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On the Origin of Religion

An illustration from "On the Origin of Religion"K. Sutliff/Science

Every human society has had its gods, whether worshiped from Gothic cathedrals or Mayan pyramids. In all cultures, humans pour resources into elaborate religious buildings and rituals. But religion offers no obvious boost to survival and reproduction. So how and why did it arise? In my Origins essay this month, I follow two very different disciplines—archaeology and cognitive psychology—as they attempt to understand this puzzle.

To Charles Darwin himself, the origin of belief in gods was no mystery. “As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would … have vaguely speculated on his own existence,” he wrote in The Descent of Man. In the past 15 years, a growing number of researchers have followed Darwin’s lead and explored the hypothesis that religion springs naturally from the normal workings of the human mind. This new field, the cognitive science of religion, draws on psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to understand the mental building blocks of religious thought. “There are functional properties of our cognitive systems that lean toward a belief in supernatural agents, to something like a god,” says experimental psychologist Justin Barrett of Oxford University.

Barrett and others see the roots of religion in our sophisticated social cognition. Humans, they say, have a tendency to see signs of “agents”—minds like our own—at work in the world. “We have a tremendous capacity to imbue even inanimate things with beliefs, desires, emotions, and consciousness, … and this is at the core of many religious beliefs,” says Yale psychologist Paul Bloom.

Meanwhile, archaeologists seeking signs of ancient religion focus on its inextricable link to another cognitive ability, symbolic behavior. They too stress religion’s social component. “Religion is a particular form of a larger, social symbolic behavior,” says archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge, U.K. So archaeologists explore early religion by excavating sites that reveal the beginnings of symbolic behavior and of complex society.

These fields are developing chiefly in parallel, and there remains a yawning gap between the material evidence of the archaeological record and the theoretical models of psychologists. Yet there have been some stirrings of interdisciplinary activity, and all agree that the field is experiencing a surge of interest and new evidence, with perhaps the best yet to come.