Religion’s Origins and the Unexplained

Original artwork by Catherine Mehringer

Consider a prehistoric man returning from an unsuccessful hunt with heavy casualties to the hunting party. As winter sets in, the tribe hasn’t enough food nor sufficient means to obtain more. Unless some miracle occurs, the months ahead are sure to hold hardship and starvation. The man has a few options. He could subscribe to logic and understand that he is unlikely to survive, or believe that some intervention will happen that could save him, or some combination of the two. If man acts out some ritual or believes in some power and his “miracle” occurs, he will likely believe that the ritual or power has caused the miracle, and given him control over an uncontrollable situation. His relationship with the supernatural grows.

Attributing causation and interpreting an outcome based on that belief is a self-perpetuating part of religion. In providing hope, it can be either helpful or destructive—the latter when it demands massive resources, like constant human sacrifice. Religion’s cost-benefit analysis is a complicated one, making the origin of the affinity for religion in the human brain an interesting question.

The brain is thought to work in function-defined structures called modules. The brain contains many of these modules, each serving a different, specific, purpose. For example, there is thought to be a module for face recognition–meaning a certain part of the brain (though not necessarily a single area) works to recognize others’ faces. The pattern seeking module, as the name suggests, causes us to look for patterns. It gives us predictive powers, and allows us to act with incomplete information. Though there are different opinions on the specifics of this theory, the general theory is the most accepted way for evolutionary psychologists to think about the functioning of the brain.

Proponents of this theory believe the brain evolves by each module, or group of modules, being acted upon by natural selection. In natural selection, those traits which increase an organism’s fitness (those which make it more likely to survive and reproduce) are more likely to be passed on. Over time, these adaptive traits become increasingly present in the gene pool.

The process of natural selection works in a similar way on physical traits like body size as well as mental traits, or brain modules. It is thought that if a module is adaptive, and will become increasingly prevalent in the gene pool of a population. The facial recognition module, for example, is adaptive because a human is more likely to survive if they can recognize the faces of people they know, as it allows them to respond to individuals more appropriately. With this module, people are able to recognize a person who has caused them harm in the past or currently poses a threat, or to recognize an individual who is willing to give them aid. They are then more likely to survive and reproduce, and thus to pass on their genes, all of which perpetuates the module.

There are two distinctly different theories regarding the affinity for religion’s evolution in the brain. (Adaptationist) theory, a classic evolutionary theory, is a strict interpretation of adaptation and natural selection. It argues that the affinity for religion is a single module that is beneficial, thus is selected for. The opposing viewpoint comes from the byproduct theorists, who postulate that the affinity for religion isn’t solely beneficial in itself, but arises from the interaction of other adaptive modules in the brain.

Adaptationist Theory

Adaptationist theory argues that the affinity for religion is an adaptive mental module became present today similarly to other beneficial traits, like heavy tooth enamel. The affinity for religion began in a small part of the population through some genetic mutation or series of mutations. Those that had this mutation were more likely to survive, thus to pass it on, so an increasing number of individuals had it, until it became what it is today: a universal trait.

Proponents such as David Wilson, argue that religion is adaptive because it allows for groups of individuals to complete tasks collectively that no individual could have done otherwise. Religion ascribes a moral code, and unites the community under a specific set of customs, both of which serve as a unifying factor for the group, which facilitates cooperation. A cooperative group is more likely to survive by accomplishing their collective goals.

Byproduct Theory

Byproduct theory began from the notion that religion itself may not be adaptive. Both Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins, two of the most prominent evolutionary biologists, believe religion leads to non-adaptive and even harmful behaviors and rituals. In The Descent of Man, Darwin notes sacrifices and witch killings as examples. Contemporary examples include the Jim Jones cult (whose members were brainwashed into a mass suicide in 1978), and fanatic suicide bombers. These type of practices caused psychologists to find another explanation for the pervasiveness of the affinity for religion.

Gould and Lewontin, leaders in the field of evolutionary biology, named the byproduct theory in 1979 borrowing the term ‘spandrel’ from architecture to illustrate their point. A spandrel is a V-shaped structure between two rounded arches that does not have a purpose in itself, but only exists because that is what naturally happens when two rounded arches are side-by-side. Religion is like a spandrel because it did not come about on its own, and was not created intentionally (was not selected for). The arches that form religion are three mental modules, each of which has very clear adaptive advantages and connections to mental affinity for religion (Henig, 2007).

The first of these modules is agent detection, which creates the assumption an agent has caused something to occur, rather than assuming no cause. Agent detection is adaptive because it causes people to try and find the source of a cause, e.g. the source of a sound. A being is more likely to survive if it assumes a predator is causing a noise and is wrong, than to not seek the source of a noise when it is a predator. Agent detection leads to an affinity for religion because, with our assumption of a causative agent, it is not a far leap to assume that a large, powerful source is the cause of events which we cannot control (Henig, 2007).

