Science and Myth: How to Study Religion From an Evolutionary Perspective

Science and myth do not necessarily occupy exclusive spheres; the one can enlighten and clarify the other. This article explores some methods by which one may study religion scientifically from an evolutionary perspective.

For example, consider the problem of religious change – the paradox that religions, those self-proclaimed guardians of unchanging eternal truth, are themselves subject to change. Modern Judaism bears little resemblance to the temple religion of ancient Israel, nor Japanese Buddhism to the religion founded by Siddartha Gautama in the 5th cen. B.C.E. Further, a whole host of variations on these religions and others have appeared throughout history, only some of which survive. An analogy to genetic evolution is readily apparent. Why do some religions proliferate, while others die out? Why do those that survive change over time? What are the mechanisms by which religions change in a selection process akin to genetic evolution? These are the questions that might be illuminated by a scientific investigation.

This article explores five methodologies: sociobiology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, memetics, and gene-culture coevolution.


Sociobiology has taken a beating due to controversy, and has become something of a dirty word in academia. Few researchers continue to describe themselves as sociobiologists today. Yet it contributed important concepts which have made their way into mainstream biology, and which lay the foundations for many of the other evolutionary approaches described here. The most important concept is that of the gene’s-eye view. Basically, the idea is that you have to look from the perspective of the actual unit of replication, the gene, and examine its sole interest: replication. The only “concern” (genes have no intentions, of course – we are speaking metaphorically here) is that the gene be reproduced as prolifically as possible and by whatever means or route is expedient. It is thus not the interest of the individual, but rather of the individual’s genes, which must be examined. It doesn’t matter one whit to the gene whether it reproduces via its host individual, or via a relative with an identical copy of the gene. Thus, menopause begins to make sense if women past childbearing age are able to aid grandchildren who also carry their genes. This concept, which expands the scope to include others with identical genes, is called inclusive fitness.

It would be too much to go into all the interesting concepts contributed by sociobiology, though there are many. In terms of the study of religion, sociobiology would suggest looking at religion from a gene’s-eye view, examining how religious behaviors might contribute to the inclusive fitness of relevant genes. This lays the foundation for studying religion from an evolutionary perspective, but leaves out an important factor: the influence of culture. We’ll come to this again when we talk about memetics and coevolution.

Behavioral Ecology

Behavorial ecology was founded by anthropologists responding to critiques of sociobiology, and bears the stamp of their methodology. These researchers examine specific behaviors among specific peoples, in ethnographic fashion, and attempt to figure out why these behaviors fit their local ecological conditions. Assuming that evolution will have culled suboptimal behaviors, researchers hunt down the factors that reveal puzzling behaviors as optimal for local conditions. Key to this approach is a careful weighing of all relevant factors in a cost/benefit analysis. For example. making a lavish sacrifice of oxen may seem a counterproductive waste of resources, but if the status conferred by such a sacrifice increases appeal to potential mates, the cost is offset by the benefits. The behavior is thus revealed to be optimal, given local conditions regarding resources and status.

A major problem with this approach is that there is little place for suboptimal behaviors. All behaviors are assumed from the start to be optimal, and those not yet proven to be so simply await a genius researcher who can explain them as such.

As for the study of religion, behavioral ecology offers a valuable tool in the form of the cost/benefit analysis.

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychologists accuse behavioral ecologists of confusing adaptive behavior with adaptations. Adaptive behavior is that which improves fitness in relation to the current environment – i.e. optimal behavior. In contrast, an adaptation is an evolutionary change that improves fitness in relation to the environment for which it evolved, but not necessarily the current environment. Much of human evolution, evolutionary psychologists argue, is evolved for Pleistocene conditions. Our modern environment is quite different, however, and past adaptations may well be maladaptive today. Thus, there is a very real possibility of suboptimal behavior resulting from adaptive lag, or the time it takes for genetic evolution to catch up with changes in the environment.

Evolutionary psychology postulates a human mind that is made up of modules, each an organ producing a certain behavior or range of behaviors adaptive in the Pleistocene. These modules are like programs that keep playing themselves out, sometimes with less than ideal results. Religion, therefore, may be the byproduct of past adaptations, the potentially maladaptive result of Pleistocene modules meeting modern conditions.

A parallel field which shares this view of the mind as modular is the Cognitive Science of Religion. Researchers in this field take much the same approach, with some interesting results. For example, Pascal Boyer (2001) suggests that the mind is predisposed to categorize objects into a shortlist of classes with corresponding attributes. Objects with unexpected attributes, such as a tree that talks, are therefore surprising and memorable. An idea such as the Old Testament’s burning bush is thus more likely to be retained in memory and passed on to others than less remarkable ideas. This gives it an advantage in replication. Insights such as this fit in readily with evolutionary psychology.

