Where does religious thought come from?

© Shutterstock/gary yim
© Shutterstock/gary yim
Archaeologists continuously debate the significance of the neolithic site Stonehenge (UK), with many standing stones, as well as the meaning of the giant figures on Easter Island (the Moai), erected by the islanders in the 10th century. © Shutterstock/Gail Johnson
Archaeologists continuously debate the significance of the neolithic site Stonehenge (UK), with many standing stones, as well as the meaning of the giant figures on Easter Island (the Moai), erected by the islanders in the 10th century.
© Shutterstock/Gail Johnson

Taxpayers’ money should not be spent on bizarre things like defining God, quotes British newspaper the Daily Telegraph(1). The newspaper reports criticisms by UK campaign group the Taxpayers' Alliance that some European Commission – funded projects are costly, wild and unnecessary. Their list includes Explaining Religion (EXREL), a programme that has been awarded a grant of nearly EUR 2 million. The programme seeks not to “define God”, as the campaign group claims, but “to understand both what is universal and cross-culturally variant in religious traditions as well as the cognitive mechanisms that undergird religious thinking and behaviour”.

Can science explain religion? Science and religion take what have always been seen as radically different views of reality. Throughout history there has been heated debate over their many divergences, sometimes fruitful but at other times controversial, and as much a source of misunderstanding as of emulation. For many years scientists working in fields as diverse as history, anthropology, biology, neuroscience and psychology have been attempting to topple religion from its pedestal in order to arrive at an empirical understanding and establish a scientific body of knowledge on the subject.

The Explaining Religion (EXREL) project falls within this framework and is one of the most ambitious projects in the field of the new cognitive science of religion. Its aim, according to project coordinator and anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, is “to explain how religious systems are created and transmitted and to understand the causes of religious variants.” EXREL is a multidisciplinary platform, coordinated by Oxford University (UK), bringing together 10 European teams at the leading edge of research in a range of fields (biology, psychology, anthropology and religious history), which are collaborating to explore the origins of religion.

Familiar universals

The cornerstone of this interdisciplinary research project, which will last for three years (2008-2010), is the idea that religious thinking and behaviour share a set of universal characteristics, including belief in God, spirits or ancestors, the practice of rituals charged with symbolic significance, belief in an afterlife, the attribution of misfortune or chance to transcendental causes, crediting the authorship of written or other types of testimony to a divine entity and the endowment of natural characteristics with an intentional design.

“It is remarkable to find that, irrespective of their cultural environment, people have arrived at similar sets of ideas throughout the world”, says Harvey Whitehouse. There has been no systematic study of the origins of these recurring themes throughout history and cultures, a shortcoming that EXREL proposes to rectify. He believes that the thoughts and beliefs commonly grouped under the term religion are rooted in the evolution of human history and are the product of characteristics inherent in the cognitive development of our brain architecture. This is currently the dominant research theory in the field of cognitive science of religion. Building on this theory, Harvey Whitehouse and his colleagues are attempting to understand why religion caters so well to the needs of Homo sapiens, to the point where it is considered to be one of humankind’s fundamental characteristics.

The main aim of EXREL is therefore to provide a scientific explanation for the universal characteristics found in the religious repertory, to reconstruct the hidden processes that underlie their development and their dissemination throughout the human community.

Religion under the microscope

The project is subdivided into four strands, which should improve understanding of the multiple facets of the religious phenomenon. The first consists of quantifying the main universal elements of the religious repertory, describing their cultural variants and highlighting those that do not share these universal features but nevertheless recur throughout history and cultures. Over time, the data gathered should enable the researchers to attempt a scientific reconstruction of the religious traditions of prehistoric humankind. This may uncover surprising information concerning the manner in which religious concepts and behaviour spread across the entire globe over time.

The second strand attempts to define the main causes for the existence and survival of universal religious traditions and to identify the cognitive mechanisms at work in the processes of memorisation and transmission. It will look in greater depth into the production and specific characteristics of concepts of ‘life’ after death, the human propensity to attribute the causality of events to intentional supernatural agents, and changes in behaviour brought about by belief in these agents.

The third strand of the programme will endeavour to explain the fact that each element in the religious repertory presents variations in the different religious traditions, depending on its sophistication.

The final most original and ambitious strand seeks to explore the future by developing models to simulate the later trajectories and transformations of religious systems. Initially it will attempt to define a sort of minimal ‘package’ of cognitive aptitudes and laws of interaction needed for religion to emerge within a given society. In addition to establishing a brand new matrix of religious phenomena past and present, these models and their computerised avatars may be able to simulate future transformations of religious traditions.

If this computer programme delivers probative results, it could prove to be a valuable tool for political planning. Although religious behaviour has mental health benefits for a good many people, it is still a major source of conflict. The corollaries of this programme might therefore be better understanding and perhaps even much-needed forecasting of religion’s impact on extremism and religious fundamentalism, as the lethal intolerance that often travels in their wake is all too apparent in today’s society.

Jean-Pierre Geets et Annick M’Kele

  1. Article in the Daily Telegraph of 13 September 2009:


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Parochial disputes

Other scientists apart from Harvey Whitehouse’s team are exploring the origins of religion. Although the universal perpetuation of religions is not contested, their provenance remains a subject of heated debate. Justin L. Barrett(1), also an anthropological researcher at Oxford University, attributes the emergence of religious thinking to a cognitive mechanism triggered in the human brain, the ‘hypersensitive agency detection device’ (HADD). When the brain is unable to explain a phenomenon intuitively, it attributes it to intentional supernatural agents (spirits, gods) to provide a coherent explanation for unusual events (such as disease, natural disasters or unexpected survival). In his opinion, the success of religion could be down to the fact that it makes sense of HADD experiences.

According to scientific philosopher Daniel C. Dennett(2), religion is the result of a simple mimetic accumulation of cultural elements – such as words, songs and artefacts – which are replicated in much the same way as genes. He believes that the duplication and transmission of information is automatic and unconscious, without any interference from intentional agents.

  1. Justin L. Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, AltaMira, 2004.
  2. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking Press, 2006.


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