This lecture is heavily indebted to Stewart Guthrie’s inimitable essay “Anthropological Theories of Religion” 2007.  The Atheist Scholar has quoted from it extensively, particularly in reference to theories of religion, the history of the anthropological approach to religion and the rise of the new cognitivists in the present day. See the bibliography below.

The question of how religion began in human societies has been a problematical one since the rise of cultural anthropological studies shortly after Darwin.  There are two points of especial concern.  The first is the lack of agreement among anthropologists about the definition of religion. The second is whether or not to engage in cross-cultural comparison, which has been a fairly standard practice.  Many anthropologists in the field today study each culture as an individual entity, which some scholars see as a positive innovation and others find too narrow.  For the purposes of this Preface, a broad definition of religion will be used, defining it as a belief in a god or gods and belief in an afterlife.  A universal consensus on the definition of religion has yet to be reached.

Stewart Guthrie and other scholars have determined that there are three main divisions in the anthropological study of religion: social solidarity (the social glue theory,) wishful thinking, and intellectualist (or cognitivist) theory.[1] Social glue studies how religion caters to the need of societies to maintain cohesion and harmony. Prodicus of Keos may have been one of the first to articulate something of the “glue” theory around 420 B.C.E. when he located the beginnings of religion with the advent of agriculture and production.[2] There is something of anthropomorphic theory in Prodicus’ thinking as well.  He comments that humans made things that helped keep them alive into gods, as happened with bread and wine.

The social glue theory was most thoroughly developed by Emile Durkheim around 1912.  Durkheim thought that things which brought cohesion to the group were considered sacred. He found when studying totems in aboriginal Australian tribes that the totem actually stood for the group itself.  He advanced the idea of the sacred/profane dichotomy.  The sacred was what made men aware of their mutual need and dependence on each other, such as a totem, a flag or a god.  However, many field researchers have found no sacred/profane dichotomy such as Durkheim reported.  There are other difficulties with the cohesion theory. It does not seem to take into account the way religion can tear societies apart, with individual members or small groups being persecuted for not believing and/or refusing to act in conformance to group standards.

The wishful thinking theory encompasses the feelings of individuals, explaining religion by its amelioration of fears of death, of being alone, and general human anxiety.  Democritus of Abdera, in 5th Century Greece, was one of the first Western thinkers to put forth the theory.  He stated that people were frightened and excited by what went on in the sky-  shooting stars, eclipses, thunder and lightning and began to worship these processes as gods.[3] Freud is the principal proponent of the wishful thinking theory.  He stated: “Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; …and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place.”[4] There are difficulties concerning Freud’s theory .There are religions, such as Christianity, in which the idea of the afterlife is so terrifying that many of its worshippers are in constant fear, particularly if they believe they have transgressed against religious laws and deserve punishment rather than reward in the next life.  There are religions, too, which contain concepts of demons and spirits who are ready to trick humans and then punish the unwary.  Another difficulty with the wish fulfillment theory is that in the ancient Greek and Judaic religions, for example, the idea of the afterlife was vague. Ancient Greek afterlife was a pale shadow of life on earth. No rewards were meted out to the faithful, or punishments to the sinners.

The third theory, the intellectualist, or cognitivist theory is the belief that individuals need to explain the world, how it began, what makes it function, and what their place might be in it.  Democritus determined that although the movement of the heavens frightened people, they also were struck by its precise regularity, and made gods of some of the processes.[5] That Democritus went on to develop atomism and explain the universe in terms of how it made sense conceptually is an interesting comment on the “explanation” idea.  He did away with the necessity for belief in the gods. Robin Horton was an anthropologist who believed that religious thought and scientific thought were similar, as both try to reduce complexity and chaos to understanding and order.

