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The Puzzle of Religion

chichenReligious believers incur significant costs in terms of time, energy and resources that could be spent elsewhere. Religion therefore poses a major puzzle for disciplines that explain behavior on the basis of individual costs and benefits—in particular economics and evolutionary biology. To many scholars, religious beliefs and behaviors appear so bizarre and so costly that they fall outside rational explanation, leading instead to explanations based on psychosis, cognitive accidents, or cultural parasites. The aim of our project is to conduct a scientific examination of exactly the opposite hypothesis—that religious beliefs and behavior confer adaptive advantages to individual believers, and were therefore favored by natural selection over human evolutionary history. In other words, religion may have evolved.

Solving the Puzzle

petroglyph1We have put together an interdisciplinary team to explore the puzzle of religion, comprising an anthropologist, economist, evolutionary biologist, political scientist, psychologist, and a theologian, plus three graduate students. This diversity of expertise allows us to exploit a wide variety of methods and approaches to the study of religion. Recent research by members our team and other scholars has suggested that religious beliefs and behaviors are indeed adaptive, offering effective solutions to many important problems that humans have faced throughout our history: overcoming collective action problems, promoting cooperation, suppressing within-group conflict, and surviving inter-group competition. The challenge is to conduct scientific tests of whether religious beliefs and behaviors really increase the material interests of individuals.

Our main activities will therefore be to conduct:

  • laboratory experiments to test whether subconscious religious priming increases cooperation behavior;
  • laboratory experiments to test whether selfish behavior is reduced when cues of supernatural agency are present;
  • analyses of survey data to test whether religiosity predicts cooperation, productivity, or prosperity;
  • analyses of cross-cultural data on pre-industrial societies around the globe to test whether the style of religious organization is associated with levels of within-group cooperation and inter-group competitiveness.
  • theoretical analyses on the function, cognition, development, and phylogeny of religion.

The goal of the project is to generate new experimental evidence on whether religious beliefs and behavior promote adaptive advantages at the individual level, and to use this evidence to develop an evolutionary theory of religion.

The Evolution of Religion project is generously supported by The John Templeton Foundation