Sunday, July 19, 2015

Is religion a byproduct of evolution?

Evolutionary Psychology of Religion

On July 21, 1925, the Scopes trial ended. 

The Jury found John Scopes violated the law by teaching evolution.

Rhea County Courthouse, TN Photo by Geoff W Sutton 2015 

This is part two of two posts about contributions of evolutionary science to psychology. I am drawing on Lee Kirkpatrick’s 2013 summary of the issues to consider how evolutionary psychology may contribute to an understanding of religion.

I have decided that the best way to consider how evolutionary psychology might be related to religion is to pose a few questions followed by possible answers. But first, a brief explanation of psychological mechanisms as behavioral routines.

Psychological mechanisms as apps

I am using the term app to represent a psychological application. Psychological scientists refer to psychological mechanisms, routines, and systems. Some use the analogy of computer software as having similar properties as a behavior pattern. Hence, I am using app to mean the same thing as a coherent routine that involves cognitive, emotional, biological, and behavioral components and appears to accomplish a specific purpose. For example, parent-child attachment has several subroutines found in humans and other organisms related to the care of infants.

What about religion does evolutionary psychology explain?

Behavioral scientists have not reached a consensus definition of religion. And for more than a decade it has become popular to use the term spirituality, which adds more fuzziness to the problem of what scientists are trying to explain. Elsewhere I have suggested the possibility of looking at religion as a family of features, which is based on my understanding of Wittgenstein’s’ family resemblance concept.

In a 2014 research paper co-authored with Kayla Jordan and Ev Worthington, we relied on the work of Worthington and other colleagues in considering different types of spirituality. In that article, we described religious spirituality as one type of spirituality. I won’t go into more detail here because my focus is on what has to be explained. See the reference for a link to the article.

Kirkpatrick opines that how religion is defined matters if religion is viewed as adaptive. Thus, if religion evolved then it presumably has functional value for survival to reproductive age or mate selection.

I think you could invent scenarios in which religion has survival value for individuals or groups. But the problem is finding empirical justification for such ideas. What sounds plausible may not be supported by evidence or the available evidence may support more than one explanation.

In contrast, if there are a variety of religious and spiritual experiences that occur as evolutionary byproducts, the research focus is different. In this view, prayer is communication with beings other than humans. Love for God is naturally related to the attachment system and so forth.

How might we analyze the components of religion or spirituality?

If we wanted to discover what evolutionary psychology explains, we need to find a constructive way to identify the components of religion to be explained. Kirkpatrick points out that people have different schemes to categorize types of prayer. He argues in favor of a functional perspective on religion using the analogy of an automobile, which has a variety of specific parts designed for different functions.

I cannot help thinking of the Apostle Paul’s view of the church as a human body having different parts suited to different functions. The auto analogy seems a little too neat. The varieties of religious experience are considerable. As with human bodies, some components are less useful than others. And the existence of some components remain a puzzlement.

Kirkpatrick does offer helpful examples of different types of prayer fulfilling different functions akin to other psychological apps. In this view, prayers focused on comfort are linked to human attachment. Prayers for favors and material things are linked to the social-exchange app. Prayers revealing worship, awe and reverence are linked to the human social-dominance app.

How does evolutionary psychology deal with the common nature versus nurture debate when it comes to explaining religion?

Kirkpatrick considers nature versus nurture a false dichotomy. Evolutionary psychology assumes people have a common human nature, which includes a common psychological architecture. In my view, we all have the same apps available but they are customized in response to our environment. Nature interacts with the environment. We change our environment and our environment changes us. I consider Kirkpatrick’s comments on nature vs. nurture helpful but I do not think we are close to identifying the nature of the reciprocal interactions that might account for human activities deemed religious.

How is motivation related to religion?

Many people appear to be motivated to carry out religious or spiritual practices. When asked, peope offer a variety of motives to account for their actions. Are any of the motives derived from religion or are they more basic to human nature? Can prayer for support and comfort in the face of tragedy be explained by the apparent need for assistance and the belief that God would provide the needed comfort or is the prayer primarily a byproduct of the attachment app focused on God as a loving divine parent? Alternatively, is prayer for support part of what it means for religion to be adaptive?

How can we explain the variety of religious experiences?

Pollsters provide information about the variety of beliefs and practices of people who identify with different religions. People who want to categorize activities can group them logically into categories like prayer, worship, rituals of purification and so forth. In any given category, subdivisions are possible as noted previously for different kinds of prayer. Lacking an explanatory theory can lead to classification approaches that seem arbitrary. Kirkpatrick likens the problem of finding the dimensions or categories to the reduction of personality traits to the Big Five.

Kirkpatrick suggests varieties of individual religious expression could be related to differences in the degree to which underlying psychological mechanisms (apps) vary. For example, people with a strong attachment app might be more inclined toward faith in a loving God who cares for them as a parent. For others, social-reciprocity might be more active --leading them to relate to God as a divine trading partner. Kirkpatrick also notes the importance of studying sex differences given different evolutionary roles for men and women.


1. Overall, evolutionary psychology has something to offer in understanding religiosity and spirituality. It seems to me that a functional approach might help clarify the varieties of religious experience; however, the problems linking evolution to religion identified by Kirkpatrick are important. Simplistic explanations can be tempting when it seems but a small logical jump to infer that purposeful behavior must be linked to natural selection or sexual selection.

2. Creation and Evolution don't belong in the same courtroom. The fact that evolutionary psychology may explain various aspects of religious experience does not imply that any religion or religious belief is true or false. Science is limited to explaining that which is observable. Scientific understanding changes as new data become available. The Bible contains poetry, laws, history, and moral teachings among other things. I'm not sure I know exactly what Pope Francis believes but I support the notion that Christianity and science need not be in conflict.

The creation stories in Genesis tell the Hebrews about their origins. The language is not scientific. See other websites for details illustrating the differences between evolution and explanations of creationists and intelligent design. I listed a few at the bottom of my previous post.

An example of integrating psychological science with Christian theology can be found in the evidence supporting the viability of attachment to God as similar to the attachment children have for their parents. Attachment theory makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Understanding attachment from an evolutionary perspective does not negate any essential theological understandings of love for God and others.

3. The jury is still out. An understanding of how evolution can provide a useful metatheory for psychology is not yet clear. And it is less clear how evolutionary psychology can account for the varieties of experience deemed religious or spiritual. Although psychological scientists do not question the basic tenets of biological evolution, many questions remain unanswered when it comes to explaining contemporary human behavior.

Scopes Trial Site, Rhea County Courthouse, TN


Kirkpatrick, L.A. (2013). Evolutionary psychology as a foundation for the psychology of evolution. In R. F. Paloutzian and C.L. Park (eds.) 118-137. Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.

Myers, D. (2012) Psychology in Everyday Life, 2nd ed. New York: Worth.

Additional resources

A related post: Did the Pope Evolve

Sutton, G. W. (in press). [Review of the book Handbook of The psychology of religion and spirituality (Second Edition) by Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park (Editors). Encounter (Accepted)

Sutton, G. W. (2008). [Review of the book Why Darwin matters: The case against intelligent design by M. Shermer]. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27, 181.  Academia Link

See also the links on the previous post.

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