Spinning a Cognitive Science of Religion

One of the typical hypotheses for the origins of religion is long on creativity, short on consistency, and ignores most of the evidence.

Mitchell Diamond
Oct 21 · 8 min read

Shankar Vedantam hosts NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, which is generally fascinating and insightful. However, once in a while a topic stretches credulity and falls flat. Such was the case with the May 6, 2019 Hidden Brain podcast, Where Does Religion Come From? Vedantam interviews Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. Shariff studies religion from a psychological point of view, an increasingly popular academic area of interest known as the cognitive science of religion (CSR).

When taking on a weighty topic like CSR, it’s critical to establish some ground rules. For example, is religion solely a cultural invention or does is have an evolved, inherited component? Academics who study this fall into opposing camps. There is no consensus if there is an inborn propensity to religious behavior or if it is a byproduct of our large, complex brain. Or as Shariff proposes, religion benefits humanity by enhancing social cohesion and cooperation. Where your bias on this issue lies goes a long way to determining where you fall along this spectrum of possibilities.

Shariff starts off by correctly pointing out that humans evolved in tribes of between 50 and 150 people. So far, so good. It quickly starts going downhill when he states that in these tribal settings, everybody knows each other, so cooperation is guaranteed because tribespeople can’t cheat on each other without consequences and retribution. Once human social groups grew beyond tribal numbers due to the advent of agriculture about 11,000 years ago, Shariff says, far beyond the ability of people to know all their neighbors, people needed religion in the form of a supernatural punishing god to enforce social behavior. Religion arose to enforce social cohesion, he claims.

There are many problems with this hypothesis. For anthropologists who’ve closely studied tribal societies, it isn’t at all harmony and peace. While there is certainly internal motivation to work together and cooperate, especially in defense of the group, there are conflicts just as in modern societies. Everything that we experience today — jealousies, rivalries, cheating, theft, deceit, fighting, and even murder occur within tribes. People are people everywhere, not just today but since (before) the dawn of humankind.

Beyond that, religion first appeared anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 years ago (or more), at least if Paleolithic people burying their dead with tributes like plants, pets, tools, and trinkets suggested a belief in an afterlife. Also, cave art and musical instruments from that same time period implied ritual behaviors and an aesthetic awareness that informed a religious sensibility. Certainly recent anthropological and ethnographical observations of tribal cultures untainted by modern influences indicate pervasive and deeply embedded religious and ritual practices.

There’s also the implicit bias of seeing “civilized” societies as the standard with which to measure and evaluate the role of religion. We are far removed from tribal societies and have little direct means to relate to hunter-gatherers, which causes us to unintentionally disregard them. Historically, humans have lived as hunter-gatherers for at least 99.5% of Homo sapiens’ existence. The title of the podcast asked, Where Does Religion Come From? This means understanding how and why religion arose has to come from investigating it in tribal societies.

So even if it’s true that as societies got larger and punishing, fearful gods were invoked to enforce cooperation, this social innovation wasn’t the reason for the origin of religion, which happened tens of thousands of years earlier than the advent of agriculture or city-states.

Photo by Piotr Usewicz on Unsplash

However, there’s no reason to concede the punishing gods hypothesis in the first place. An article in the journal Nature, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history, evaluated the moralizing gods hypothesis by asking if moralizing gods were necessary to keep large societies civil. Could the cultural invention of “moralizing high gods” or “broad supernatural punishment” enforce a code of behavior that kept people in line and obedient, allowing for the emergence of complex civilizations?

The study authors performed a metadata analysis that “systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality.” While the study confirmed the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, it also revealed that moralizing gods followed— rather than preceded — large increases in social complexity. This strongly suggested that the moralizing gods hypothesis was not a prerequisite for the development of large societies and may have played a somewhat different role in those societies that had the supernatural punisher mythologies.

Lead author Harvey Whitehouse wrote, “Contrary to previous predictions, powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity.”

“By contrast,” Whitehouse continued, “rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.” Any analysis of the origins of religion must consider ritual behaviors like prayer, sacrifice, artistry, dance, and music. Belief in gods or other creeds are a far distant second when explaining why humans embrace religion.