Edward Tylor, considered by many to be the father of cultural anthropology, was the principal proponent of the cognitivist theory in the 1870’s.  He drew on accounts from ethnologists, anthropological field workers, and missionaries about religious beliefs and rituals in an attempt to discover a common denominator.  He concluded that religion had its roots in attempts to explain the world.  Later critics found his theory incomplete.  They pointed out that religion encompasses human emotional processes and that the “feeling” portion of religion had been left out of intellectualist theories. Another important idea of Tylor’s was that of animism, a belief in spirit beings. He theorized that animism originated from dreaming and from observing other people’s deaths. The cognitivist theory has had at least two revivals, one in the sixties and one in the present day. Clifford Geertz was an important figure during the 1960’s as he was able to synthesize several anthropological theories. Quoted  here is his elegant conclusion that religion is “…a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these concepts in such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”[6] It is no surprise that this definition of religion is quoted often in texts of the anthropology of religion.

In the present day, there are two schools of cognitivism which are of great interest to atheists, as they are naturalistic. One group is of the opinion that culture and religious ideas spread rather like a virus.  Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran are two of the more prominent members of this school. They find that counterintuitive ideas such as a talking tree or a walking mountain are so out of the realm of the “natural” world that these ideas become memorable and are passed on. (See the List of Selected Books below for a more complete description of both Boyer and Atran’s theories.)  Guthrie points out a strong problem concerning the counterintuitive theory: Darwin found that cognition and perception are selected for usefulness. Counterintuitive ideas are false so why would the mind evolve to favor them? [7] 

The second school is exemplified by Stewart Guthrie, who theorizes that the rise of religion has much to do with an intuitively evolved cognitive system. Our cognitive system rapidly attempts to discover whether something significant, a predator animal or another human, is near us.  A quick decision must be made concerning the correct course of action:  fight, flight, or friendliness.  We are cognitively attuned to movement and faces.  Any hint, which might seem like a movement or face, even if we are mistaken, is an excellent protection.  Sensing what we might superstitiously think a spirit (animism,) or seeing a tree shape as human (anthropomorphism,) is a benefit.  If our perception is correct it could save us from harm or death. If we are wrong, the loss is small. [8] Guthrie’s thesis is a strong one, with antecedents from ancient Greece, and from the philosophers Spinoza (17th Century) and Hume (18th Century.) (See the List of Selected Books below for a more complete description of Guthrie’s theory.)

There is yet another theory concerning the transmission of religion, that of the meme. Despite their theory that religion spreads like a virus, neither Boyer nor Atran subscribe to the meme theory, first put forth by the biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his volume The Selfish Gene (1976).  A meme is an idea or a belief transmitted from one person or group to another. It is analogically similar to a gene in biology although a meme is cultural.  Dawkins thinks that the meme of god survives by cultural use of language, great art and great music.  He thinks the god meme superficially answers needs that humans have, such as help with feelings of personal inadequacy, hope of reward in the next life, and explanations of the working of the world.  Boyer believes that memes are a good start, but states that “replication” is misleading. He explains that human minds will seize on ideas that seem like good explanations or interesting ideas and that they will be transmitted to others because human minds are similar to each other. [9] 

Daniel C. Dennett is a professor of philosophy and cognitive science, who embraces the meme theory.  His book, Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) is an excellent study of the origins of religion and how it grows.  Well-versed in psychological and biological theories concerning humans, Dennett has a firm foundation in anthropological studies of religion as well.  Part Two of his volume, the section on The Evolution of Religion, synthesizes some of the best and most interesting theories about the primitive roots of religion, including language, intentionality and more. Dennett’s theories are an important addition to the understanding of religion’s allure.

Recently Nicholas Wade, a science writer for the New York Times, has written a book called The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (2009) which attempts to bring together many ideas concerning the growth and endurance of religion.  Readers have found the section on religious behavior and group selection one of the most important chapters (67-74) because it describes the selective advantages of groups unified by religion.  Wade discusses a recent article written by E. O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson concerning the case to be made for group selection.  E. O. Wilson, a respected American biologist, is a recent “convert” to group selection, which seems to be gaining ground as a theory about religion.  Daniel Dennett describes David Sloan Wilson’s theory as put forth in Wilson’s text Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (2002) “Religion is a social phenomenon designed by Evolution to improve cooperation within, not among, human groups.”[10]  Some atheists will not find the idea of religion improving cooperation within groups salient.  Certainly religion has an age old reputation for tearing cultures asunder.  Wade and Wilson are naturalists, yet the turn to adaptation as the cause for religion could be problematical, as proponents of the theory emphasize the gains religion has bestowed on human groups. Many atheists could be troubled by the lack of emphasis on religion’s evils.  (See the List of Books below for more information on David Sloan Wilson and his Templeton connection and some comments concerning Templeton from Sunny Bains, from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Imperial College, London, United Kingdom.)

