Keeping the Bar Steady: The Complexities of Interdisciplinary Approaches to Religion

While evolution does provide a biologically rooted framework that affords cognitive psychologists the theoretical rationale for extrapolating that all cultures utilize the same mental facilities (albeit quite differently depending on their environment), in order to explain religion in all its variants both past and present, cognitive psychology is both necessary and sufficient.

By Justin Lane

Justin received his DPhil from Oxford University's Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, where his research focused on developing methods for quantifying social consensus and using big-data techniques for studying social cohesion in large-scale religious systems. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Center for Modeling Social Systems and CTO at Prospectus Solutions. In the past he's worked with the Center for Mind and Culture, the Asia Research Institute, NUS, and at LEVYNA, Masaryk University. His research interests include artificial intelligence and computer simulation, group identification, behavioral economics, and the formation of new religious movements.

Justin Lane

Justin received his DPhil from Oxford University's Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, where his research focused on developing methods for quantifying social consensus and using big-data techniques for studying social cohesion in large-scale religious systems. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Center for Modeling Social Systems and CTO at Prospectus Solutions. In the past he's worked with the Center for Mind and Culture, the Asia Research Institute, NUS, and at LEVYNA, Masaryk University. His research interests include artificial intelligence and computer simulation, group identification, behavioral economics, and the formation of new religious movements.

In response to:

Religion as an Evolutionary Organism

In this interview, David Sloan Wilson gives an overview of his research studying religious groups as adaptive units, specifically discussing his work directing the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project. He introduces the field of evolutionary religious studies, explaining that 'all aspects of humanity can be understood, in some sense, as a product of evolution'.

Interdisciplinary approaches to religion have become nearly commonplace in the field today. Many would argue (and I would agree) that religious studies has always been inherently interdisciplinary. Although many departments today take a “zoo approach” to presenting religions, those who are primarily engaged in theoretical and methodological questions concerning religion and how to study it often keep at their disposal theories from anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, and biology.

The presence of biology in the above list is due largely to the academic and public engagement of David Sloan Wilson, who has for many years situated himself in an interesting place in this debate. Rather than being a scholar of religion extending his hand into the world of biologists to root around for useful ways to understand their phenomena, Wilson is a biologist who has extended his hand to scholars of religion. This does not only include his role as a biologist looking to use evolutionary theory as a framework for studying religion, as he did in his must-read book Darwin’s Cathedral (2002), but also as a collaborator and critic who has seriously engaged the work of scholars of religion; as reflected in the work of two of my mentors, William Paden (2010) and Luther H. Martin (2008). For his role as both critic and collaborator—even in my own work in association with the BSRP’s sister project the Singapore Religion and Spirituality Project—I owe Wilson a great debt for his engagement with the field of religious studies.

After having greatly enjoyed his podcast here and similar discussions in other venues (such as his recent interview with biologist Richard Lewontin (Wilson, 2015), I feel that a word of caution must be offered to anyone attempting to undertake an interdisciplinary research program—and even more to those who wish to study religion—whatever that is. Wilson notes that “religion is a fuzzy set” (a brilliant description in my opinion). This may be somewhat of an understatement since many scholars, such as J.Z. Smith (2004), have stated that religion is a western academic construct. This is echoed to an extent by two of the fathers of the cognitive approach, Lawson & McCauley (1990), who take religious beliefs and behaviors to be no different than non-religious beliefs and behaviors at a psychological level. Even within the evolutionary literature, those such as Pascal Boyer (2001) have noted that religion is—at best—a recent amalgamation of many different beliefs and behaviors that we deem religious. By and large, I agree with his view that evolution helps us to understand human actions—including religious ones. I also agree that religion is one of many meaning making systems that humans use. Keeping in mind my general agreement with Dr. Wilson, I would like to highlight one complication of using evolution to study religion as an explanatory framework.

This brings me to my title: Keeping the Bar Steady. The science of religion is like walking a tightrope; this endeavor should be interdisciplinary, drawing between historians, anthropologists, psychologists, biologists, and all the scholars of religion participating within those dialogues (there may be others as well that I have forgotten). As we walk this tightrope, we go from observing religion to explaining it, testing predictions (i.e. hypotheses) and theories back and forth in order to generate new knowledge about our subject with the ultimate goal of explanation. Beneath this tightrope-walking scholar is a vast canyon of speculation. Just as a tightrope-walker needs a bar to keep their balance and steady themselves to mediate between their points, the interdisciplinary scholar also needs to steady themselves. Now, the question naturally arises: What is the bar for those of us who wish to study religion scientifically?

Evolutionary theory is a (extremely productive) theoretical framework within which one could integrate the study of human groups (anthropology), human sociality (sociology), and how humans came to be that which we are today (history/archaeology). However, the study of religion, is ultimately the study of human beliefs and behaviors—specifically those referencing a belief in a supernatural agent. This roots the target phenomena of beliefs and behaviors—things of the mind—solidly within the realm of psychology. When evolutionary theorists attempt to provide a story or narrative of how religions came to be as they are today, their descriptions are insufficient without clear references to the mechanisms producing how beliefs and behaviors were either motivated or remembered and then shared. The empirical evidence and descriptions of these mechanisms fall primarily within the purview of cognitive psychology (for example, see Barrett, 2005). That religious beliefs vary within a population and large trends can be tracked overtime—this is generally the approach of “cultural evolution”—seems to be the case given the evidence. However, this observation is as true for the evolutionist as it is for the historian, and evolutionary theory need not be employed to describe these changes (Martin, 2008). This point was echoed recently by renowned biologist Richard Lewontin when he raised the following:


Why do you use cultural evolution instead of cultural history? Why evolution instead of history? Can you avoid—let me put it another way—can you generally avoid the false similarities, the made up structures that we are criticizing, if we continue to use the word evolution when what we really mean is historical change?

(From a recent interview with Wilson; Wilson, 2015)


Although I would agree with Lewontin that history provides a sufficient description of the changes over time, it is only psychology that provides the necessary explanations for how these changes were produced by the human minds within those historical contexts. Evolution may provide another interpretive framework for historical dynamics as environments change over time but they do not offer predictive hypotheses, only a postdictive framework.

Part 2:

However, let’s not throw evolutionary theory out with the bath-water. Evolutionary theory is useful in explaining how the cognitive mechanisms that produce religious beliefs and behaviors came to be (in my opinion Barrett, 2004 and Boyer, 2001 offer some of the best anecdotes). This falls under what evolutionary theorists call “ultimate explanations”—which address how a trait evolved—whereas the psychological mechanisms provide “proximate explanations”—which address phenomena in their immediate contexts—(recently addressed by Laland, Sterelny, Odling-Smee, Hoppitt, & Uller, 2011; see discussion in Tinbergen, 1963). On the one hand, some (Wilson, 2002) state that “religion” is an adaptation and evolves as the beliefs and groups are selected for (e.g. Boyd & Richerson, 2005; Richerson & Boyd, 2005; Richerson & Christiansen, 2013). On the other hand, evolutionary psychologists have taken a different approach. Their approach states that culture and religion are the result of cognitive responses to environmental stimuli and generally view “religion” as a by-product of the outputs of a fuzzy set of cognitive mechanism (e.g. Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992; Boyer & Liénard, 2006; Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Liénard & Lawson, 2008).

