A Short Note on Robin Dunbar’s How Religion Evolved

Robin Dunbar, How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures (Oxford University Press, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Robin Dunbar is an Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford. In his book How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures, he explores the interface between the social phenomenon we call “religion” and the evolution of the human species. To be clear, this is not a rehash of the older theories where so-called “less developed religions” like shamanism matured into so-called “more developed religions” like Christianity and Islam. Instead, it asks basic questions about what religion—and all that we associate with religion from shared belief and rituals to community creation and identity formation—did for us to help us become what we are. \

The first several chapters don’t highlight the evolutionary history of religion. That begins in Chapter 7, “Religion in Prehistory”. Instead, Dunbar discusses subjects ranging from the possible health benefits of “belief” (Chapter 3, “Why Believing Might Be Good For You”) to what rituals do for us humans that participate in them together (Chapter 6, “Ritual and Synchrony”).

There are a couple of aspects of the book worth flagging for scholars of religion. First, while Dunbar doesn’t use the old simple-to-complex approach that places value judgments on religion, he does discuss the function of “Moralizing High Gods” as a “very late development” (p. 199) and how this late development had a major impact on human societies and our sense of morality. Second, he does use the word “cult,” which I know is upsetting to many scholars, though for what it’s worth, this is less a value judgment and more a way of describing smaller or newer religious movements, a “seedling” religion if you will, instead of a negative religion or “fake” one.

If you’ve wondered why humans are religious and how it has benefitted our adaptation over time, I recommend this book. It addresses a very complex subject in an inviting way. It’s informative and thought-provoking, assuming a naturalist/materialist stance on the question of what religions are and how we got them.


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