The second arch leading to an affinity for religion is causal reasoning. Causal reasoning is the tendency to create an explanation for all things, including those that are likely random. The supernatural is a decent explanation for things we cannot otherwise understand—even those things that seem to defy logic. We explain what we cannot otherwise understand by assigning it to a power we also cannot understand.

The final arch is theory of mind. Theory of mind is the understanding that other individuals have minds and thoughts separate from one’s own. Understanding others’ separate minds allows us to better live in social groups and helps us distinguish between good and bad people. The assumption of a God or gods comes from this because it gives us the ability to understand that there are other minds and wills beyond our own, including a god with a mind and will of his own. Theory of mind also creates separation between the mind and body, which helps individuals understand a god without knowing his body (Henig, 2007).

Weighing the Options

The main problem that adaptationists must address is how religion can be beneficial in itself when it requires rejection of observable phenomenon and leaps of faith in the absence of evidence. Scott Atran writes that it requires misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world. Dawkins writes that it necessitates a rejection of reason, and allows individuals to be satisfied with a lack of understanding of the world. Surely a man who sought out a further understanding of the world through reason and observation would be more likely to survive and reproduce than one who believed in falsities. Imagine the difference between an agriculturist who believes that the gods bring forth weather as they please and one that attempts to understand natural weather patterns. The man using logic will likely be more successful, as he can gain more control over his environment.

There is evidence for both the adaptationist and byproduct arguments, but which theory becomes dominant will have a huge impact of our knowledge of religion, our relationship with it, and ourselves, The effects of this decision will be felt in philosophy, literature, and most importantly ultimately in our own journey with religion. Tolstoy spent almost his entire life struggling with religion, finally accepting it when he realized he would have to let go of reason to do so. If we can understand how and why religion came about, we can better understand what the human relationship with religion is. Through reason, we can understand religion, and make clearer the personal journey we each have with it.


Maryann Thompson

Maryann Thompson in a Senior at Tulane University in New Orleans. She is a psychology and philosophy major who plans to eventually study law.


Featured Artwork by Catherine Mehringer

Catherine Mehringer is a fourth year painting major at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her favorite medium is oil paint, and she enjoys drawing and painting from live models. Though her list of favorite artists is expansive, she particularly enjoys the works of Gerhard Richter and Jenny Saville. When she is not working, she enjoys photography, collecting small intriguing items, and watching movies. Catherine’s artwork is showcased on


Scott Atran, “In Gods We Trust”
Charles Darwin, On the origin of species
Charles Darwin, On the Descent of Man
Stephen Gould and Richard Lewontin “The Spandrels of St. Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm”
Robin Henig, “Darwin’s God”
Vernon Reynolds, The biology of religion
Peter Richerson and Lesley Newson, “Is Religion Adaptive?”
Sonya Salamon, Prairie patrimony: Family, farming, and community in the midwest.
David Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral

Commentary Ticker

  • Google Glass Lets You Take Photos With Your Brain
    July 12, 2014 | 4:02 pm

    If you haven’t heard, electroencephalograms (EEGs) have been getting better. Way better. Artificial limbs and even video game controllers are utilizing the non-invasive brain-wave monitoring method to guide computers by thought. Now English startup This Place has developed a way to bring the technology to Google Glass, allowing Google’s wearable to read your mind. Well, […]

  • Android Art: The Accidental Selfies of Google Art Project
    July 5, 2014 | 11:11 am

    Within the cultural centers of the world lurks a mechanical beast draped in silver spinning madly and capturing everything, sometimes even itself. In 2011 Google created the Art Project, an initiative to bring their Street View technology inside the cultural epicenters of the world. Google enlisted 17 world-class museums in short time. Institutions such as […]

  • Purple Mountunes Majesty: The Most Patriotic Playlist
    July 4, 2014 | 12:13 pm

    A while ago, Paul Lamere of The Echo Nest, a music-analysis company, took to finding each state’s most distinctive, yet popular, artist in a viral article. Spotify took note, purchasing Echo Nest for their analytical talent. Together, they’ve released a blog post documenting each state’s most distinctively American song creating a patriotic playlist for the […]

  • Emojinealogy: Where the Heck Emojis Come From
    July 2, 2014 | 3:10 pm

    On June 16th, the Unicode Consortium announced that 250 new emoji would be added to the list of symbols available to people’s cellphones and computer devices. The list of the new symbols can be found on Emojipedia. And no, the list doesn’t include the much needed minority representation, but it does include your favorite (?) […]

  • The Decline and Fall of the American Mall
    June 24, 2014 | 9:07 pm

    For ages, the shopping mall was as essential to the architecture of suburbia as Levittowns and freeways. But in an era of online shopping, these epicenters of brick and mortar yesteryear are quietly being abandoned across the country. While the U.S. currently has around 1,500, the number may soon shrink, and rapidly, leading to abandoned […]

  • RSSArchive for Commentary Ticker »

Join our mailing list!

Trending on The Airspace