What are views at BioLogos of “Evolutionary Religious Studies”?

The title question by itself is meant to serve as an invitation to dialogue.

For those who may not have heard of this term before, David S. Wilson defined it this way: “Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS) is the scholarly study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.” (2012)

I’m wondering what people who accept “theistic evolution” and/or “evolutionary creation” think of it.

Could you elaborate a bit for those of us who are not that familiar with it? Is it the study of how religion has evolved?

I think there are some possibilities related to some ideas communicated by Klax and myself.
Klax attributed the belief in God to an overactive agency detector.
And I have suggested that religious people are a little more likely to see patterns in things.
These are at least some avenues for an investigation into the biology (brain function) behind a couple aspects of religious perception and therefore an evolutionary development which science can investigate.

However, I also think it would be unrealistic to expect evolution to explain all of religion any more than evolution can explain the story line of Star Wars or the rules of baseball. That would be an example of over-extending evolution too far with a unreasonable expectation that this one theory can explain everything.

“the field of Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS) emerged at the end of the 20th Century as part of a more general rethinking of all human-related subjects that gave rise to terms such as Evolutionary Psychology, Evolutionary Anthropology, and Evolutionary Economics. ERS has made rapid progress during the last 20 years, in part by organizing the vast amount of empirical information on religion that has accumulated, much as Darwin was able to organize the vast amount of information on plants and animals during his day.” - David S. Wilson

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Good examples. Agreed.


Did those links help to answer your question and familiarity with “evolutionary religious studies”, Phil?

The standard view within ERS is that religion and theology both originated & evolve “naturally”, meaning without an actual “big god”. In that evolutionary field (of religious studies), ideological naturalism wins over divine revelation (the latter which just signifies “woo” in ERS). I’m curious, what do you think of that?

Thanks, it helped a lot. Coincidentally, I am just about finished with Haidt’s The Rightous Mind, which addressedthe subject in the chapters just read today. He frames the evolution of religion as a positive adaptation to enable groups to thrive and succeed. From what I see, it is sort of like we see biological evolution in that it addresses mechanism but does not preclude purpose.
Colloquially, I suppose it is the discussion about “the God shaped hole in our hearts” and how it got there. I am certainly ignorant in this area, so look forward to the discussion.

Either all human religions are based on divine revelation from God or at least some of them evolved. I don’t have any problem with the idea that the capacity for religious practice and particular cultural elements of religious worship evolved. I don’t think that assertion precludes God’s revelation of himself as the true God who merits such worship any more than human biological evolution precludes God calling humanity to bear his image.

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You’re welcome, Phil. Glad it helped.

Yes, but also a capital and firm “No” to Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”.

You say “he frames the evolution of religion.” I say, “wrong vocabulary”. Change, yes, of course. But using “evolution”, instead of the more common and time-scale appropriate term “development” signals a problem right from the start. The sheer DESIRE to use the term “evolution” outside of biology reveals something about the person who does so; more than displaying “knowledge”, from such a view one hears mostly “just so” stories.

The problem is that ERS is promoted entirely by atheists and agnostics. There’s not a single Abrahamic monotheistic religious believer who embraces it. Why not? Because it undermines Abrahamic monotheistic religious belief. ERS turns it into a fantasy created by “willful idiot” human minds who “made up the gods”. E.g. Yuval Noah Harari’s, homo deus.

If you don’t believe me, at least I’m “tuned in” with who’s involved in the topic. This past week I wrote to one person who I thought might be a Roman Catholic that promotes “evolution of everything”, ala David S. Wilson. This person wrote back politely, that while they used to be a Roman Catholic, they are not now a “practising Catholic”. The nice addition was that they said they were glad to see a different view than Wilson & co. after having looked at some of my work on this topic over the years. The point is simply: I’m really looking for these “religious ERS” people, Phil. They just don’t seem to exist.

I don’t subscribe to that “either/or” view.

I think thats not true. I mean sure ecumenism sounds interesting but id argue that one religion is the true one. If all of them holded some truth then we could subscribe to all of them and not only one. Maybe you were arguing for something else? Sorry if i didnt understand . Take care Christy!

Of course it is not true, that was the point. At least some religions evolved. In my belief system, the religion that is the true one involves divine revelation, and is not a product of human evolution or an entirely human construct. I am not bothered by the assertion that “human religion evolved” because I assume that’s how we got most of them and that most of them are human constructs.

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I wonder whether evolved cultural practices could have been instrumental even if it is as you say. If biological evolution is acceptable as a means of bringing us to be what is called image bearers, maybe cultural evolution can serve to prepare societies? Disclaimer: I actually think Christianity is but one of a variety of religious constructs which can connect people to their depths so they can transcend the limitations of a purely rational (material) WV. But that doesn’t mean you can’t absorb ERS into a WV which is exclusively Christian. That will be two cents, please.

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Yes, I think the capacities and maybe propensities to practice a religion certainly evolved along with other human intellectual and moral capacities.

Except for the occasional throw-back. :wink:

It is in fact easy demonstrate that it is not either/or.

Some religions are simply invented by human beings. Dianetics particularly comes to mind.

But I think Gregory’s real objection here is that even when religion is the product of a long gradual development that doesn’t mean “evolved” is the right word except as a metaphor because these didn’t come from the mechanical process described in biological evolution. Especially when you are contrasting evolution and creationism, to call something like the progressive changes in cars by the word “evolution” is really strange since every car is obviously a product of human design and fabrication (i.e. intelligent design in fact).


Aren’t they all human constructs to some degree? If I invent a new religion tomorrow, that and the possibility of gaining any adherents depends on evolved capacities in the human race as a whole.

Yes, it seems Gregory has a big issue with anyone using the perfectly good English word ‘evolution’ to mean change over time for any process other than the narrowly-defined biological process. I think that’s silly.

I think religion evolved the way other cultural practices and language evolved and languages continue to evolve. It’s dependent on human cognitive development and social/cultural evolution. People have invented languages. The capacity to speak Klingon is still an evolved capacity.

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Of course, you have to differentiate whether you are talking about the evolution of a specific cultural religious practice, or if you are talking about the evolution of an innate tendency to practice religion in general. Both happens. I think we evolved into religious beings as it was of benefit for group function and success, then Abraham came along and the rest is history.

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You could call yourselves … “Christyians” (just to maximize the confusion and leverage it for all it’s worth you know…)

[no good emoji found for a pontiff’s miter - but don’t forget the hat. You’ll just be another cult unless you get yourself a really good hat.]


I also don’t think there is such a sharp dividing line because one of my own soapbox issues is that genetic biological evolution isn’t a completely mechanical process devoid of intention either. I generally describe even biological evolution as a learning process of entities with a will of their own. This got me into trouble when I insisted this must apply to viruses also, until I investigated and found that the variations were purely random in that case. We are after all dealing with a spectrum from non-life to life and obviously at one end it is much more similar to non-life than life.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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