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

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).


Angier, N. (2002, December 24). A Conversatoin with: David Sloan Wilson; The Origins of Religions, From a Distinctly Darwinin View. New York Times. New York. Retrieved from

Angier, N., Wilson, D. S., & Bass, T. A. (2006, December 30). God VS. Science: A Debate Between Natalie Angier, and David Sloan Wilson, Moterated by Thomas A. Bass. Edge. Retrieved from

Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.). (1992). The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

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

Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2005). The Origin and Evolution of Cultures. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

Boyer, P., & Liénard, P. (2006). Why ritualized behavior? Precaution Systems and action parsing in developmental, pathological and cultural rituals. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(6), 595–613; discussion 613–50. Retrieved from

Buss, D. M., Haselton, M. G., Shackelford, T. K., Bleske, A. L., & Wakefield, J. C. (1998). Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels. American Psychologist, 54(5), 533–548.

Claidière, N., Scott-phillips, T. C., & Sperber, D. (2014). How Darwinian is cultural evolution ? How Darwinian is cultural evolution ? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, (369:20130368). doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0368

Cohen, E., Burdett, E., Knight, N., & Barrett, J. (2011). Cross-Cultural Similarities and Differences in Person-Body Reasoning: Experimental Evidence From the United Kingdom and Brazilian Amazon. Cognitive Science, 35(June 2009), 1282–1304. doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01172.x

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (pp. 163–228). New York: Oxford University Press.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (2008). When Prophecy Fails (2nd editio.). London: Pinter & Martin.

Gowan, D. E. (2003). The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heyes, C., & Pearce, J. M. (2015). Not-so-social learning strategies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282(1802), 1–7. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.1709

Hodge, K. M. (n.d.). The Death We Fear is Not Our Own: The Folk Psychology of Souls Revisited and Reframed. In H. De Cruz & R. Nichols (Eds.), The Cognitive Science of Religion and its Philosophical Implications.

Hodge, K. M. (2010). Cognitive Foundations of Afterlife Beliefs. Queen’s University Belfast.

Hodge, K. M. (2011). Why immortality alone will not get me to the afterlife. Philosophical Psychology, 24(936089229), 395–410. doi:10.1080/09515089.2011.559620

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

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Liénard, P., & Lawson, E. T. (2008). Evoked culture, ritualization and religious rituals. Religion, 38(March), 157–171. doi:10.1016/j.religion.2008.01.004

Martin, L. H. (2008). Can Religion Really Evolve? (And What Is It Anyway?). In J. Bulbulia, R. Sosis, E. Harris, R. Genet, C. Genet, & K. Wyman (Eds.), The Evolution of Religions: Studies, Theories, and Critiques. Santa Margarita, CA: The Collins Foundation Press.

Paden, W. E. (2010). The History of Religions and Evolutionary Models: Some Reflections on Framing and Mediating Vocabulary. In P. Pachis & D. Wiebe (Eds.), Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences (pp. 293–304). Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Reicke, B. (2001). Hell. In B. M. Metzger & M. Coogan (Eds.), The Oxford Guide to Ideas and Issues of the Bible (pp. 196–198). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evoluion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richerson, P. J., & Christiansen, M. H. (Eds.). (2013). Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Langage, and Religion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Segal, A. F. (2004). Life after death: A history of the afterlife in the religions of the West. New York: Doubleday.

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Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, And The Nature Of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, D. S. (2015, April). The Spandrels Of San Marco Revisited : An Interview With Richard C. Lewontin. This View of Life. Retrieved from


[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.


An Outline of Norenzayan’s ‘Big Gods’

In his book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, Dr. Ara Norenzayan addresses two “puzzles” about human existence.  First, how were large-scale societies able to develop?  That is, how did small, tight-knit communities develop into the large and relatively anonymous societies that exist today?  Second, with all the potential flavors of supernatural agents, why are “Big Gods” a common theme dominating many religious traditions?  The concept of “Big Gods” refers to the omniscient and omnipotent higher powers that are prevalent across many major religious traditions today.

