

• -32



Mechanism of selection



Example of scholars who endorse view



Adaptation: Some features of religions are straightforward adaptations for individuals resulting from the process of natural selection.

By-product: Some features of religions are by-products of cognitive predispositions and biases.

Religious commitment and participation increase adherent’s fitness benefits, such as physical well-being.

  • a) Bulbulia.
  • b) Sosis.
  • a) Boyer.
  • b) Lawson & McCauley.



Religions aid humans in the successful propagation of their genes.

Religiosity serves as a cultural signal about values such as fidelity. Religion enables individuals to appeal more to members of the opposite sex and ensure a good pool of prospective mates.

  • a) Slone and Van Slyke.
  • b) Weeden, Cohen and Kendrick.



Cultural selection impacts the differential transmission of cultural ideas and practices

Religion cultivates cooperation among members to benefit the individuals and group overall.

  • a) Henrich.
  • b) Norenzayan.

explanation of religious phenomena. Some35 have argued the case that the evolutionary sciences are distinct and complementary, often referring to “cognitive and evolutionary approaches to the study of religion” to capture both.36

Key points

  • • Many CSR scholars acknowledge that to explain religion, we also need to take account of the ultimate mechanisms shaping ideas and behaviors.
  • • These scholars propose that evolutionary processes explain how humans tend to think.
  • • These are cognitive-evolutionary accounts of religious ideas and behaviors.
  • • Scholars in CSR differ on the origin, function, and exact role of evolution in religious ideas and behavior.