The anthropology of religion is still contentious. Critics point out that many of its prominent scholars have begun from a position of assuming religion was based on false premises and set out to prove that theory rather than letting facts lead them.  Many atheists will find themselves in agreement with the false premise theory. This Preface concludes with a quote from Stewart E. Guthrie’s article “Anthropological Theories of Religion.” “Religions, like other animism and anthropomorphism, may be put to varied uses.  However, these uses neither account for their existence nor guarantee that they are beneficial.  Ultimately, religions are products of evolutionary chance, unintended consequences of prior evolutionary products.  Looking for a function in them, our intuitive bent, is one aspect of our teleology. That teleology, which assumes meaning and purpose in the world in general, is itself one more component of our anthropomorphism.” [11]

More thought and research into the claims of some evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, biologists and other scholars that religion is a by-product of our human evolution and will be difficult to impossible to eradicate has convinced me that such a notion is not correct. Irreligion is growing. There are hundreds of millions of unbelievers around the world for the first time in history; in Denmark and Sweden, as well as other countries, it is becoming what the writer, Anthony Gottlieb, calls, “vestigial.”
I think there is a good chance that, while religion may never be completely eradicated, that it might become, within this century, irrelevant for large groups of people.

Video: Atheist Anthropology and the Origins of Religion

Atheist Anthropology and the Origins of Religion

Video Discussion: Atheist Anthropology and the Origins of Religion

Discussion of Atheist Anthropology and the Origins of Religion

The following Books have been chosen for their scholarly merits by critics and readers

This particular list contains volumes concerned with some of the latest currents in anthropology and sociology along with older classics which continue to be read for their elegant style and insight into the origin of religion.

Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. (Evolution and Cognition Series.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2004, c.2002.

Atran is a cognitivist anthropologist who once worked with Margaret Mead.  He has similar views with Pascal Boyer concerning the evolution and endurance of religion in human societies.  Atran discusses why a community would have a commitment to a world of supernatural agents, who have no basis in fact or intuition, and who would help alleviate the existential angst of its citizens.  He believes that people use a thinking process that somehow makes use of exaggerated every day cognitive processes to manufacture beings and worlds that are memorable, easily transmitted and survive well in human societies.

In Gods explains that cognitive modules exist in human minds, probably led by predator-detection in those modules. The tendency to believe in the supernatural is a by-product of evolution, reinforced by a few positive “responses” to life and death crises that set the stage for religion to take hold.  Atran, as Boyer, dismisses “memes,” group selection and wish fulfillment theories.  Some readers are critical of Atran’s technical and rather dry style. Others have been put off by his pessimistic view that because of the way human brains function, religion is likely to endure indefinitely. Some secular readers will not agree, seeing growing secular trends in Western society.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Boyer, a cognitivist anthropologist, believes that the mind evolved as a module system with various systems of inference.  He finds that there is not one single point of view for explaining religion.  Instead, Boyer believes that religion is an artificial system, a type of construct that is transmitted in a “viral” manner from individual to individual and group to group.  He has found many ideas that are what he calls counterintuitive.  Counter- intuitive ideas are more memorable, such as a walking tree, or a talking fish, and are more likely to be remembered and passed on.  Many anthropologists suggest various adaptive reasons for the prevalence of religious ideas although others think that adaptation is not valid, that there is scientific evidence and logical reasoning against it.

