Evolution of Religious Belief

Hi all, been a while since I have been here, but can’t think of a better place to ask the question.

I am getting interested (in a horrendously lay-manner) in the evolutionary origins of religious belief. The following interview with John Wathey just got released https://youtu.be/5vc144tBj7s.
Has anyone read Wathey’s work / have any thoughts on it? His book costs more than I am keen to spend on this subject without knowing what the quality is likely to be.

I recently listened to Shermer’s “The Believing Brain” which had some really interesting points that make sense here. , and also started to listen to J Anderson Thomson’s “Why We Believe in God”. I am approaching all of these as something interesting to learn, but am definitely not going to assume that any one theory is right; I am pretty much intellectually agnostic to almost everything I read/hear these days.

Rather than take the scatter gun approach to the subject it would be awesome to get guidance on resources from those who have already looked into this subject. There are a lot of social factors behind why I formally believed, but trying to understand some of the evolutionary / neuropsychological underpinnings seems worthwhile to me.


Hi Matt, good to see you.

I can recommend the following book. The author makes a plausible case for the evolution of the capacity for religious belief. It is well researched and cites a lot of anthropology literature. I cannot say this is a balanced representation of current knowledge, and as a book written for a popular audience it probably isn’t. Wade notes that this sort of evolution depends on group selection, which is still a controversial hypothesis.

Wait … did I recommend this one to you lastyou were here?? :laughing:

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Thanks Dan, I have that one on my wishlist, but good to have someone suggest it (again?!?!).
I am not expecting the lay level stuff to be particularly balanced, but thanks for flagging that as a risk. It is just nice to be exposed to ideas at this stage.

I am looking forward to getting hold of this one on belief in general, which is a bit more academic: Nancy Kim The Psychology of Belief

One of the things that I seem to have heard in either Wathey’s interview, or one of the others I recently listened to, is that lifting up of hands during worship is reflecting the neonatal impulse to reach for a parent. Seems that that is pretty darn tenuous, as people also do it during concerts (or so I hear from the cool kids who go to them). That said, I am intrigued by Wathey in that he does make testable predictions based on his theory which is nice. Nice, but not fully determinative as it does require those experiments to be run

Wathey has a follow up book more on the neuroscience, coming out soon

The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe

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I haven’t read any books or papers on the subject, but everyday experience does lend us a little bit of insight.

Working in science you become more aware of human biases which includes our tendency towards anthropomorphizing and teleology. Even when we describe something as simply as a chemical reaction we will attach wants and needs to the molecules involved as if they have some agency in the process. I suspect that this is an outgrowth of our ability and need to empathize with other human beings.