When did humans develop spiritual thought? What is religion's evolutionary purpose? And in our increasingly secular world, why has it endured?
Every society in the history of humanity has lived with religion. In How Religion Evolved, evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar tracks its origins back to what he terms the 'mystical stance' – the aspect of human psychology that predisposes us to believe in a transcendent world, and which makes an encounter with the spiritual possible. As he explores world religions and their many derivatives, as well as religions of experience practised by hunter-gatherer societies since time immemorial, Dunbar argues that this instinct is not a peculiar human quirk, an aberration on our otherwise efficient evolutionary journey. Rather, religion confers an advantage: it can benefit our individual health and wellbeing, but, more importantly, it fosters social bonding at large scale, helping hold fractious societies together. Dunbar suggests these dimensions might provide the basis for an overarching theory for why and how humans are religious, and so help unify the myriad strands that currently populate this field.
Drawing on path-breaking research, clinical case studies and fieldwork from around the globe, as well as stories of charismatic cult leaders, mysterious sects and lost faiths, How Religion Evolved offers a fascinating and far-reaching analysis of this quintessentially human impulse – to believe.
Robin Dunbar is a Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and an elected Foreign Member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. He has been awarded the Osman Hill Medal and the Huxley Medal. His popular science books include The Human Story, How Many Friends Does One Person Need? and Human Evolution, and have been translated into a dozen languages.
"Stimulating and hugely ambitious [...] A compelling intellectual workout. Dunbar offers a powerful central argument, an excellent survey of alternative theories and a wide range of vivid and illuminating examples [...] The story he tells is important to us all:
– Matthew Reisz, Observer
"Dunbar's intellectual interests are far-ranging, and he is as sure-footed talking about human cognition as congregation sizes [...] How Religion Evolved is learned, readable and sweeping (in the best sense of that word) [...] Hard to argue with"
– Nick Spencer, Financial Times
"When one of the most creative, insightful, and versatile evolutionary thinkers of our time turns his scientific gaze toward religion, it is no surprise that he delivers a landmark book that completely reshapes our understanding of religious belief, experience, and practice. In How Religion Evolved, Dunbar not only raises fundamental questions that previous scholars of religion have ignored, he offers novel solutions in a comprehensive narrative that is as engaging as it is informative. A gifted scientist and writer has given anyone interested in religion a genuine gift"
– Richard Sosis, James Barnett Professor of Humanistic Anthropology, University of Connecticut
"A book with impressive intellectual sweep"
– Clive Cookson, Financial Times