Explanatory Theories of Religion

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

Sociological (Evolutionist) Theories of Religion

“Primitive” (Evolutionist) Theories of Religion

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.

Did you like this? Share it:

11 thoughts on “Explanatory Theories of Religion

  1. franscouwenbergh

    >>>How did “religion” evolve?<<<
    In my website http://www.humanosophy.org I set out how some 5 mya in one apemen group the culture of 'names for things' arrose. Ever more 'names' (words) for things becomes a chaos in the brains if one does not lodge them in a story: of how things began and developed (including ourselves) up to they are now. The 'creation story' of our world. Because is was a precarious transition (from animal to human) our ancestors needed to repeat this story day after day, dancing/singing it around the camp fire. Several millions of years experiencing their world in this manner, has become an innate tendency: religion.

  2. Cris Post author

    Hello Frans. As you know, I don’t agree with your ideas or stories. But I’m glad you are still reading the blog and I hope you are doing well.

  3. jayarava

    Quite surprised not to see a few names on your list:

    S. E. Guthrie
    Justin L Barrett
    Robert N. McCauley
    E. Thomas Lawson

    I’ve just finished reading Barrett’s “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?”. It’s where he introduces the now famous concept of the Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, though it’s based on Guthrie’s earlier book “Faces in the Clouds”.

    Anyway this looks like an interesting project. It is interesting to see the deep roots of this seemingly modern idea. How far off is the book do you think?

  4. Cris Post author

    The first several years of the project involved intensive reading of all the “modern” or post 1990 cognitive and evolutionary scholars of religion, so I have studied all the scholars you listed and many more. I’m fairly certain I have read every book that has been published on the “evolution of religion” since 1990, and have read articles by every scholar who has worked in the field.

    The point of this particular post and latter phase of the project was to cover all the “early” scholars and theorists; in other words, the “old” ones that supposedly are no longer relevant. I have just clarified these date issues in the original post.

    Though I did not say it, I have found that the “modern” debates roughly parallel or mirror the older debates. Modern theories have some differences in data and idiom, but otherwise the underlying assumptions, premises, arguments, and inferences are all the same. The major schism that divided early scholars also divides modern scholars, though the latter seem largely unaware of this significant fact.

    I think that a very solid first draft of the book is about a year away. The research for it and background writing (which I call “note taking” or “throat clearing”) has taken six years.

  5. Sabio Lantz

    Great list. — (stealing the book name of a Jewish theologian (Maimonides), for your subtitle, eh?

    Suggestions [if I may]:
    (1) Annotate the list with approx dates & one sentence summary
    (2) Do one short summary post for each category & add to list as “Intro”

    Now, since I have this fine skeleton you’ve offered, when I find time, I will go back and give them a read. The skeleton (with dates) helps me remember.

    Isn’t there a group modern theories which don’t indulge in the “primitive” or “cultural evolution” but look at religion as adaptive psychological/social benefits which, like evolution, are not progressive nor primitive but merely adaptive?

    What I am curious about is to do a survey of outspoken non-religionists and ask, “Sure, you don’t believe in any religion, but what theory do you hold only how religion comes to be and why it is so prevalent?” And then, using your list, show them what historical type of theory their intuition falls into. For when it comes to religion, both religionists and non-religionists trust their intuitions as being pretty close to correct. Sometimes it is eye-opening to see (1) our thoughts are more generic than we imagine, and (2) there are other theories that show our intuitions may not be correct. Your work will help with that.

    My only fear is if, you make debunking-bigotry-against-HG-worldviews the theme of your book, it will stop it broader usefulness.

  6. Cris Post author

    Thanks Sabio; I’ll think about doing some of these things. As for the modern theories (i.e., those which post-date 1990), I will outline all those in the near future.

    And have no fear, the last item is not the theme of my book. It’s just a sub-theme that explains why evolutionary theorists of religion have mostly failed: they don’t adequately define “religion” for purposes of evolutionary theory or history. We need to understand what actually evolved.

    To understand this, we need a good handle on animist worldviews. Any postulated attributes or “modules” of mind that supposedly evolved for one purpose or another need to be considered within the context of those worldviews. Similarly, any social-cohesion-altruism “ritual” behaviors that supposedly evolved for adaptive reasons need to be evaluated within the context of those worldviews.

    In addition, nearly all evolutionary theories (both old and new) posit an underlying biological process and/or cultural-historical movement that is progressive. This major premise can only be revealed, or exposed, by looking at animist worldviews.

    This latter subject will take only a single chapter of the book, so you need not worry about my ostensible penchant for the Paleo-terrific or hunter-gatherer ethnography.

    Finally, I was unaware of Maimonides’ nice title! Is that an accurate translation?

  7. Cris Post author

    That is quite a list of subjects under that subtitle; given the opaque theological issues under consideration in those books, it’s no wonder people are confused and perplexed. Theology is usually that way: a bunch of hot and suffocating idealist air.

    I was just using that subtitle as a placeholder or working title. It does accurately describe the project but it sounds rather goofy — not magisterial enough!

  8. Larry Stout

    Religion as belief is simply the ultimate outcome of the instinctive human compulsion to discern cause and effect in all that we experience, even, as necessary, by extrapolation and imagination, according to the close limits on the human capacity for rational discernment of causation beyond the most proximate and obvious causes. This is an individual phenomenon, but because humans are social animals, likewise by evolved instinct, every young person quickly becomes aware of familial-cultural restraints on the particulars of permissible beliefs. Not everyone, ancient or modern, conforms to cultural restraints on belief (religion as a sociopolitical institution), though many pretend to do so as a practical expedient, and not everyone, ancient or modern, has been or is prepared to be pushed by compulsion into some claim to comprehensive understanding or ultimate “knowledge”; that is, not everyone, ancient or modern, has been or is religious.

  9. Mitchell Diamond

    You allude to religion as byproduct several times throughout the blog, but it’s never clear (or I didn’t find) if you are sympathetic to byproduct theory. But my real question regarding byproduct theory of religion concerns its non-human scientific basis. I would expect, before applying byproduct theory to a complex phenomenon like religion, that, assuming a biological approach, there would be a robust collection of articles in the scientific literature describing what non-human byproducts are: what defines a biological byproduct, particularly behavioral byproducts, and several examples of them to support the hypothesis. Beyond Gould and Lewontin, I can only find some tepid articles that explore the conceptual, theoretical possibilities of byproduct theory; e.g. David Buss. Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels. American Psychologist 1998 Vol. 53, No. 5, 533-548. I’m astounded that so many modern theory of religion academics so blithely jump on the byproduct bandwagon with virtually no science supporting it. Not to deny that there is such a thing a byproducts but consider what Dawkins says about group selection in God Delusion.

    “Mathematical models…come up with special conditions under which group selection might be evolutionary powerful [which] are usually unrealistic in nature.”
    “Those of us who belittle group selection admit that in principle it can happen. The question is whether it amounts to a significant force in evolution.”

    Just substitute byproduct theory for group selection and we have exactly the same thing. So do you know of some byproduct explorations in the literature that I may have missed that provide a basis for extrapolating it to humans? If no, what do you make of Atran, Barrett, Boyer, McCauley, Pinker, etc., who have no problem citing byproducts for religion as well as art and music?

  10. Pingback: Explanatory Theories of Religion And Religious Thoughts (by Cris Campbell) | Mass Delusions a.k.a. Magical & Religious Woo-Bullshit Thinking

Leave a Reply