Boyer turns the concept of adaptation or advantageous survival on its head.  He states that the modern mind came about at nearly the same time that primitive religion took hold.  The hunter-gatherer, or Paleolithic period, was when human minds were able to establish more connections between different inference systems, as observed from their hunting and tool making techniques. It was also the period when they created visual representation of supernatural and/or imaginative concepts.  This era would have been approximately 100,000 to 50,000 years ago. Boyer states that to draw something that never existed, for example, a chimera, suggests decoupling and counterintuitive processes taking place in a newly liberated human mind.  Humans began to experience changes in their cognitive processes as mental fluidity developed, making an exchange from one medium to another possible, as artifacts were made into jewelry, paintings show some knowledge of biology, and tools make use of the local environment.  Boyer concludes: “We are no longer surprised that religious concepts and behaviors have persisted for millennia, probably much longer, and display similar themes the world over.  These concepts just happen to be optimal in a sense that they activate a variety of systems in a way that makes their transmission possible.”

Boyer does not explain religion completely, as promised in the title of his book.  While his theory is tantalizing, his presentation is lacking.  Some readers think the style of the book is very dry and ponderous. His reference section discusses books for further reading thoroughly. Religion Explained and Atran’s In Gods We Trust are both important examples of the revival of cognitivism and will be of interest to secular readers.

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking Penguin, 2009.

Daniel Dennett has written a very fine book about the natural origins of religion.  He states that he is writing not just for the atheist or agnostic, but for the religious.  He hopes some religious readers will come to understand the deepest roots of their belief system.  He thinks that they can then begin to weed the harmful from the beneficial effects of their religion.

Breaking the Spell is a wonderful volume for the atheist scholar who would like a brief overview of theories of religion: how it began, how humans started to protect their beliefs, and how it perpetuates itself. In Part Two, Dennett synthesizes many theories about religion’s genesis into a very cohesive and informative design that conveys what it promises: it explains how religion originated and why it endures.  Dennett is expert at blending theories from such thinkers as Boyer and David Sloan Wilson, from biological research, evolutionary psychology, biology and other fields to explain the particular “spell” cast by religion.  He spends some time explaining how intentionality, a specialty of his, operates: “They treat other things in the world as agents with limited beliefs about the world, specific desires, and common sense to do the rational thing, given those beliefs and desires.”  He continues to develop the idea of intentionality by explaining that when an animal treats something as an agent, with beliefs and desires, it can be considered to have adopted the intentional stance.

From chapters about the early origins of religions and folk religions, Dennett moves on to discuss humans becoming the stewards of their own belief systems, “belief in belief,” religious guilds, a buyer’s guide to religion and more. Dennett thinks the supposed benefits of religion should be scrutinized scientifically and weighed against its harm.  Breaking the Spell’s chapter concerning religion and morality concludes that the presumed relation between religion and morality is an illusion.  He posits many alternative roads on the way to “goodness.”

Durkheim, Emile. (1915.)The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Durkheim was one of the founders of sociology.  He was interested in what constituted human identity.  He believed that he had found the most basic form of human identification when he studied the totemic, aboriginal tribes of Australia.  Durkheim maintained that being in a group gave enormous security to people, and whatever object was near or in the area at the time the euphoric emotions were felt, would have projected on to it those same emotions.  The object might be a tree, an animal, or vegetable.  Soon the item would be replicated in stone or wood and worshipped.

Durkheim was interested in the connection between religion and the ultimate rise of science.  He believed that religious thinking gave humans their first conception of space and time. 

While some of Durkheim’s theories are considered out of date, his writings on the theory of knowledge are still considered outstanding by scholars.  A form of his social glue theory is being revived in part by contemporary anthropologists and science writers with the idea of group adaptation.  Readers find Durkheim’s style enjoyable and his thesis interesting.  His ideas have been debated for years by sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers and scientists.

Freud, Sigmund. (1929.) The Future of an Illusion. Tras. James Strachey.  New York:  Norton, 1975.

Freud is an elegant writer and Future of an Illusion is a brilliant and concise book that conveys a salient explanation of the wishful thinking theory of religion.  Freud was an atheist and he came to realize that religion was an opiate for the helplessness humans feel in an unfathomable world.  Religion also comforted many people who suffered from anxiety concerning the uncertainties of life and the fear of death.  He believed that religion helped to enforce social order.  He stated that for civilization to attain and keep stability, there is a necessity to develop a code to prevent murder, theft and societal disintegration.  The ultimate reward for “good behavior” is placed in heaven, after the individual dies, thereby ensuring compliance during life.