Norenzayan (2013) offers a cohesive, well-informed answer to these two seemingly separate questions.  Drawing from a large base of literature, from social psychology to cultural anthropology to behavioral economics, the central argument is that belief in “Big Gods” paved the way for small groups of people to develop into large-scale societies with powerful supernatural agents fostering the type of cooperation necessary for such groups to be successful.  As a result, successful societies of people who believed in “Big Gods” were able to dominate the cultural landscape, “winning out” over other religions.

The purpose of this post is to briefly describe eight principles that are central to Norenzayan’s (2013) new book and to complement his recent RSP interview with Thomas J. Coleman.  Dr. Norenzayan provides a broad range of supporting evidence for the following eight principles that supports his thesis (see pg. xiii):

1.     Watched people are nice people

2.     Religion is more in the situation than in the person

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven

4.     Trust people who trust God

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups

8.     Religious groups cooperate in order to compete


Principle One: Watched People are Nice People

The first principle suggests that people are nicer, or act in more prosocial ways, when they are being watched.  An important caveat is that people act in such prosocial ways even when they think they are being watched – such as by a watchful God.  Various studies have demonstrated that even in the mere presence of eyes, people tend to act cooperatively – dubbed as the “eye effect.”  For example, Ernest-Jones, Nettle, and Bateson (2011) found that anti-littering posters were more effective in reducing actual littering behavior if the poster included a set of eyes.  Related to God as a watchful agent, Gervais and Norenzayan (2012) found experimental evidence that, when primed with the concept of God, people responded in more socially desirable ways (see Study 3).  Thus, a concept of God as an all-seeing agent who monitors human behavior should help to foster cooperation within groups of people.  Importantly, cooperative societies are successful societies.


Principle Two: Religion is More in the Situation than in the Person

Norenzayan’s (2013) second principle is that individuals’ religiosity, or at least expression of religiosity, is largely shaped by the situation.  This principle is counter to the ways that many researchers and religious scholars tend to view religion – that is, religion as a relatively stable characteristic that individuals bring with them across situations.  However, Norenzayan provides empirical evidence that demonstrates how the influence of religion on behavior is qualified by the power of the situation.  For example, Norenzayan discusses, both in his book and in the interview, the “Sunday Effect” whereby some religious people behave in greater accord with their religious beliefs on Sundays.  Such religious behavior includes donating more money and being less likely to engage in “sinful” acts (e.g., viewing pornography).  Thus, as one’s religion becomes more salient, religious individuals are likely to align their religious beliefs with their behavior “in the moment.”


Principle Three: Hell is Stronger than Heaven

The third principle underlying Dr. Norenzayan’s argument is that Hell is stronger than heaven.  In one study, Shariff and Norenzayan (2011) found that general beliefs in God did not predict undergraduate students’ engagement in cheating behavior.  However, when belief in God was distilled into belief in a mean God (i.e., vengeful, and punishing) versus belief in a nice God (i.e., compassionate and forgiving), participants endorsing a mean-God concept were less likely to cheat relative to nice-God supporters.  Thus, there appears to be evidence that  “mean Gods make good people” (p. 44).  Having a God that people both love and fear helps motivate people to behave in desirable, prosocial, and cooperative ways.


Principle Four: Trust People Who Trust God

Since the early works of Allport and Ross (1967), researchers have been interested in the relationship between religion and attitudes toward out-groups.  The theoretical and empirical work in this area is complicated.  On the one hand, religion could foster positive attitudes toward members of out-groups.  Many religious faiths share basic tenets such as loving one’s “neighbor” and even one’s enemies, treating people of all kinds fairly and compassionately (Terry, 2007).  On the other hand, religion could foster intergroup hostility and intolerance (Silberman, 2005).  Such hostility is likely when the out-group violates the value systems of one’s religion (Whitley, 2009).  For example, atheism runs against the very grain of religious worldviews, which poses a particular threat for religious individuals.  People largely distrust atheists (Gervais, 2011), and privately and even publically reject such individuals (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006).  According to this fourth principle, religion serves as one rather important marker on which to base trust.