Ultimately, both of these approaches provide accounts for changes observed over time; and a great deal of the literature shows that. However, those who state that culture evolves—without the need for addressing cognitive mechanisms–have some major issues to overcome. First, they cannot offer predictions concerning how novel religious traits might arise; usually religious variants are accounted for as adaptations to new environments if they aren’t considered mutations that are selected for via one of many evolutionary mechanisms. A cognitive psychologist would consider them output from a cognitive mechanism rather than a phenotypic mutation. Finally, they do not seem to admit that much of the domain of religion, including imitation, learning, and language are domain general psychological capacities[1] (Heyes & Pearce, 2015) and that many features of human religiosity can be explained by triggering the actual domain of mechanisms that evolved for other purposes (Barrett, 2004; Boyer, 2001; Buss, Haselton, Shackelford, Bleske, & Wakefield, 1998) such as belief in superhuman agents (Barrett, 2004; Guthrie, 1993) and ritual capacities (Boyer & Liénard, 2006; Liénard & Lawson, 2008). Ultimately, this is reflective of the fact that much of evolutionary theory is used in the study of religion to interpret—not explain—religious beliefs and behaviors.

This raises a question of its utility as a scientific—i.e. explanatory—paradigm for use by scholars of religion along the lines of Lewontin quoted above. While evolution does provide a biologically rooted framework that affords cognitive psychologists the theoretical rationale for extrapolating that all cultures utilize the same mental facilities (albeit quite differently depending on their environment), in order to explain religion in all its variants both past and present, cognitive psychology is both necessary and sufficient. The empirical findings of the evolutionary psychologists above would still be just as valid without framing the mechanisms as “evolved.” Evolution is the elegant packaging that serves to explain how these facets came to be; psychology explains how they happen now.

Part 3:

This brings me to my final point, an interdisciplinary study of religion must be truly interdisciplinary. This does not mean we can take data from religious studies and reinterpret it using the statistics of biology (for example, creating a phylogeny of traits based on belief similarity when there is ample historical evidence describing the lineage). This means taking seriously the archaeological and historical data of religions in their own right. Dr. Wilson provides a testable claim for us here. He makes the claim that Judaism did not have a Christian-like afterlife belief (an opinion also presented in Angier, Wilson, & Bass, 2006; also in Angier, 2002) until the third century B.C.E. (this is found at approx. 16 minutes).[2] His evidence comes from his reading of the Old Testament, particularly the use of the Hebrew term שְׁאוֹל – Sheol- or hell (A deeper discussion of this term and its meanings in bibilcal texts can be found in Gowan, 2003, pp. 188–190; Reicke, 2001). This is complicated by at least two findings: one from psychology and the other from biblical studies. First, it has been demonstrated that belief in the afterlife is rooted in the human psychological mechanisms that give rise to mind-body dualism. This cognitive capacity is naturally developed in humans at a very young age (Barrett, 2004; Bering & Bjorklund, 2004; Cohen, Burdett, Knight, & Barrett, 2011; also see Hodge, In Press, 2010, 2011). To show that a population as large as Israel—as recent as two millennia ago—overcame this proclivity or did not have this cognitive capacity would have vast repercussions for evolutionary psychology.

To test the claim(s) we can then use the tools of religious studies. This provides our second complication concerning the claim that there were no Jewish afterlife beliefs until the Maccabean Revolt (this claim was also addressed in Segal, 2004). Leaving aside historical issues[3], taking Sheol as a marker for afterlife beliefs, and using the tools of religious studies (Strong’s Concordance), we find that Sheol appears in Genesis (4 times), Numbers and 1 Kings (2 times each), Job (8 times), Proverbs and Isaiah (9 times each), Ezekiel (5 times), Psalms (15 times), and is found only once in the books of Habakkuk, Jonah, Amos, Hoseah, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, 1 & 2 Samuel and Deuteronomy; often in reference to an afterlife, punishment, and is often portrayed negatively (Reicke, 2001). It would seem that what is at hand is not an example where there was no belief in the afterlife until the Maccabean revolt resulting in the spread of afterlife beliefs (the strong interpretation of the claim). In fact, it was used more often in the pre-Maccabean period. Furthermore, the negative connotations and divine punishment associations don’t seem to be Christian inventions either (the weak interpretation). Lastly, the term for “resurrection” (קוּץ) is also found in reference to raising from the dead more times than just Daniel (Daniel 12:2). For example, of its 22 uses, some are clearly in reference to resurrection of the dead; for example Isiah 26:19, considered part of the text written by “proto-Isiah” and dating to around 400-500 BCE (Vriezin & van der Woude, 2004, p. 323). Rather, in line with the predictions of cognitive psychology, that Judaism did have afterlife beliefs rooted in mind-body dualism and that these beliefs were present prior to the Maccabean revolt. It is also likely that such beliefs would have been popular during the Babylonian Captivity, which was arguably a more impactful period for the group.