Photo by Vineeth Vinod on Unsplash

The adoption of moralizing gods and supernatural punishment can alternatively be understood as primarily political rather than religious. By and large pre-agricultural tribes had a chief, who was entrusted a leadership role, oftentimes along with a council of elders. It was not uncommon for disagreements to arise among the council resulting in the forging of opposing alliances. In severe instances, discord could lead to groups leaving and forming new villages or dividing a village into areas based on allegiance.

Once societies got larger and land ownership became more permanent, such fluid reorganization was not possible. Also, the relationship of the chief to the people was not as intimate. Whereas before, all adults had access to the tribal council of elders, this wasn’t possible anymore. The leverage needed to maintain the political structure needed to change. Early on it was convenient for the priests, who were often already the de facto guardians of the sacred and the society, to assume governance responsibilites, but that line blurred as those seeking supremacy would assert divine right when they overthrew previous authorities and claimed to be representatives or conduits of the gods. These types of machinations that continue to this day manipulate people’s predisposition to religion and spirituality, but are political at heart. It helps to be the spokesman for angry gods when getting a million people to tow the line, but populist appeals to nationalism can work just as well. At base, it’s the same strategy.

Much of this threatening gods concept assumes that religion is the primary means to create or guide social cohesion through a spectrum of doctrinal moral compunctions. Humans need religion-assisted morality, it is claimed, to smooth their social interactions, otherwise people would constantly be at each others’ throats. That assumption is unwarranted and shortsighted.

Researchers study if morality, which underlies group cohesion mechanisms, exists in non-human animals. Frans de Waal is a primatologist and author of several books including Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. In this and many of his other books de Waal says that morality and empathy originated in other species long before humans arrived on the scene. Humans inherited moral behaviors from our primate predecessors putting further into question the role and function of so-called punishing gods in more recent cultures.

Photo by joel herzog on Unsplash

The book, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition by Patricia S. Churchland, Professor of Philosophy and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, explores the basis of moral norms in terms of brain function and evolution. She and many other academics such as Ecology Professor Marc Bekoff, at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Wild Justice, The Moral Lives of Animals, show that cooperation, altruism, and empathy exist in many, if not most, mammals. Thousands of social species have existing mechanisms for group cohesion and don’t require religion to improve it. The argument that humans have more complex societies and therefore need additional group cohesion strategies ignores the evolutionary evidence. At least whatever case can be made that even hunter-gatherer tribes needed morality from religion requires more support than blanket, overreaching proclamations.

To be fair, Shariff provides evidence to back his claim about the role of punishing gods in morality and sociality citing studies that looked at the behavior of Muslims during the call to prayer. The studies found people are much less likely to cheat and are more generous following the call to prayer ritual. At the same time, Shariff acknowledged a neutral result when the good Samaritan test was set up in which religious and non-religious people had the opportunity to provide aid to an experimenter accomplice who looked like he needed help. In this study religious belief, type of religion, or lack of any religion had no impact on how people reacted to the person in need.

The bigger issue is the assumption that religious affiliation is the critical factor in the behavioral result of any of these studies. More specifically, what was the relationship between religion and the resulting behavior being observed? Even if we consider Islam or Christianity to be punishing god-type religions, is that the motivation for the observed behaviors in these experiments? Could religion spur or arouse pre-existing moral feelings? Is religion a releaser of intrinsic social empathy but not the original cause of it similar to the affinity generated by flag-waving nationalism or the spiritedness of a high school pep rally? Celebrating your favorite team’s victory with your friends is not the original cause of being a sports fan.

Given the fact that humans acquired morality and social cohesion mechanisms from our evolutionary ancestors, it is difficult to credit religion and punishing gods as the primary driver of moral behavior in complex societies. Add to that the tens of thousands of years prior to the advent of complex societies when humans practiced religion in tribes, then the proposition that punishing god religions arose to enforce social solidarity is inconsistent with what we know about the cognitive science of religion and the history of its development.


For insight into how rituals and spirituality — the personal behaviors of religion — serve to balance or compensate for the downsides of human consciousness, read the first chapter of my book, Darwin’s Apple: The Evolutionarily Biology of Religion.


A Philosopher’s Stone

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Mitchell Diamond

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Author of Darwin’s Apple: The Evolutionary Biology of Religion. http://www.darwinsapple.com

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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