But evolutionary psychology has its problems too. Most serious, in my opinion, is over-reliance on the Pleistocene. First of all, humans in that era did not live only in the African savanna, but also in mountainous, forested, and sub-arctic regions. Thus, it is complex to postulate adaptations to such a wide variety of conditions. Furthermore, evolution does not occur all at once – many of our human adaptations may be left over from previous phases of evolution reaching all the way back to invertebrate ancestors. Thus, tracing the origins of behavior to supposed Pleistocene adaptations becomes foggy indeed.


When Richard Dawkins wrote one of the key texts of sociobiology, The Selfish Gene (1976), he included a chapter proposing that there might be other replicators besides the gene which are objects of evolution. Culture may in fact evolve in a quite similar way, replicating by leaping from mind to mind via communication, and surviving with differential success due to limited mental capacity. Dawkins called these replicators memes, and memetics is the study of their evolution. The essential concept is the meme’s-eye view, modeled after the similar genetic concept from sociobiology. With regard to the study of religion, memetics would recommend that we take a religion’s-eye view, asking what most benefits the religion itself. Here we would be talking of a religion as a blindly evolving entity whose only interest is its own replication.

The meme’s-eye view is a revolutionary concept in the study of religion which greatly advances our prospects, but memetics suffers from a fatal flaw: just as sociobiology neglected cultural influence, so memetics neglects genetic influence. In their enthusiasm for the meme’s journey of self-replicaiton, memeticists have thus far largely ignored the effect of genetics on this journey.

Gene-culture Coevolution

The problem of sociobiology and memetics is redressed by gene-culture coevolution. This approach seeks to determine, by rigorous mathematical models, the relative influence of genes and memes in human behaviors. It effectively synthesizes the preceding methodologies while raising the level of rigor to an unprecedented degree. Both culture and genes are found to significantly influence the evolution of human behaviors. For example, genetics surrounding the structure of the visual sense organ drives the evolution of cultural words describing colors. On the other hand, culture can drive genetics. The Indo-European cultural habit of raising cattle has been proposed to lie behind the evolution of adult lactose absorption in northern European peoples, while adults from other parts of the world are generally lactose intolerant.

Coevolution is by far the most promising method for the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. Unfortunately, its models involve such esoteric math that few researchers have taken it up, and the layperson is all but barred from participation. Nevertheless, it is probably the best hope for the future.


These five approaches offer great insights into the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. Sociobiology lays the foundations, while the other four provide increasing refinements. This progress culminates in gene-culture coevolution, though this methodology is a daunting challenge to take up. This seems the most promising prospect for studying religion from a scientific, evolutionary perspective


Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

When God Is One, Why People Fight In The Name Of Religion?

All religions accept that God is One who has created the Earth, Heaven and everything that is seen and unseen in the universe. Even the polytheistic religions like Hinduism, believe that all Gods are the manifestation of the same Ultimate Reality of Bhagawan. Yet it is also a fact that people have always fought in the name of religion. Even in the modern world, religion continues to be the cause of conflict in many parts of the world.

Even though, God has been perceived and represented differently in different religions, yet all religions agree that God is omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, the origin and cause of all things, just, compassionate and the source of all goodness in the world. However, on the ground level, most people are extremely suspicious of the gods of other religions. They believe that only their god is the True God while the God of other religion is either False or inferior.

Why such a misconception in understanding God? Is it deliberate or natural? The answer to this question is necessary for the mankind, as God is still the most important reality in the life of most people in the world. Religion still gives meaning to most of the people in the world and most people are tied to their religion and spend their life in the religion they are born.

God: The Essence of Religion

It is difficult to define religion as no unanimity exists on the concept of religion. As per one definition provided in Wikipedia,

“A religion is a set of beliefs and practices often organized around supernatural and moral claims, and often codified as prayer, ritual, and religious law.”

Thus the concept of God is not necessary in religion but the external codes of the religion like prayer, ritual and a sacred book or scripture are necessary in all religions. Yet the faith and believes of all religions revolves around the central theme of God but the concept of God is different in all religions. Hence all religions are same to the extent that they all deals with God (the supernatural power), but different to the extend that they represent the different concept of God. God may be a single word, but its meaning is different in all religions and indeed for every one.

The Trinity of God

In order to understand the different representations of God, it would be useful to understand the concept of Trinity in Christianity. The concept of Trinity of God means that God has three manifestations i.e. the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Father God refers to the concept of God that is beyond the perception of human mind and senses as the Father God is infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscience while human mind has limited capability to learn and understand. Father God is known by different names in different religions like Yahwah (Judaism), Allah (Islam) , Brahman (Hinduism) or Absolute. However the Absolute God is incomprehensible to the common people as it is beyond the grasp of the senses and the mind. This God is better understood by the philosophers who spend their life in understanding the God intellectually and rationally.

Therefore, the God we know is the God who takes the form of man and communicates to us in the language and symbols of the man. The Son God is thus the human representation of God in the world. Christianity refers this form of God as “Son” or Jesus Christ, or the Son of God. In other religions, the human representation of God has been referred as Avatars (Incarnation) or Prophets. The Prophets or Avatars are the human beings who have acquired the highest state of “spiritual” awakening which has made them closest to the divinity. Thus man acquires divinity by the power of the Spirit.

