Dominic Johnson & Michael Price, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford and Brunel University, London

An Evolutionary Perspective

What if science can help us understand religion without undermining it? What if understanding evolution can help us better understand religion? What if religions and science are just different ways of solving different challenges? What if religions and science can actually be mutually reinforcing?

Grant Title
Science and Religion: An Evolutionary Perspective
Legal Organization
St. Anthony’s College, Oxford and Brunel University, London
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 November 2019
End Date: 31 October 2023
Grant Amount
Area of Focus
Science & Religion in Context

At least seven billion of the world’s nearly eight billion people today subscribe to some sort of religion, compared to only about 500 million atheists.* Clearly, religious belief has enjoyed staying power in human history. But why? So far, answers to that question have been mostly based on opinions rather than empirical evidence.

At the turn of the 20th century, Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James was already concerned about the neglect of science in the study of religion. He produced a series of lectures that positioned religious experiences as a verifiable dimension of human nature. At the same time, he maintained, understanding religious experiences within the context of science should in no way diminish their value.

Today, 120 years later, religion remains understudied by scientists, and perceptions of science and religion as competing beliefs seem to have only strengthened over time, particularly in Western societies.

Recently, however, pioneering researchers in an emerging field of investigation are delving deeply and broadly to evaluate both religion and science as systems of belief that satisfy humans’ primal search for meaning and purpose. Research in this relatively new field is spearheaded by evolutionary anthropologists who are interested in the cultural development of societies – particularly why and how beliefs and behaviors vary, and how they develop over time.

Is the fulfillment of the deeply rooted human need for meaning unique to religion? Is it possible that science, and even atheism, have also come to function as meaning-making systems in today’s world? Are there particular social and environmental conditions today that favor science over religion … or religion over science?

These are some of the important questions that evolutionary anthropologists are exploring in a research initiative funded by the Templeton Religion Trust in partnership with Issachar Fund. The research is being led by Dominic Johnson, DPhil, Ph.D., professor of international relations at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, and Michael Price, Ph.D., senior lecturer in psychology at Brunel University, London. Under their leadership, 18 subgrantee research projects are underway, involving early and mid-career academics, as well as senior scholars.

David Sloan Wilson, an American evolutionary biologist and a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at Binghamton University, is highly recognized for his study of altruism – behaviors on behalf of others, not oneself.

“That’s an evolutionary puzzle,” he says.

“How can goodness exist in a Darwinian world? Because our species is a highly pro-social species. Cooperation is what we do exceptionally well on.”

Several of Dr. Sloan Wilson’s team of researchers focused on understanding the social contexts in which cooperative behaviors are reinforced more than selfish behaviors. “Pro-social spirituality is the coming together of science and, both knowable and unknowable facets of spirituality,” said Katie Sheehan Roach, Director of the Spiritual Communities Initiative at Pro Social World.

The science of ProSocial is focused on understanding and fostering social contexts in which individual and group interests are aligned, such that cooperative behaviors are reinforced more than selfish behaviors. These prosocial groups act more like a single organism, rather than a collection of individuals.

Can we collaborate better? Can we make things happen in a more meaningful, impactful way? And can we – as a human species designed to cooperate – ever reach congruent understanding about meaning-making systems and how they drive us to show up in the world?

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Professors Aiyana Willard and Micheal De Barra of Brunel University London conducted both field-site and historical research to discover how people use supernatural beliefs to understand illnesses and subsequent treatments.

“Traveling a lot when I was younger and going to other cultures made me realize that religion is such a huge part of people’s lives,” said Professor Willard. “I think, particularly within psychology but certainly within other disciplines as well, this has been quite overlooked as a dominant way that people see the world and think about the world and make decisions about the world.”

Prior to undertaking their research project, Professors Willard and DeBarra agreed that as a species, we want to know causal reasons for why things happen – particularly important things. This led to their original hypotheses that illnesses which were more severe might attract more religious or supernatural kinds of responses from the study participants. Yet the research findings proved otherwise.

“We didn’t find any evidence in either project for severity. However, we did find, in both projects, some evidence that uncertainty or causal opacity do lead to increased supernatural beliefs.”