Critics have pointed out that since Freud was a Western thinker, he did not touch on the maternalist religions, or on the early religions which did not contain a sky god.  In Future of an Illusion, Freud discusses his belief that an illusion such as religion will give way with education and scientific progress.  It is to be hoped that the prediction from the founder of psychoanalysis will come to be realized.

Guthrie, Stewart. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press, U.S.A. 1995.

Stewart Guthrie is one of the prime promoters of the anthropomorphic theory of religion.  He considers religion to be systematic anthropomorphism.  Anthropomorphism is the tendency to attribute human characteristics to non human objects.  He draws examples from art, literature, philosophy and advertising to demonstrate how pervasive human anthropomorphism is. Guthrie believes a great deal of it depends on the human ability to detect movement or to perceive what appears to be a human face or body.  This tendency is due to the human attempt to detect potential predators.  To overinterpret a tree stump, a movement in the bushes, what looks like a pair of eyes in the woods is a safe mistake; little is lost.  The opposite error could be deadly.  Guthrie believes the same tendency works with religion.  Religion might be a mistake, but it is a very safe one.  Just because there is no god, no consciousness in nature, does not matter to humans, as they persist in seeing the opposite.  They create meaning.  The theory of anthropomorphism can be traced back to Spinoza, the 17th Century philosopher, and even earlier, to the ancient Greeks.

Guthrie is a cognitivist and lays out his argument in Faces in the Clouds with great strength and persuasiveness.  Readers find his style interesting and accessible and the information cohesive.  He dismisses wish thinking and social cohesion theories.  Faces in the Clouds is a very informative volume, yet it is not a complete theory of theories about religion. The thinking of cognitivists, such as Guthrie, Boyer, and Atran, that religion is a by-product of traits formed through evolution which will be difficult or impossible to eradicate, is very cogent. Understanding the processes of human minds is the first step to ridding people of false belief in gods and religion.  Religion is less important in well-off, socially stable nations, as a rule. If the world can be improved, religion may become less and less rewarding. (See Atheist Demographics)

Hume, David. (1779) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.

David Hume, a Scottish philosopher of the 18th Century, was a highly influential figure in philosophy.  Dialogues was revised by Hume in the last months of his life.  It was published after his death, as Hume was well aware of the difficulty that could ensue by criticizing religion.  Boswell, the famous biographer, visited Hume near the end, and was convinced that Hume did not believe in a future life in the least.  Yet Boswell, a religious man, reports that Hume remained cheerful and calm.  When Boswell told him that he, Boswell, believed in the Christian religion as he believed in history, Hume told him that he (Boswell) did not believe it as he did the Revolution!  Boswell also reports that Hume told him that the morality of every religion was bad, and that if he heard that a man was religious he concluded that he was a scoundrel, although he had known some religious men of good character. 

Dialogues was finally published by Hume’s nephew, following the instructions left in his will. One of the concerns of the book is the possibility of a natural religion based on reason rather than superstition.  Hume was very opposed to theists who think there is evidence from nature that god has attributes such as goodness, wisdom and so forth.  He argued devastatingly against design. 

Hume discusses the irrational nature of belief, which he believes is rooted in anxiety and the human tendency to anthropomorphize the natural world.  He argues against the idea still all too prevalent today- that religion is necessary for morality.  He believes the contrary.  Hume’s style is elegant and his arguments sharp and ironic. His command of the English classics increases the pleasure of his incisive prose.  Highly recommended.

Tylor, Sir Edward Burnett. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom. London:  John Murray, 1871.

Edward Tylor is considered the founder of cultural anthropology.  During travels for his health, he encountered cultural differences and participated in archeological studies of primitive cultures.  He believed in the linear progression of society and thought religion was a primitive, archaic form that had no place in the civilized world. He collected masses of facts from archeologists, ethnologists, and missionaries who were observing tribes all over the world to draw his conclusions. 

