Monthly Archives: July 2013

Key terms for study of the evolution of religion

Terms are key in the study of religions.

It’s important to take care with terms in the study of religions.  This post goes through some of the most basic and common, and how I use them.  I conclude with a statement on general methodological stance.

religion vs. religions

First, let’s distinguish “religion” from “religions.”  Where the word is used in the singular, it indicates religion as a natural class (with all the attendant problems that entails, as we shall see).  In the plural, it indicates the collective body of historical phenomena lexically defined as belonging to that class.  The unsatisfactory nature of this terminology is acknowledged.  An attempt is made to speak in historical terms whenever possible, using the plural form.  The natural class, in the singular form, is reserved for specific engagements with the concept of religion as such.

God vs. god(s)

Second is the distinction between “God” and “god(s).”  The capitalized singular form is reserved for specific engagements with concepts of the divine posited by historical monotheist traditions.  Gender may or may not be specified, depending on the tradition in question (while this issue is significant to religious studies, it is extraneous for the specific purposes of this paper).  Un-capitalized, the word refers to any divine entity, monotheist or otherwise, deriving from any historical tradition, and connoting any gender.  The words “deity” and “divinity” are occasionally substituted as synonyms.

fitness vs. benefit

Third, with regard to evolutionary processes, “fitness” and “benefit” must be distinguished.  The former applies solely to differential success at replication in an evolutionary context.  The latter denotes a wider variety of boons, including but not limited to reproductive value, potentially including items of value to human individuals but neutral or even detrimental to reproductive success in the game of evolution.

methodological agnosticism

Finally, the general approach of this paper is “methodological agnosticism.”  That is to say, this paper looks at the concrete historical manifestations of religions, and does not comment in any way on the metaphysical realities posited by specific theological traditions.  The latter is placed in brackets.

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Conclusion: Design features of an adequate method for the evolution of religion

In the end, what is needed to study the evolution of religion?

Having explored a number of methodological approaches to the evolution of religion, including sociobiology, behavioral ecology, memetics, and gene-culture coevolution, we now conclude by outlining what is demanded by an adequate method.

Together, these four key evolutionary approaches to religion greatly advance a general methodology for studying religious change.  Sociobiology lays foundational concepts, refined and problematized by behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, memetics, and gene-culture coevolution.

Design features needed for an adequate method for studying the evolution of religion

Yet significant challenges remain.  It may prove beneficial to generate a list of design features required by a satisfactory methodology, to evaluate what’s been accomplished and what remains for further research.

As defined at the outset, the basic question driving this project is how and why specific religions change over time: why some religions achieve hegemony while others lose out, how religions establish themselves and then change to maintain popularity across time, and by what mechanisms religions are selected for the halls of greatness or the dustbins of history.

To address this basic question, an adequate method requires the following design features:

1)  Links to genetics

A major dividing line between methodologies is whether religions change primarily as a consequence of genetic evolution (sociobiology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology), or whether religions evolve in their own right (memetics, coevolution).  The first design feature is thus a means of determining whether or not specific religious changes can be linked to genetics.  Coevolution, with its mathematical models measuring genetic and cultural influences, seems the only methodology capable of determining this.  The remaining design features assume that the influence of culture is not zero, i.e. that religions evolve in their own right and exert significant power of their own.

2)  Terms conducive to evolutionary analysis

Religions must be conceptualized in terms conducive to evolutionary analysis, i.e. as units of information subject to differential replication constrained by relative fitness.  The concept of the meme, utilized by both memetics and coevolution, fulfills this design feature.

3)  Appropriate perspective

The proper point of view must be taken.  In considering religions, the method must take a religion’s-eye view, as it were.  The interests of religions, i.e. their own replication, must be the ultimate point of reference.  Again, memetics and coevolution offer this design feature.