Again however, we can learn from Dr. Wilson’s evidence. While there were likely some theological camps within Judaism at the time, such as the Sadducees who did not endorse the theological position of an afterlife in the contemporary Judeo-Christian sense, this may be a simple discrepancy between the beliefs of laity and theologians (see Sloan, 2004).[4] Such an approach may benefit from the population thinking approach of biological evolution (Boyd & Richerson, 2005). It would seem that history, religious studies, and cognitive psychology offer a good basis for Jewish afterlife beliefs before the Maccabean period. However, what I believe sets cognitive science above cultural evolution in regards to explanatory power is that no theory of cultural evolution makes a prediction concerning the target phenomenon at hand (the onset of a belief in the afterlife). Rather, it provides an account for the phenomenon post-hoc; this is still a valuable and powerful framework in my opinion. Cognitive theories such as those provided by Sperber (Claidière, Scott-phillips, & Sperber, 2014; Sperber & Wilson, 1995), Festinger (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 2008), and—to an extent—Lawson & McCauley (1990; see Chapter 5 on implicit mechanisms concerning agent competency) provide hypotheses concerning what beliefs/behaviors would or would not be likely to spread within a population due to pre-existing cognitive mechanisms.[5]

In conclusion, religious scholars have always been interdisciplinary. But to do a “science of religion” we need to make sure that we are working within a single research paradigm-even if it is from many disciplines. I have argued here and elsewhere (IAHR 2010) that we have to utilize theoretical continuity and a research paradigm of cognitive science (i.e. information processing) to do this. While utilizing biology can be useful to interpret trends, it ultimately misses its target, religion is our beliefs and behaviors. Religion is—like culture—a “thing that’s in our cranium” (quote from Lewontin in Wilson, 2015).


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Barrett, J. L. (2005). In the Empirical Mode: Evidence Needed for the Modes of Religiosity Theory. In H. Whitehouse & R. N. McCauley (Eds.), Mind and Religion: Psychological and Cognitive Foundations of Religiosity (pp. 109–126). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 40, 217–233. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.40.2.217

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Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

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Laland, K. N., Sterelny, K., Odling-Smee, J., Hoppitt, W., & Uller, T. (2011). Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful? Science, 334(December), 1512–1516. doi:10.1126/science.1210879

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[1] That is to say it isn’t a mechanism we have for a specific purpose but can be used for many things–including things we’ve never encountered before

[2] We could interpret the claim here and other places as a strong claim, Judaism didn’t have an afterlife belief, or as a weak claim, that Judaism didn’t have a Christian like afterlife belief involving negative punishment.

[3] These include, among other things, dating of the Maccabean period, the differences between messianic beliefs concerning eschator and parousia in relation to the beliefs at the time, the fact that the Hebrew version is a re-translation from the Greek Septuagint, and the role of ‘ōlām ha-bā as afterlife rather than sheol, and the fact that resurrection debates even among Christians went on well into the second century and that this belief differed between sects in Judaism both before and after the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.E. (Setzer, 2004).

[4] Also, to what extent it is clear that at the time Pharisees and Essene’s didn’t have an afterlife belief is debatable.

[5] Festinger specifically provides this account in relation to millennial beliefs.



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