Principle Five: Religious Actions Speak Louder than Words

The fifth principle proposes that religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words.  This principle addresses a potential problem facing many religious groups: that some people might feign their religiousness to be part of the in-group and reap rewards in a selfish, free-rider manner.  With costly behaviors associated with a religion, however, religious hypocrites have a harder time faking their religious commitments.  Proscription of certain dietary practices and adherence to strict marital and sexual practices, for example, helps to monitor religious adherents.  As Norenzayan (2013) suggests, such strict religious behaviors keep possible free-riders at check, which ultimately helps to maintain group solidarity.


Principle Six: Unworshipped Gods are Impotent Gods

Norenzayan’s (2013) sixth principle is linked to the prior fifth principle.  Without committed followers, who demonstrate potentially costly behaviors such as sacrifices of “time, effort, and wealth” and behavioral restrictions (e.g., dietary restrictions), Gods lose the ability to attract followers (pg. 111).  Demonstrations of costly behaviors, though, give rise to powerful Gods that have the potential to draw in religious converts.  As religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words, high levels of expressed commitment breeds powerful Gods.


Principle Seven: Big Gods for Big Groups

Studies among small-scale, hunter-gather groups demonstrate that belief in “Big Gods” is the exception rather than the rule.  Such small groups, like the ones from which modern-day societies developed, believe in Gods that rarely interfere with human affairs (Norenzayan, 2013).  As groups increase in size and social complexity, however, belief in “Big Gods,” or moralizing Gods, increases (Roes & Raymond, 2003).  Many large and industrialized societies around the world believe in Gods that are all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally-concerned.  The relationship between the size of groups and tendencies for belief in “Big Gods” supports Norenzayan’s (2013) seventh principle of “Big Gods” for “Big Groups.”


Principle Eight: Religious Groups Cooperate in Order to Compete

The last principle proposes that prosocial religions have “won out” over other types of religions throughout history.  Such religions, with “group-beneficial norms that suppress selfishness and increase social cohesion,” have come to dominate the cultural landscape today (Norenzayan, 2013, p. 147).  Evidence exists demonstrating that religions with “Big Gods” facilitate group stability and eventual longevity.  Additionally, such religions have been successful in gaining converts though multiple strategies (e.g., conquests) and have propagated large numbers of followers through reproductive successes.  It is through processes of cultural evolution that we have had a few religious groups, and religious characteristics more generally (i.e., belief in “Big Gods”), dominate across different cultures and societies.

The book Big Gods ends with a timely discussion regarding the rise of atheism, or non-religion more generally, in several industrialized societies (e.g., Sweden).  Norenzayan (2013) argues that, under certain social conditions, countries might successfully adopt worldviews that are less influenced by religions.  Such secular societies will have “climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away” (p. 172).  Effective secular authorities in such nonreligious countries seem to have replaced religion as a motivator for cooperation.  In these societies, religion no longer serves as a characteristic by which to judge a person’s trustworthiness.  Indeed, recent research highlights the role that secular authorities (e.g., police, government, ect.) play in reducing distrust toward atheists (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Norenzayan & Gervais, 2013).  What remains unclear is whether cultural pressures will favor both secular and religious societies equally, if religious societies will continue to dominate, or if secular societies will grow in appeal, eventually replacing “Big Gods” with “Big Secular Institutions.”


Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 5(4), 432.

Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists as ‘other’: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review71, 211-234.

Ernest-Jones, M., Nettle, D., & Bateson, M. (2011). Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(3), 172-178.

Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: Perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 543-556.

Gervais, W. M. & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/0956797611429711.

Gervais, W. M., & Norenzayan, A. (2012) Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 298-302.

Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, A., & Gervais, W. M. (2013). Secular rule of law erodes believers’ political intolerance of atheists. Religion, Brain & Behavior, (ahead-of-print), 1-12.

Roes, F. L., & Raymond, M. (2003). Belief in moralizing gods. Evolution and human behavior, 24(2), 126-135.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods make good people: Different views of God predict cheating behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85-96.

Silberman, I. (2005). Religious violence, terrorism, and peace: A meaning system analysis. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of religion and spirituality (pp. 529–549). New York: Guilford.

Terry, H. (2007). Golden rules and silver rules of humanity: Universal wisdom of civilization. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.

Whitley, B. Jr. (2009). Religiosity and attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: A meta-analysis. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion19, 21-38.

Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). But Donald’s work also affords opportunities for an even more speculative exercise: that of forecasting religion’s future. Instead of letting the many obvious obstacles of such forecasting hold us back, let’s indulge.

In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Donald suggested that human cultural evolution has gone through three main stages: mimetic culture (arising early in human evolutionary history), mythic culture (arising soon after the invention of language), and theoretic culture (taking shape only as late as the Enlightenment). These stages are explained fairly well in the interview, so I will not recapitulate here.

Donald’s thinking about cultural evolution is based to a considerable degree on his view on distributed cognition. Thinking does not all happen inside the cranium. It was not a sudden expansion of brain mass that inaugurated the era of cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, but rather drastic changes in the distributed cognitive networks that individual brains are part of: networks that engage many brains in coordinated ways to create “cognitive ecosystems”. Cultural evolution is based on changes in these distributed cognitive networks rather than sudden mutations in individual brains.

A growing school in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind is developing the idea of the extended mind, from Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism to Andy Clark’s supersized mind to Lambros Malafouris’ recent “Material Engagement Theory”. This school, to which we may count Donald as a moderate adherent, has serious implications for all disciplines studying human culture.

It also provides us with a useful clue for speculating about the future of religion. Donald holds that ritual behaviour emerges extremely early, and plays a significant role in “mimetic culture”. Religions of the doctrinaire type depend on more extensive language use, and emerge around powerful narratives and myths in the transition to “mythic culture”. Dependent primarily on mimetic imagination and narrative skills, then, we should not expect ritual and religion to disintegrate from the human cultural repertoire anytime soon.

Theoretic culture, on the other hand – ostensibly secular, reflective, scientific, and disenchanted – is a much more fragile thing. Its deepest roots lie in the “exographic revolution” (i.e. the invention of systems for externalizing memory), which started with simple carving and painting techniques in the upper Paleolithic and kicked off around 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing. It became possible to externalize thought and distribute abstract concepts to such an extent that difficult, reflective thinking could emerge.

But reflective thinking did not obsolete mythic culture – instead it was absorbed in it, subsumed by its governance structures and used to further them. It took other sorts of revolutions in the distributed cognitive network to pave the way for a theoretic culture to emerge: the printing press, the spread of literacy to wider populations, the creation of new institutions and rationalized bureaucracies. Even then, mythic culture was not supplanted by theoretic culture: the new nation states notably made use of all the strategies of mythic culture in creating grand narratives of the folk and their soil, united under one flag, one anthem, one canon of art and literature – and kept safe under the watchful eyes of one government. But these new “secular”-but-mythologized nation states also gave room for institutions where reflective knowledge was to be cultivated, and its fruits exploited in industry, business, and the ordering of society itself. We got education systems disciplining individual brains to do very difficult tasks such as reading, writing, and calculating things. We got the sort of distributed cognitive system that we are part of today.

The central message of this story, however, is not one of the unstoppable march of progress. Rather, it is that theoretic culture is extremely fragile, because entirely dependent on complex cognitive distribution networks spanning numerous interdependent institutions. As Robert McCauley concludes in Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (2011), science is a socio-cognitive enterprise that can easily be crushed and disappear from a culture entirely with the collapse of a few central institutions. As Donald notes in the interview, there are reasons to doubt whether theoretic culture is sustainable on the longer run – let alone that it can ever be “purified” in the sense of ridding us of mythic and mimetic elements. Secularists and atheists may not have much reason to cheer the converging evidence from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). What Pascal Boyer (2001) called “the tragedy of the theologian” – that “theological correctness” is rarely followed in practice due to various constraints on online, unreflective cognition – is simultaneously the tragedy of the atheist demagogue. As (the later) Peter Berger put it: ‘The religious impulse … has been a perennial feature of humanity. … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.’

We have to overcome humanity itself to overcome religion. So, to spice up our forecast, let’s look at some who would not shy away from doing exactly that: the transhumanists. What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?