4)  Appropriate environment and fitness relations

The proper environment must be identified, with fitness defined in relation to it.  In keeping with the religion’s-eye view, the environment to be considered must be first and foremost that of the religion itself, not that of its host.  Since memes reside in the human mind and replicate by leaping from mind to mind via communication, the proper environment can only be the human mind.  Consequences for the individual’s survival and reproduction are important but secondary to the immediate survival and replication of the meme itself.  It is possible for a meme to replicate rapidly due to high fitness in the mental environment, while lowering the host individual’s genetic fitness in its environment as a consequence (Dennett’s “parasitic” relationship, or Durham’s “opposition”).  This is similar to how flu viruses flourish, and there is no reason to suggest memes cannot do likewise.  Thus, an adequate method must consider the appropriate environment.  Memetics and coevolution are the prime candidates offering this design feature once again.

5)  Differences in the mental environment

Differences in the mental environment affecting the receptivity and productivity of certain memes must be accounted for.  These differences may be genetic, involving innate predispositions toward certain types of information.  They might also be cultural, resulting from previously-established memes causing an individual to become more or less receptive to certain other memes.  For example, acceptance of a certain religion may dispose an individual to prefer ideas that conform to that religion’s worldview while rejecting those that do not.  Evolutionary psychology and the cognitive science of religion provide for genetic differences through the concept of domain specificity, while memetics and coevolution account for cultural differences.

6)  Differences affecting replication

Differences affecting the process of replication must be considered.  Memes leap from mind to mind via communication, and differences in modes of communication may influence the process.  For example, transmission via the spoken word is limited in time and space in ways that transmission via the written word is not.  In addition to the mode of communication, the context of communication may also influence the process, such as the status of the speaker or the popularity of the behavior among peers.  Behavioral ecology addresses to some extent under the rubric of ecological costs and benefits, as does coevolution with its exploration of the role of conformity in the process of group selection.

7)    Relative strengths of genetic and cultural influences

The relative strengths of genetic and cultural influences must be evaluated as precisely as possible.  With all these factors of genetic and cultural selection complicating the equation, a means of final evaluation becomes crucial.  Only coevolution, with its rigorous mathematics, proves adequate for this feature.

8)  Adaptive and maladaptive behavior

The difference between currently adaptive behavior and maladaptive behavior resulting from adaptive lag must be identifiable by objective techniques.  While common sense may suppose it easy to tell adaptive from maladaptive behavior, this has proven anything but the case.  Perhaps the mathematical models of coevolution will solve this dilemma, but it waits to be seen.

9)  Religion distinguished from other forms of culture

Religion must be distinguished from other forms of culture, and the corresponding unique evolutionary conditions analyzed.  This is another point which common sense might consider a simple matter, but a century of debate over the definition of religion has produced no consensus (Wilson, B. C., 1998).  A major fault of David Sloan Wilson’s theory, which holds that religions function to motivate cooperation within groups, is that it fails to distinguish religions from other secular institutions fulfilling the same function.  An adequate method must identify the unique characteristics of religions, and analyze the unique evolutionary conditions that correspond.  None of the methods considered in this paper succeed particularly well at this.  Further research must address this issue.

And the winner is…

An adequate methodology for studying religious change must include these design features at least, if not more.

Coevolution is the clear winner, offering more necessary features than any other.

Yet numerous features remain unaddressed.  Numbers seven and eight call out for answers.  There is a clear need for further research if the problem of religious change is to be engaged.


In the end, why do some religions proliferate, while others die out?  The answer may lie in the relative strengths of genetic and cultural influences affecting the fitness of religions considered as memes.  Innate psychological predispositions, cultural preferences, and environmental conditions may all play a part.  As for the extent of the parts they play, time will tell if mathematical models may sort out the complications.

Only research applying an adequate method with the right design features may solve the mystery of why some religions achieve hegemony while others are consigned to the dustbins of history.

Only such a method may explain why the very guardians of eternal truth are themselves subject to change.


For bibliographical references for this series, see the initial post.

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

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