Tylor thought that the earliest form of religion was animism and that religious thought had progressed over time into a more sophisticated form of organized religion.  He maintained that religion was superstitious thinking based on magical belief and that it had no place in the civilized world. Tylor was convinced of human evolutionary progress, and he maintained that the survival of religion was due to faulty logic.  He stated: “It is a harsher, and at times even painful office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old cultures which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction.  Yet this work, if less genial, is not less urgently needful for the good of mankind.  Thus active at once in aiding progress and removing hindrance, the science of culture is essentially a reformer’s science.” (Primitive Culture, 1871.)

While dated and criticized for being overly Western mind oriented, Primitive Culture is an interesting volume for the non religious reader.

Wade, Nicholas.  The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. 

The Faith Instinct is an attempt to explain why humans are apparently the only religious primate.  It is also a history of religion and an attempt to synthesize recent developments in genetics, biology and archeology into a theory of religion’s adaptive ability.  Wade, a science writer for the New York Times, thinks that morality and religion are products of evolution.  He is of the opinion that using a prohibitive god or gods to enforce moral and ethical precepts served as an invisible government to keep order and promote cooperation in primitive societies which had no formal laws, police or army.  He believes that the genes wired into humans have given them a survival advantage, that their “neural mechanisms” predispose humans to behavior patterns that favor survival. Wade’s work is not apt to please either religious believers or atheists.  Religious believers will not find the idea that their faith is rooted in “neural mechanisms” a congenial one.  Atheists may agree with his naturalist interpretation of religion, but most will distrust the positive slant on religion in the book.

However, The Faith Instinct is well worth reading because the text brings so many fields together for an exegesis of religion and its sources.  A difficulty of the volume is its dependence on the ideas of evolutionary psychology, which while very popular at present, have made some unscientific claims.  For example, we do not have adequate information concerning how hunter/gatherer societies in the Paleolithic period were actually constructed.  Many of the “facts” concerning such societies are highly speculative. But scientists have pointed out that we do know that since our bodies have evolved since the Stone Age, it is very possible that our psychology has also. There are problems comparing our psychology with that of people in the Stone Age. (See Atheist Psychologies for a complete discussion of this topic and some expert opinions.)

Wade is very critical of Pinker, Dawkins and others who have launched the New Atheism movement as he thinks they have little evidence to support their belief that religion is bad and non-adaptive. (See What is Atheism? and Atheist Activism.) Many atheists will find themselves in strong disagreement with such a stance. Faith Instinct is a book to read for its interesting collection of information, but Wade’s assertions need a great deal of critical questioning.

Wilson, David Sloan.  Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Wilson takes the adaptationist approach with regard to religion in Darwin’s Cathedral.  He believes that group selection has played a very important part in the rise of religion in human societies.  His point of view originates with the idea that under certain very special conditions, humans become united and function as an organism.  He thinks that human groups can be studied by evolutionists just like “trees, guppies and bacteria.”  Wilson is of the opinion that individuals do not seek to cooperate with others in their group initially, but prefer to free-load from the labors of others.  However, some groups establish punishments, often enforced by religion; norms are created for their members to cooperate and share in the work.  When such groups come into contact with less well-organized groups, they will have the survival benefit.  Such traits would be selected by genetic evolution.

Darwin’s Cathedral makes clear that Wilson, an evolutionary biologist and an anthropologist, thinks that the evolution of religion is a natural process. But he offers little hard evidence to back up his theory of group selection.  Group selection has been a controversial area in anthropology and evolutionary biology for years.  Wilson admits that while religion may foster group function, it also gives rise to antagonism towards outside groups and people.  Neither Wilson nor Nicholas Wade devotes enough attention to the mutual cruelties visited on and by people who belong to a different sects of the same religion.  Both authors seem to be dusting off portions of Emile Durkheim’s theories on religion as social glue.  It would seem that adopting rational, humane standards for ethical and moral behavior would create more successful and adaptive societies in the present rather than rationalizing away religion’s errors, fallacies, superstition and violence.  Books such as Wade’s and Wilson’s would be subject to burning and the authors’ lives at risk in more fundamentally religious societies.  There are many aspects of religion that are non adaptive and one wishes that the authors had given more space to this fact.

