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The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religio


  • Scott Atran

    () (IJN - Institut Jean-Nicod - ENS Paris - École normale supérieure - Paris - EHESS - École des hautes études en sciences sociales - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)

  • Joseph Henrich

    (Dept of Economics & Dept of Psychology - UBC - University of British Columbia)


Understanding religion requires explaining why supernatural beliefs, devotions, and rituals are both universal and variable across cultures, and why religion is so often associated with both large-scale cooperation and enduring group conflict. Emerging lines of research suggest that these oppositions result from the convergence of three processes. First, the interaction of certain reliably developing cognitive processes, such as our ability to infer the presence of intentional agents, favors—as an evolutionary by-product—the spread of certain kinds of counterintuitive concepts. Second, participation in rituals and devotions involving costly displays exploits various aspects of our evolved psychology to deepen people's commitment to both supernatural agents and religious communities. Third, competition among societies and organizations with different faith-based beliefs and practices has increasingly connected religion with both within-group prosociality and between-group enmity. This connection has strengthened dramatically in recent millennia, as part of the evolution of complex societies, and is important to understanding cooperation and conflict in today's world.

Suggested Citation

  • Scott Atran & Joseph Henrich, 2010. "The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religio," Post-Print ijn_00505193, HAL.
  • Handle: RePEc:hal:journl:ijn_00505193
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    1. repec:aea:aecrev:v:107:y:2017:i:5:p:96-99 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Gershman, Boris, 2016. "Witchcraft beliefs and the erosion of social capital: Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 120(C), pages 182-208.
    3. Brooks, Alison Wood & Schroeder, Juliana & Risen, Jane L. & Gino, Francesca & Galinsky, Adam D. & Norton, Michael I. & Schweitzer, Maurice E., 2016. "Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 137(C), pages 71-85.
    4. Hammad Sheikh & Jeremy Ginges & Alin Coman & Scott Atran, 2012. "Religion, group threat and sacred values," Judgment and Decision Making, Society for Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 7(2), pages 110-118, March.
    5. Erik P. Duhaime, 2015. "Is the call to prayer a call to cooperate? A field experiment on the impact of religious salience on prosocial behavior," Judgment and Decision Making, Society for Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 10(6), pages 593-596, November.


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