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There's a bigger question about the origins of meaning-making systems … are they serving some kind of useful, adaptive function that helps us achieve something as individuals or as communities and societies?
– Dominic Johnson, DPhil, Ph.D., professor of international relations at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford

The Need for Meaning

“It’s very natural for us, as human beings, to search for purpose and meaning. It’s something we think about almost every day: What are we doing? What do we want to do? Why are we doing this? Often, this is associated with religious belief systems, and that’s important,” says Johnson. 

“For example, religion seems to be very good at promoting cooperation among believers. The question becomes,” he continues, “is it religion that is doing that work? Or is it sharing an effective meaning-making system? Could it be that scientists are very good at cooperating with each other because they also share a meaning-making system, albeit one based more on the scientific method and a scientific approach to life? That has been much less studied.”

The Science of Adaptation

From earthworms in our garden to pigeons in our city streets, virtually all living creatures adapt. As individuals and societies, humans are no exception. We build fires, seek shelter, put on coats, or move if it’s cold. We change course to avoid obstacles in the road. We’re inclined to follow the norms and traditions of society and yet seize emerging opportunities to better our chances of reaching our goals. 

Adaptation has long been key to human wellbeing and often survival. So researching the factors that prompt adaptation – including the vast variety of religious and science-based beliefs – can help anthropologists understand why certain differences exist among cultures as well as why certain conditions promote the acceptance of religion over science, or science over religion.

“Human nature seems to be very much about creating groups and cohesion. And some sort of vehicle seems to be necessary to make that work,” says Johnson. “It’s a game in which religion seems to be king. It’s incredibly powerful at promoting cohesion, not least because of its motivational effects rooted in a logic of purpose and meaning. The research question is, ‘Are there alternatives which can do this as well?’​”

A criminal justice system is believed to be an adaptation that societies have evolved for conflict resolution.
– Michael Price, Ph.D., senior lecturer in psychology at Brunel University, London

Looking Beyond Western Boundaries

The evidence is overwhelming that meaning-making systems are universal across societies, past and present. However, specifics vary considerably. In tribal, indigenous societies, for example, some people assimilate a wealth of knowledge about nature. Can that be categorized as science? Similarly, in such cultures, “religion” may be a totally alien concept, absent from language. However, belief in supernatural beings, powers, or occurrences may be common. Are such beliefs categorizable as religious?

“We believe anthropology is a very important discipline in this conversation,” Johnson asserts, “not only for its insights into contemporary societies, but also for its often-explicit focus on small-scale, indigenous human societies that are more similarly organized to those from which we evolved. They are a very important window to the kinds of cultural factors that may have been underlying social organization in our past — kin-based groups living in natural environments. We’re trying to understand meaning-making systems on their own terms. It’s very hard to do, but I think it’s crucial.

“Of course, we need analytical categories to do our work,” he continues. “But I think part of the value of our projects is trying to understand the diversity in the kinds of beliefs and concepts which we might call religion and science, but which really remind us how they’re different, how they’re similar, where they come from, and what their influences are. It’s fascinating to look at societies where a sharp division between religion and science is unclear, and they’re not differentiated in the same way that they are in western societies. What does that mean for our own understanding of religion and science?” 

A few of the big questions being explored in various projects within this initiative include:

“Sources of Wonder and Awe and Life”

Alongside concurrent initiatives in sociology and psychology, these researchers have embarked on a relatively untrodden path. They’re confident, however, that their efforts can have significant and far-reaching implications for understanding the origins, development, and future of beliefs about science and religion, while also bringing to light new ideas and hypotheses for testing.

“People often talk about the religion and science debate as if religion is at risk of disappearing and being replaced by science,” says Johnson. “But perhaps the bigger question is what either of them provides us as an outlook on our place and purpose in the universe. In the past, we had religion to help us solve important questions of life, as individuals and communities. Today, we have science offering alternative perspectives. But perhaps they are both versions of an adaptive propensity we have as human beings to search for meaning, cause and effects, and the consequences of our actions. And this in itself is an important human trait.”

Describing both religion and science as “sources of wonder and awe and life,” Price agrees they need not be in conflict. “They’re not perceived that way in all societies around the world. So, the more we learn about the factors that either perpetuate that conflict or resolve it, the more control we’ll have in our own society to manage that conflict, however we see fit.”

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