Evolution of religion: Why do religions change?

Religions focus on the changeless, yet Japanese Buddhism bears little resemblance to the religion founded by Siddartha Gautama. Why do religions change?

It is a paradox of history that religions, those self-proclaimed guardians of unchanging eternal truth, are themselves subject to change.

Modern Judaism bears little resemblance to the temple religion of ancient Israel, nor Japanese Buddhism to the religion founded by Siddartha Gautama in the fifth century B.C.E.  Further, a whole host of variations on these religions and others have appeared throughout history, only some of which survive.  An analogy to genetic evolution is readily apparent.


Why do some religions proliferate, while others die out?  Why do those that survive change over time?  What are the mechanisms by which religions change in a selection process akin to genetic evolution?  These are the questions at the heart of this research project.

This series seeks a methodology by which these questions may be fruitfully explored.

Approaches to the evolution of religion

This post introduces a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

In due course, five evolutionary approaches will be explored:

  • human sociobiology
  • human behavioral ecology
  • evolutionary psychology
  • memetics
  • gene-culture coevolution

These do not exhaust the approaches available, yet they set the stage for much of the field today, and complement the Cognitive Science of Religion well.

Each methodology will be described, its essential concepts and procedures examined, and its value for the project at hand evaluated.  A conclusion is reached by measuring the approaches against the design features required by a methodology capable of addressing the problem of religious change.


To cut down on needless repetition, references for the entire series will be listed once only.  Please refer back to these references for future posts.

Blackmore, S. J. (2000). The meme machine. Oxford University Press.

Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. J.  (1985).  Culture and the evolutionary process.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Boyer, P. (2002). Religion explained: the evolutionary origins of religious thought. Basic Books.

Brodie, R. (2009). Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Hay House, Inc.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., & Feldman, M. W. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: a quantitative approach. Princeton University Press.

Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray (1st edn. Repr. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ; 1981).

Dawkins, R. (1976).  The selfish gene.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1993). Consciousness explained. Penguin.

Dennett, D. C. (2007). Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. Penguin.

Durham, W. H. (1992). Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity. Stanford University Press.

Durkheim, É. (2001). The elementary forms of religious life (C. Cosman, Trans.).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Geertz, C. (2009). The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Guthrie, S. (1995). Faces in the clouds: a new theory of religion. Oxford University Press US.

Idinopulos, T. A., & Wilson, B. C. (1998). What is religion?: Origins, definitions, and explanations. Boston: Brill.

Laland, K. N., & Brown, G. R. (2002). Sense and nonsense: Evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lynch, A. (1998). Thought contagion: how belief spreads through society. Basic Books.

Orzack, S. H. & Sober, E.  (2001).  Adaptation, phylogenetic inertia, and the method of controlled comparisons.  In: Adaptationism and Optimality.  Ed. S. H. Orzack & E. Sober.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rose, S. & Lauder, G. V.  (1996).  Adaptation.  San Diego: Academic Press.

Sinervo, B. & Basalo, A. L.  (1996).  Testing adaptation using phenotypic manipulations.  In: Adaptation.  Ed. M. R. Rose and G. V. Lauder.  San Diego: Academic Press.  Pp. 149-85.

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1989).  Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, part I.  Theoretical considerations.  Ethology and Sociobiology 10:29-49.

Wilson, B. C. (1998). From the lexical to the polythetic: A brief history of the definition of religion. In What is religion?: Origins, definitions, and explanations (pp. 142-162). Boston: Brill.

Wilson, D. S. (2003). Darwin’s cathedral: evolution, religion, and the nature of society.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tagged , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: