scilogs Biology of Religion

Homo religiosus - The Natural History of Religion

from Michael Blume, 11. May 2009, 06:41

There are still many people around who claim an inevitable enmity between science and religions. But in the last years, scientists from different fields and backgrounds started to explore religiosity (here defined as behavior toward supernatural agents) from the perspective of evolutionary theory. We agree that questions of existence or nonexistence of supernatural agents as ancestors, spirits, bodhisattvas or God may be beyond the scope of empirical sciences, but that we may explore religious behavior, its workings and functions with the same scientific respect and curiosity as any other natural, biocultural trait (i.e. musicality or speaking).

The question from the perspective of evolutionary biology is: Why do people among all human populations invest so much time and energy in religious activities? Why did Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis start to bury their dead as early the middle paleolithic, increasingly accompanied by rituals and gifts to the dead?

A depicition of the ongoing process of biocultural evolution, Blume 2009

If this behavior would have only served supernatural or psychological means, why did it evolve so fast into more scope and complexity, with today even explicit non-religious people performing complex rituals regarding the deceased, even erecting huge monuments of ritual veneration to secular leaders (as Lenin, Mao, Atatürk etc.)? Why are most religious skeptics male and why do females report on the average more religious convictions and experiences than their male contemporaries? And why do women so often remain faithful to or even join obliging religious communities whose gender roles are rather binding and whose religious hierarchies are reserved to men?

If all these traits were just inducing biological costs without benefits, they should have been wiped out by evolution - but the opposite is true. Today, more and more scientists agree that religious behavior can be adapative and that is has become part of human nature through a natural history of success. Evolution shaped us - into a species able to believe. Unraveling ever-increasing parts of this scientific riddle is bringing together different scientists from very different disciplines, worldviews and backgrounds into international and interdisciplinary networks as the Evolutionary Religious Studies.

As in my German Scilog "Natur des Glaubens" (as well as in German books and scientific articles), I'd like to present and discuss the new field bridging natural sciences and religious studies here in "Biology of Religion". You'll read about biologists (i.e. David Sloan Wilson, Eckart Voland, Rüdiger Vaas) approaching religious life not with contempt, but with scientific curiosity. We'll delve into the works of neurologists (i.e. Andrew Newberg, Nina Azari, Detlef Linke) who started to pinpoint regions of the brain involved into different types of religious behavior. You'll hear about the findings of genetics and Twin Studies (i.e. by Thomas Bouchard Jr.) showing that religiosity is part of our biocultural heritage as are music and language - genetically transferred abilities who have to be be developped from childhood in a sociocultural environment. You'll meet psychologists (i.e. Jesse Bering, Ara Norenzayan, Harald Euler) and sociologists (i.e. Richard Sosis) studying the cooperative values of religious convictions while others analyzing history (i.e. Rodney Stark, Ina Wunn), deciphering the factors which led some religious movements to their world-shaping successes, as most of their competitors succumbed.

The Reproductive Potentials of Religiosity

And I'd like to introduce interested people into my personal focus of research, the reproductive advantage of religiosity - as rightly assumed and coined by economic nobel prize winner Friedrich August von Hayek (1899-1992). After a doctoral thesis on religion and brain sciences (the so-called "neurotheologies"), I have worked on the complex relations of religions and demography, observing and exploring higher birth rates (that is: evolutionary success!) among religious people worldwide, even if compared to their secular neighbours of the same income and educational levels.

We'll discuss empirical studies from different times and countries around the world and we'll visit interesting case studies of reproductive success as the Amish, orthodox Jews or the Mormons - noting that yet not a single secular community managed to pass on its genes and traditions with the same, intergenerational success as these and other religious ones.

Religion & Demography, Enste

Dynamically furthered by the possibilities of the Web 2.0 (as blogs, networks and Twitter (BlumeEvolution)), there's emerging a new, fascinating picture of the nature of faith, opening new perspectives and transcending old prejudices on the basis of natural sciences, sound reason and curious respect toward life itself. I'd be glad if you'd join the adventure of evolutionary religious studies!

  Share on ResearchGATE




Biology of Religion: Why Religion is not going to die - The Quiverfull Example of Religious Fertility
Biology of Religion: Guest post: From Religion, the Blessing of Civilization
Biology of Religion: Explaining Religion - Conference at Bristol University, September 2010
Biology of Religion: Religions and Fertility in the US - GSS-Data
Biology of Religion: Clips about the Evolution of Homo sapiens
Biology of Religion: Humans are Cooperative Breeders! - Evolving Religion? Sarah Hrdy
Biology of Religion: Evolution of Religion - Darwin Year Book Review


  1. Carsten Könneker Best Wishes
    12.05.2009 | 10:51

    Hi Michael,
    it's my personal pleasure to write the very first comment on our English SciLogs portal - just saying hello. Best wishes for your blog and the English portal in general. May we work together according to our mission statement: Good science, good blogs, SciLogs!

  2. Michael Blume Thank you...
    16.05.2009 | 09:39

    ...very much, Carsten! Now I hope that some of the others might do their first postings in! It's somewhat odd to feel (yet) lonely in Web 2.0! :-)

  3. Manal Fahmy Hello Michael
    19.05.2009 | 06:21

    I'm so glad to discover your website. I've doing some research on areas of the brain responsible for religiosity. Wasn't aware there existed a sub-speciality called neurotheology. I find this fascinating.

    I'm an Egyptian neurologist. Again it's my pleasure to know you

  4. Michael Blume @ Manal: Neurotheology
    19.05.2009 | 17:52

    Thank you for your kind interest!

    The topic of neurotheology started as neurologists presented theories concerning religiosity and the existence of God. Quickly, the categorial error (by definition and methods, natural sciences aren't able to disprove or prove God's existence) became common knowledge, but the serious studies about the neurobiological bases of religious behavior flourished.

    In the meantime, there have been attempts by theologicians to interprete findings of the brain sciences according to their theological frames.

    I did my doctorate thesis on the matter, which in retrospect turned out to be a wonderful introduction into evolutionary religious studies. I would be honoured if you'd choose to join some of the upcoming posts and discussions in "Biology of Religion"!

    Best wishes!

  5. Michael Blume Reproductive Benefit
    02.09.2009 | 06:59

    Now, an English paper addressing the reproductive benefit of religiosity and religions is available online:

    Thank you for your interest!

  6. Ruth Rosin Homo Religiousus
    07.09.2009 | 09:09

    Your thesis is preposterous.

    I am not religious at all. Does that mean that I do not belong to the human species?

  7. Michael Blume @ Ruth Rosin
    07.09.2009 | 09:21

    Thanks for the question!

    You see, I am not that musical. Does that make evolutionary studies in musicality preposterous? Does it make me less human? Does it disprove that the ability to do music brought evolutionary advantages?

    Of course not. No serious scientist would deny that musical behaviour evolved as part of our nature. But when it comes to religious behaviour, a minority of people tend to dismiss even strong findings.

    As human beings, we are all variable. And we all evolved certain abilities of musicality - and religiosity. For example, even the most ardent seculars tend to ritually accompany the deceased, sometimes venerating them in graves, mausoleums and pictures. That's just another example of a behaviour no animal would show.

    So, I can assure you: Both of us are fully human, part of the rich variety of our (evolving) species! :-)

    Best wishes!

  8. Torrents Search Subject
    27.10.2009 | 12:04

    thanks so much for posting this. interested in history and religion, I used to read a lot about it, downloaded great books and articles from everywhere, but this post impressed me most of all

  9. Michael Blume @ Torrents Search
    27.10.2009 | 21:39

    I want to thank you for the very encouraging comment! This is an incentive to keep on posting texts, documents and links related to evolutionary studies on religiosity and religions.

  10. Orkut Scraps Subject
    16.01.2010 | 00:38

    What exactly is this fine old British tradition of religious tolerance? In its first edition (1881), "The Freethinker", proclaimed himself "a Christian anti-bodies ... It will be a relentless war against superstition in general, and particularly the Christian superstition. It will do everything possible to use the resources of science, scholarship, philosophy and ethics against the claims of the Bible as divine revelation, and will not scruple to use arms for the same purpose of mockery or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armory of sense common. "Shortly thereafter, I understand, its editor was jailed - It is true that an improvement in the executions of those who doubt uncloseted continued in Scotland until 1697 and still supported by many Muslims.

    I really resent the accusations of intolerance to the borders of the heirs of Torquemada Spritual and its many equivalents, although I do not care much about people who just want to believe that there is a sort of something out there. It is the many who claim to know his name and tastes that worry me. Oh, and Mohammed may not have schizophrenia. Temporal lobe epilepsy is a retrospective diagnosis more likely. It has a well documented enthusiams associati religious and hallucinations, a tendency to write much about them and the lack of a sense of humor. Sound familiar?

  11. Michael Blume @ Orkut Scraps
    19.01.2010 | 15:12

    Thanks for your post.

    I take it that there are many people(s) in the world you don't seem to like (British, Muslims etc.). That's sad, but I think I won't be able to change it.

    This blog is not discussing politics or conspiration theories, but evolutionary theories concerning religiosity and religions. Even if you happen to don't like religions per se, you might be interested how Homo sapiens evolved into today's state, including these peculiar behavioral traits concerning religion(s). Here in Germany, atheists, agnostics and religious believers happen to explore and discuss these scientific topics with mutual respect, eager to learn more by working together.

  12. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi Subject
    31.01.2010 | 06:45

    Dear Michael Blume
    I congratulate you for your excellent blog on New Science Book: The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior. I also thank you for your very encouraging response to my comments.
    In fact, normally humanized fossils are difficult to find. Humans are a civilized race and they have developed ceremonies/rituals of various kinds for different occasions. Funeral rite is one of them. In ancient past dead bodies were either cremated or were immersed of in river. This practice still continues in many communities. If the bodies cremated ashes are immersed off in river.
    According to Hindu Mythology Lord Rama was born 10 million years ago. Human civilization is still older than this. Lord Rama fought war with Ravana, the king of Lanka (Now Sri Lanka). At that time the height of man is believed to be more than 150 feet. If we want to trace these humanized fossils, we can find them at the bottom of the sea/ocean only and nowhere else.

  13. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi Homo religious (Biological evolution)
    13.02.2010 | 10:34

    The size of pineal gland will unfold the mystery of biological evolution. The size of pineal gland was fully developed at the time of origin of humans. It gradually decreased and is now appears to be a vestigial part of human anatomy. When it was fully developed all humans easily made contact with the macrocosm or universal consciousness or source of our consciousness i.e. Almighty God. But this is not the case now. In millions, nay billions only a few are able to make such contacts through protracted practice of meditation and yoga. We should calculate the period from fully developed pineal gland at the time of origin of human species till date when the pineal gland appears to be vestigial gland. This may only throw some light on Age if Humans in Biological Evolution. I firmly believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. During regression (quoted from the work of Mr.Kapoor, published in a News Paper 'Aj') a girl had told that in her past life a dinosaur is fetching her and she is running away to save her in a cave.

  14. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi Biology of Religion
    22.02.2010 | 12:36

    According to His Holiness Maharaj Sahab (1861-1907), the 3rd Spiritual Head of Radha Soami Faith, “during satyayuga,……… consequence of their greater spirituality and of the high purity of their heart, had no difficulty in getting access at times into the astral planes and holding communion with the departed spirits.” (Source: Discourses on Radhasoami Faith). Greater Spirituality as mentioned above is linked to the size of pineal gland. In Satyauga pineal gland was highly developed but in Kaliyuga the pineal gland is a rudimentary (undeveloped) organ. This is downward evolution of humankind. We should ascertain the period taken from highly developed pineal gland to undeveloped pineal gland. This will determine the Age of Human Existence on this Earth Planet. Other arguments, as I think, will not help much.

