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Religion Evolving

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The scientific study of religion has made significant advances in recent decades, explaining how the mind produces religious ideas, the motivations underlying religious behaviour, and the transmission of religious cultures within and across generations. In Religion Evolving: Cultural, Cognitive, and Ecological Dynamics, Purzycki and Sosis argue that further progress requires integration of isolated research findings on the various components – ritual, supernatural agent belief, myth, taboo, and so forth – that constitute religion. Religions, they contend, need to be understood as adaptive systems. Drawing from a wealth of ethnographic and experimental evidence, they situate religious systems within their local socioecological contexts, showing how religious culture adaptively responds to economic, environmental, and human health problems, as well as costly threats to cooperation and reproduction. Based in the evolutionary, cognitive, and anthropological sciences, Religion Evolving offers a holistic approach that attends to the complex, interacting features of religious systems.

Published: Mar 10, 2022


Section Chapter Authors
Figures Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Acknowledgements Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Introduction Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 1
The Extended Religious Phenotype: Religion as a Transsomatic Adaptation Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 2
Religion as a Cultural Solution to Social Living Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 3
Resistance, Subversion and the Absence of Religion in Traditional Societies Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 4
What do Gods Want? Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 5
What do Gods Know? Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 6
The Context of Supernatural Minds Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 7
Fostering Sharedness in Religious Communities Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 8
Extending Evolutionary Accounts of Religion beyond the Mind Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 9
Approaching Religion as a Complex Adaptive System Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Chapter 10
Prospects for an Evolutionary Ethnography of Religion Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Conclusion Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
End Matter
References Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis
Index Benjamin Purzycki, Richard Sosis


For anyone who wants to understand how religion evolved and works, this book is essential reading.
Joseph Bulbulia, Director of The Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research, Professor of Psychology, Victoria University, New Zealand

In this elegant volume, Purzycki and Sosis craft a powerful framework for understanding the function and functioning of religions. Overturning longstanding ideas of it as an evolutionary appendage, their account sees religion as a sensitive medium for solving community problems. Synthesizing decades of work in anthropology, psychology, sociology, demography, and cultural evolution, Religion Evolving identifies the building blocks of religious systems, articulates how these systems have influenced humanity's past, and explains why they will continue to play a central role in humanity's present and future.
Andrew Buskell, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

The idea that religion is adaptive and helps humans deal with social and ecological challenges is steadily gaining ground. In Religion Evolving, Purzycki and Sosis (two of the main architects of this view) present a compelling case for religion as an adaptive system. Religion fosters sharedness, regulates social norms, and motivates resource management and adherence to moral norms. Among the many features that makes this book a must-have for any scholar interested in the scientific study of religion, it pays attention to neglected aspects of religion, such as the question of unbelief in traditional societies and the role of religion in the management of local ecology.
Helen De Cruz, Danforth Chair in the Humanities - Philosophy, Saint Louis University

Religion Evolving is a must-read for anyone interested in how the evolutionary perspective has transformed our understanding of one of humanity‘s most persistent mysteries. A groundbreaking synthesis by two of the world’s leading anthropologists of religion.
Ara Norenzayan, author of Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

Religion Evolving offers a much needed synthesis of the recent explosion of work in the scientific study of religion. The workings of a single religious community can seem an overwhelmingly complex web of interacting factors, even for a seasoned researcher, let alone developing an understanding of religion writ large in all its myriad forms. Yet, Sosis and Purzycki’s innovation is to see the complexity of religion not as a daunting challenge, but as its defining feature - an adaptive system that generates variation and resilience and allows religious communities to adapt and respond effectively to their environment over time. With this systemic understanding, the array of cultural, cognitive, and ecological findings emerging in the literature, and their interactions and variation, begin to make sense.
Dominic Johnson, Alastair Buchan Professor of International Relations, University of Oxford