After spending several years doing research for a book tentatively titled Evolutionary Theories of Religion: A Guide for the Perplexed, I came to the conclusion that while there were many good evolutionary theories of religion, there was no “master” theory. When the project began, my goal was to identify the best theories and synthesize them into a singular, comprehensive theory that provided the best possible scientific answer to an apparently simple question: How did “religion” evolve?
This is not, of course, a simple question and no single theory provides a definitive answer. Since 1990 (i.e., the beginning of the modern era of evolutionary theorizing about religion), scholars have proposed so many different varieties of “cognitive byproduct” and “social adaptive” theories that simply surveying, sorting, and analyzing them is a considerable challenge. Synthesizing them is an even greater challenge and, given their differing premises, may be impossible.
While thinking about these issues, I realized that the debates surrounding modern (i.e., post 1990) evolutionary theories of religion have deep historical precedents. I also realized that few modern theorists either consider or take these precedents into serious account. Because the modern debates tend to less eruditely reprise the older debates, this strikes me as a mistake.
Seeking clarity, last year I decided to conduct an intensive review of all previous theories (i.e., those predating 1990) that could variously be characterized as: (1) explanatory, (2) developmental, and/or (3) evolutionary. The latter category can be confusing because many scholars working within a post-Darwinian evolutionary paradigm tend to conflate biological with cultural evolution. Such scholars may also prefer non-Darwinian explanations, but they are still working within an evolutionary or developmental paradigm. When this occurs, I refer to them as “evolutionist.”
My richly rewarding review resulted in a great deal of writing, most of which has appeared here in scattered posts over the past year. Now that the review is nearly finished, I want to gather all those posts and links on a single page. The theorists are listed mostly in chronological order of their appearance. I chose this arrangement not just for convenience. One thing I discovered is that the scholars working within the developmental-evolutionist tradition were fully aware of previous work and were responding to their predecessors or contemporaries. If you read these scholars’ original works in serial order, you will find yourself eavesdropping on a brilliant conversation that lasted for well over 100 years.
Pre-Darwinian Developmental Theories of Religion
Social-Psychological (Evolutionist) Theories of Religion
Early Evolutionary Theories of Religion
- Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
- John Lubbock (1834-1913)
- Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)
- James George Frazer (1854-1941)
- RR Marett (1866-1943)
- Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939)
Sociological (Evolutionist) Theories of Religion
“Primitive” (Evolutionist) Theories of Religion
- Robert Lowie (1883-1957)
- Paul Radin (1883-1959)
- EE Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973)
- Robin Horton (forthcoming)
- Claude Lévi-Strauss (forthcoming)
In terms of tradition but not chronology, another scholar who should be added to this list is the recently deceased sociologist Robert Bellah (1927-2013). Bellah fused Durkheim with biological and cultural evolution. He was a Christian and closet-Hegelian who consequently saw evolution as progressive and history as teleological. Despite these defects, Bellah’s otherwise splendid work fits squarely within the earlier developmental-evolutionist tradition.