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Author of Darwin’s Apple: The Evolutionary Biology of Religion, a new take on the function and purpose of religion.
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Thanks to @Lawrence Bloom for clarifying the need to write this essay.

Academics in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) have proposed various theories to account for why humans engage in religious practices. A particular set of CSR theories presents religion as providing defensive schemes for confronting life’s adversities. There are several variations.

  • terror management theory
  • hazard-precaution systems
  • hyperactive agency detection device

All three describe psychological mechanisms to salve cognitive conflicts, whether internally generated or external, and all are reasonable interpretations of human behaviors. Their faults lie in their efforts to be the primary basis to justify the origin and…

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Philosophers, historians and scientists have long debated the reason why humans have religion. Cognitive science of religion (CSR) academics grind out hundreds of articles in the scientific journals rehashing the same arguments over and over as if repeating the same ideas will somehow make them true. Is religion a byproduct of other cognitive processes? Is it adaptive, which means it evolved and has an innate component? There are glaring shortcomings in all existing perspectives.

Much of the difficulty determining the functional origin of religion is due to the many ways it’s defined and described. Religion can mean many things just…

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In a previous article, I explained how metarepresentation was the best conceptual tool to account for humanity’s greatest achievements — behavioral flexibility and culture. Humans can generate and retain conditional information. They can alter their behavior based on locality and pass those new behaviors to their cohorts and offspring through learning.

Metarepresentation is the ability to represent a representation — being able to attach an abstract concept or meaning to a separate entity — and enables humans to adapt to their environment in real-time unlike most animals who can only adapt through slow genetic change over evolutionary time. Examples are…

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Ritual behaviors and emotions link our biology to spirituality and religion

I’ve posted a series of articles on Medium that critique various approaches to the evolutionary origin and psychological function of religion (collectively called the cognitive science of religion [CSR]). In my last post I showed how metarepresentation is a better way to explain flexible human cognition than so-called cognitive byproducts, a frequent explanation for the source of religion. Prior to that I explored why cognitive byproduct theory lacks scientific foundational support.

I promised to next examine how metarepresentations provide an alternative interpretation for the reasons humans engage in religion. …

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In my previous Medium article, I make a case that the use of byproduct theory to account for religion, art, music and similar human predilections is based on faulty premises. The thrust of the article was that the evolutionary science to support cognitive byproducts is lacking (as opposed to morphological or structural byproducts, which have a strong scientific basis). But that approach leans towards the theoretical and doesn’t address the actual complexity of human behavior.

It’s understandable that byproducts are an easy and convenient way to think about human activities. Humans have culture, which enables us to have contingent or…

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Byproduct theory is itself problematic, and its relevancy to religion is misguided.

Every human society has some form of religion, yet the cognitive scientists who study religion are divided about why humans have it. What is its function and purpose? Some believe religion provides benefits and increases evolutionary fitness. In other words, it’s adaptive and is selected for, which means there are genetic predispositions for religion.

Alternatively, a prevailing cohort of academics in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) field believe religion is a byproduct of other evolved cognitive features such as a theory of mind or the hyperactive agency…

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Belief is a fundamental cognitive trait that transcends religion.

In my previous article, Winnowing a Cognitive Science of Religion, I listed three postulates or assumptions necessary to establish the origins, and hence purpose, of religion. Part of that effort was to eliminate aspects that, while certainly religious, were not relevant to why religion first arose. Because institutional, hierachical religions and their written doctrines didn’t arrive until, at best, six thousand years ago following the advent of agriculture, they were omitted from the inquest. Rudimentary religion developed much earlier in hunter-gatherers, which is where we have to think about the conditions in which religion evolved.

Religion is often defined as…

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Why do humans have religion? It’s such a fundamental question, and yet it remains an unsettled and contentious topic. A coterie of academics is currently dedicated to exploring what is called the cognitive science of religion (CSR) but has been unable to reach any consensus on its origin and purpose. Is religion a psychological requirement or is it optional? Did it evolve biologically or did religious ideas and beliefs get intentionally or accidentally invented and then passed down the generations? CSR investigators are divided.

Within these frames are additional theories. In the biologically evolved camp there are different proposed adaptations…

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Every day of the Trump administration I’m astonished. Not by President Trump (well, maybe, a little bit) but by the generosity of his supporters. While many of his backers are financially comfortable, the vast majority are regular folks who have only modest means. Many live paycheck to paycheck, and yet every day these middle and lower income Trumpers give of themselves willingly in displays of largesse that would make Jesus proud.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of the Trump administration is the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The majority of the savings from the tax rate changes benefit the…

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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…

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