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.


My comment is unfortunately closer to the scattershot kind, but perhaps these items were ones brought up by the sources being quoted here. The overall point here is that human religiosity could stem from our animal ancestors trying to make sense of the world.
Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion had described two things that stuck with me. One was that the tendency to believe in gods or spirits and whatnot could come as an evolutionary spin-off where natural selection selects for the belief in agency behind things that are not understood. So in animals with any sort of brain, it is adaptive to believe that the rustling grass nearby could be a predator sneaking up on you, so it is best to run away. If it was a predator, you get to pass on your genes. Even if it wasn’t a predator this time, the energy cost is pretty small so there is no great loss and continued belief that rustling grass had agency (a predator) will continue to be the adaptive response. So the human tendency to believe that there was agency that rewards or punishes could emerge from earlier, less conscious times when it was best to believe that something purposeful was behind things not understood.

The other item was where Dawkins describes an experiment where researchers accidentally persuaded captive ducks to “get religion”(!) In this experiment, ducks were given food at completely random intervals from a dispenser. After a time it was noticed that many ducks were repeatedly doing particular behaviors in front of the food dispenser. Some would preen themselves. Others would duck their heads, or spin around. What seemed to be going on was that sometimes a duck would associate their doing one of these things with the food dispenser kicking out some pellets. So they kept doing whatever that behavior was, with the expectation that they would then be fed by the “food god”. Naturally, like people, the many occasions where it does not work is dismissed. A classic example of confirmation bias.


This sounds uncannily like the superstitious rituals I’ve heard that certain sportspeople develop. Baseball seems particularly rife.


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