The third manifestation of God is therefore, the Holy Spirit or simply called the Spirit. Spirit of God is believed to be present in all the living beings. Every person has the presence of God in him or her due to the omnipresence of spirit in this world. It is due to the presence of spirit that we are capable of knowing God through self-realization or meditation. Thus some religions like Buddhism or Sikhism are essentiality spiritual religions, who do not believe in the God as Absolute or God as human being but treats God as Spirit that is present in all living beings. Upanishads and Gita also call this representation of God as Paramatma (Universal Soul) whose spark i.e. Atman (Soul) is present in every being.

The Mystery of Revealed Truth of Religion

Even though all human beings are the son (or daughter) of God, yet we fail to understand God due to our engagement in the external world or the world of the senses. The human mind is capable of seeing outside world from the eyes of the senses or seeing inside Self through the eyes of intuition and achieve self-realization. Yet few people realize the need for self-realization as they prefer to understand the Truth from the people who have achieved self-realization.

Since every person is both a body and a soul, he is not only a part of the material world but also a part of the spiritual world. He has to integrate himself with this world for the survival of the body and also required to integrate with the spirit or the unknown world to receive happiness and peace in life that emanates from the soul. He needs to earn his livelihood to keep the body in living condition. Thus the knowledge of the world is absolutely necessary without which no person can play any useful role in the society and fulfill his material necessities of the body.

However, every person is also a Soul hence part of the Universal Soul or the Spirit. Since his soul is deeply connected with the Universal Soul, hence by self-realization alone a person can hope to achieve the true knowledge of the religion or the world or get answer of the deeper quest of life. However, self-realization is a difficult task which can be achieved only when a person focuses all his attention away from the material world and search the truth within. In some ways man has to himself become Spirit (devoid of physical passion and material desire) to reach extremely close to the divinity in order to understand the thoughts of God. It is only when the man attains the nature of spirit; the Truth is revealed to him by God.

Yet, even after realization of the Ultimate Truth, it is difficult to explain this Truth to the common man who are still attached to the material world. If the Truth is explained to them as revealed, it would be incompressible to the common man. A common man can not understand the spiritual truths as they can only see from the eyes of the senses rather then seeing from the eyes of the spirit. The prophets, thus face unique dilemma. They can either limit the Ultimate Truth to a selected few that can be understood by few people who are in the higher stage of spiritual evolution, or covert the Ultimate Truth in the language of the senses and mind for the understanding of the common man.

Rituals: The Body of the Religion

Religion, therefore, like any other creation of the world has both the body and the soul. While the soul of all religions emanates from the same God, the bodies of the religions are different for each culture and society.

In some ways, we can perhaps compare the differences in the religions with the differences in the physical appearance of the people of different race and ethnicity. If it is true that all human beings are offspring of God, then why they all look different from each other? While some differences between individuals are unpredictable, yet other differences surely have explanations. For example when a soul takes the form of a body, the physical characteristics of the body does bear a close resemblance to the body of the parents. Therefore, if the soul takes human form in black parents, the body of the son shall also be black and if the parents are white so shall be the offspring.

Thus when the spirit is converted into body, its physical outlook develops a close resemblance with the parent. In the same way, when God take incarnation in this world, his revelation in the language of the world are different for each religion.

When Symbols are Confused with Reality

The body of the religion is created when the “Revealed Truth” is expressed in the form of words or symbol by the prophets. While people can listen to the words and see the symbols, they can’t know the spirit of the religion except by self-realization. However, most of the people do not have the time and inclination for self-realization. The result is that they confuse the body of the religion as the religion itself. Thus instead of using the words and the symbols as a means to realize the Self or God of the religion, the words and symbols become the end in itself.

All the conflicts within a religion or between different religions arise only because the followers of the religion confuse the symbols of divinity with the divinity. Instead of using the symbols as the means to understand the divinity, they believe the symbol itself as divine. Since symbols are external, they are different in reach religion. The methods of prayers and the words that are uttered in the prayers are always different in each religion since the language is the creation of the man. In the same way even the name and description of God in every religion is different as every society has different languages and symbols to express the thoughts and ideas.

Stop Fighting in The Name of God

Religion, in the modern society is considered to be a matter of person choice. Therefore, governments all over the world are doing little to create a harmony between religions which are essentially the reflections of the same God. The scientific knowledge of the Truth is based on the body i.e. the material reality. Hence, scientific thinking can only reveal the differences in religions, rather then the common truth of the religion, which can come only from the intuition and self-realization. However, in the world of materialism, it is extremely difficult for the people to focus their mind inwards when all the material realities lie outside. The result is that people understand religion only from the symbols and fight with each other. As soon as the complete Truth of God and Religion is realized by self-realization, the conflicts in the name of religion has to come to an end.