The Cognitive Science of Religion – An Evolutionary Tale

The Cognitive Science of Religion – An Evolutionary Tale

I wanted to do something special for this Evolution Friday, as it’s the last one of the year. So I am going to look to a relatively new scientific approach: The Evolution of Religion. It’s based in cognitive science and there’s an excellent book called Evolution, Religion and Cognitive Science that I recommend to everyone. With that, let’s get started. 

Every living thing evolves. I’m including religion in this, because religions really are living things. They have lives of their own; growing or retracting over time, changing in scope and tenet, meanings of observations changing; from ‘only nasty Pagans have decorated trees in their houses’ (Jeremiah 10:1-4) to ‘OMGWARONCHRISTMAS!!!1eleven!’ if you don’t have one (any conservative Christian internet site). 

Religion started out as animism; that is the belief that everything – including natural phenomena like lightning – has agency. Over time, as we evolved and our brains became more complex, our thoughts about the supernatural evolved as well. We invented gods that acted as ‘patrons’ of various functions; Poseidon for the sea, Apollo for the sun, etc. We have continued to change and shape our idea of what God is and is not over thousands of years. 

I could probably make this way TLDR as it’s a subject that has incredible depth and breadth and a few short paragraphs greatly oversimplifies the science behind the evolution of religion, but I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. 

What changes have you seen in your lifetime that point to the evolution of religion? How do you think religions will change in the future? 

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