To begin with: transhumanists are divided on the question of religion/spirituality. A clear majority identifies as secular, and many of those are self-proclaimed atheists. Some, such as the Brighter Brains Institute think-tank, dabble in militant atheism (their term) together with neuroengineering, biohacking, and radical life extension. But there are also various strands of explicitly religious transhumanists, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association. These Cyborgs for God see new technologies and radical modifications of human nature as ways of approaching salvation and becoming divine. Others, who would often self-describe as secular, still draw on religion-like narratives to talk about our imminent transhuman revolution through the “technological Singularity”. Some advocates, such as Ray Kurzweil, even see the singularity as a way to create God by rearranging all the matter in the universe and making it conscious.

That implementing new and even deeply transformative technologies would not necessarily stall the development of religious meaning-making but set it on a new course instead should not surprise us. Humans are after all natural born cyborgs, waking up to find new ways to improve the reach of our bodies and limits of our minds. The transhuman future (whichever one it is) may be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change. A technocentered spirituality of cyborgs that continue to utilize the deep proclivities from evolutionary history even in an age of exoskeletons, biohacks, and brain/computer interfaces is one possible transhuman future for religion. The form and function of this spirituality would depend entirely on the social form that this transhuman society would take – the governance structure of the by then extremely distributed cognitive network (think ubiquitous computing). If current trends of speculation among spiritual transhumanists are any indication, worship of the emerging Internet of Things as itself “conscious” and “divine” seems one path. But the actions of the class of experts who build, develop, and – most crucially – own the infrastructure of this network remains a decisive factor. Think of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” turned into a first commandment, flashing on our retinas when we power up in the morning.

What about the intertwined future of irreligion? Another possibility is that a convergence of neuroengineering and artificial intelligence manages to rewire the brain in such a way that it meets Berger’s condition for the eradication of religion. In other words, not just a change in the distributed cognitive network, but a radical transformation of the biological component of that network – something that we haven’t seen in the previous cultural revolutions according to Donald.

To atheist transhumanists reading this: such rewiring may be one possible route to universal atheism, but you need to seriously consider whether it is a desirable one. In another recent book on religion and evolution, Big Gods (2013), Ara Norenzayan distinguishes between four roads to atheism. The first of these, “mind-blind atheism”, is the most fundamental. It addresses the neuroanatomical and computational level that could be altered by a radical transhuman approach bent on removing the basic cognitive mechanisms that create our susceptibility for what these engineers would consider “religion” (notions of gods, spirits, rituals and so forth). Since those basic mechanisms include such fundamental things as Theory of Mind and conceptual blending, however, rewiring us for atheism essentially means rewiring us for autism – and taking away our grasp of such things as metaphor while at it.

That’s probably a price too high for getting rid of a few god concepts. But the transhuman atheist need not necessarily despair. There are more feasible paths to near-global atheism. These would however rely, once more, on the structure of distributed cognitive networks rather than on essential changes to the brain. It will be important to establish certain types of institutions and forms of governance. Seeing that a large proportion of transhumanists appear to lean towards free-market libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, the necessary steps of this model might in fact not be too appealing: It appears that to build well-functioning godless societies we must first become Scandinavian-style social democrats.

It is true that the sort of post-scarcity “abundance society” that some transhumanist authors imagine might correlate to some extent with the apathetic kind of atheism (“We’ve got all this cool stuff, so why bother?”). But the evidence suggests that it is the distribution of this wealth and power that will be the key factor. Social and economic equality, managed by a big welfare state that citizens trust, are the strongest correlates for irreligion. The futuristic medievalists of the “neoreactionary movement” that’s currently attracting some attention in transhumanist circles is certainly wide off the mark. They want to keep high-technology while essentially abandoning Merlin Donald’s theoretic culture all together for a return to old-school mythic culture – kings, knights, underlings and all. Sort of sounds like a bad idea. But good conditions for strange new religions to emerge.

The question of religion’s evolutionary future, then, has little to do with whether or not we become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs, and have been for tens of thousands of years. It has more to do with what kinds of cyborgs we become, and how we organize ourselves when we’re there.


Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Bellknap Press / Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Burge, Tyler. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2010. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.