A caveat for the non religious reader:  since the writing of Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson has become a director, along with the religious scholar, Scott Green, of The Evolutionary Religious Studies Program, which is funded by a branch of the Templeton Foundation.  The Templeton Foundation tries to reconcile some of the findings of religion and science and seeks to answer the “Big Questions,” such as meaning and purpose in life.  There are many secular people who regard its studies as having a religious bias.  Wilson has also written very critically, but not very objectively, about the New Atheists.

Sunny Bains, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Imperial College of London, United Kingdom has written a paper questioning the objectivity of the John Templeton Foundation.  Bains claims that there is a tendency in Templeton studies to be pro-religion and anti-science, and therefore calls on cosmology colleagues to boycott Templeton and not take part in its studies or calls for papers. The full article may be found in Evolutionary Psychology Vol. 9 (1) 2011.

E.O. Wilson, the distinguished scientist and atheist, has changed his opinion on Evolutionary processes, and has embraced the concept of Group Selection. His forthcoming book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, (April 9, 2012) has been discussed and his thinking thoroughly reviewed by Jonah Lehrer in the March 5, 2012 issue of the New Yorker. The New Yorker does not permit me to link to this site, so I will briefly discuss the article, entitled Kin and Kind. I would like to urge everyone to obtain a copy of the New Yorker for March 5 and to read about the very interesting segue Mr. Wilson has taken. 

Briefly, E.O. Wilson has changed his ideas very dramatically and has embraced Group Selection, which most evolutionary biologists dismiss. Most of them believe that the advantages of generosity are much less tangible than the benefits of selfishness. The subtitle of Wilson’s book is Evolution and the Origins of Altruism, which is a large hint about its subject matter.

I am not advocating his recent opinions, as I do not share his enthusiasm for group selection, but he is such an important figure in science that one must at least consider his theories. In a 2007 paper, he summarized his new found idea very succinctly: “Selfishness,” he stated, “beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” He is already being denounced and criticized by the scientific community. This will be a fascinating dispute.

Jerry A. Coyne, the author of Why Evolution is True (2010,and an atheist, does not believe that evolutionary biology is a “panacea for all the world’s ills.” In his review of David Sloan Wilson’s The Neighborhood Project (2011,) he cautions that understanding human nature by speculating on the behavior of early humans will not solve the problems of society. He emphasizes that we have little evidence that “selection on groups has promoted the evolution of any trait.” “Our world,” Coyne states, “is no longer the one in which we evolved.” We should keep in mind that it is we who have constructed the contemporary world. Coyne has an interesting website. (Link)
Here is the link to his review in the NY TIMES.

Some other volumes for the atheist scholar who wishes to study the fields of religion and anthropology/sociology: Walter Burkert, Creation of the Sacred (1996;) Richley H. Crapo, Cultural Anthropology (8th Ed. 2010;) Robin Horton, Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West ( 1993;)William James, Varieties of Religious Experience(1902;)S.J. Mithen,Thoughtful Foragers: A Study of Prehistoric Decision-Making (2009;) Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene(1976.)
Anthropology New Statement for atheist


1 Guthrie, Stewart. 2007. “Anthropological Theories of Religion.” In Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge University Press284.

2 Bremer, Jan N. 2007 “Atheism in Antiquity.” In Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 15.

3 Hecht, Jennifer Michael Hecht. Doubt: A History. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. 8.

4 Freud, Sigmund. (1927)   “The Future of an Illusion.” In Christopher Hitchens, ed. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. New York: Da Capo Press, 2007.147.

5 Hecht, Jennifer Michael. Doubt: A History. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. 8.

6 Geertz, Clifford. 1966. “Religion as a Cultural System.”  In M. Banton, ed. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Tavistock, 1-46.

7 Guthrie, Stewart. 2007. “Anthropological Theories of Religion.” In Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 293.

8____________. 295.

9 Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 40.

10 Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.  New York: Penguin, 2006. 106. 

11 Guthrie, Stewart. “Anthropological Theories of Religion.” In Michael Martin,ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 296.


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