  15. Jeux Subject
    27.05.2010 | 14:25

    thanks so much for posting this. interested in history and religion, I used to read a lot about it, downloaded great books and articles from everywhere, but this post impressed me most of all

  16. Michael Blume @ Jeux
    28.05.2010 | 11:34

    Thank you very much for the encouragement! Evolutionary Studies of Religion (that is: Religiosity and Religions) may continue to thrive if there are enough people out there interested in the findings, spreading and discussing them. I am very curious and somewhat optimistic about the upcoming years.

    Thanks again & best wishes!

  17. Kcnh Your post is Great! I learn more and back soon for your future post.
    14.11.2010 | 18:05

    Your post is Great! I learn more and back soon for your future post. Thanks a lot

  18. Bryan Wells Subject
    20.02.2011 | 15:26

    In the book of Isaiah it is written that the world was not flat long before scientists like Copenicus and Galileo discovered that fact.

    "He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth"

  19. Mike Magee Homo religiosus and reproductive propensity
    26.10.2011 | 21:27

    You offer a list of prominent workers whom you admire, but there are more famous ones, Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, Richard Joyce, Robin Dunbar, Chris Knight, Jonathan Haidt Justin Barrett, Frans der Waals, Iain McGilchrist, and so on. It is a very fruitful field, but what seems clear is that religion is a spandrel, a by product (S J Gould), of adaptations necessitated by our evolving into social animals. In short, religion is an accident of the need we have to be social, to be able to co-operate, to help each other, to care for each other and to protect each other against danger. It is what Christians call love, and is the core of human morality, but exists because we have to be able to get along with each other to survive, and now, even to remain human. Modern society has adopted an economic sustem that is diametrically opposite to these necessary evolutionary adaptations. Either capitalism must die or be humanized, or our civilization will die, and possible humans generally with it.

    Regarding reproduction, your graph shows the strong negative correlation of education and religious belief, and it is known that intelligence also inversely correlates with family size. So, the religious propensity to breed might be because the children of large families are less intelligent and so less well educated, and consequently continue to believe into more generations.

    Thanks for your stimulating work, but natural explanations must always be preferred to supernatural ones. The supernatural is never an explanation, but merely an evasion of the need to explain.

  20. Michael Blume @Mike Magee
    26.10.2011 | 23:38

    Of course, evolutionary studies of religion are not referring to superempirical entities, but to those observable effects of beliefs in superempirical agents.

    And as shown above, the reproductive gap between the religious and the non-religious is widening among the educated!

    You do not have to believe me. Look at this list of religion-demography-studies from a range of diverse colleagues:

    The empirical findings are very, very clear: Religious beliefs are offering cooperative and reproductive potentials. Here is a lecture I did at the ESEB conference 2011 in Tübingen:

    Best wishes!

  21. Mike Magee Michael Blume; religion and propensity to breed
    27.10.2011 | 00:26

    Thanks for replying so promptly, Michael. I shall have to look at the pages you point me towards but "the reproductive gap between the religious and the non-religious is widening among the educated!" seems to be one point for postgraduate Lutherans in 2006. Perhaps there is more where you are pointing me, but that single point looks more like a blip than sound evidence. Best, Mike.

  22. J. A. Le Fevre @ Mike Magee
    28.10.2011 | 21:34

    Your august references notwithstanding, I suggest an even partially balanced review of the data suggests ‘spandrel’ to be a most inappropriate suggestion. Organized religion is shown from the evidence to be no accident, but rather a deliberate innovation to address the stresses on human communities which were forced by circumstances to grow beyond the limits of the tribal village. It is, as you state: . . . (religion) ‘exists because we have to be able to get along with each other to survive, and now, even to remain human.’ I do not see how ‘remaining human’ is an arbitrary feature in anyone’s choice of phenotype. Both the appearance of organized religion (it appeared independently everywhere in the world in every community that grew into civilization) and its persistence (ten thousand years plus or minus) wherever civilization survives, suggest deliberate.

  23. Mark Cowan More narrative, not science
    04.01.2012 | 00:31

    Over the last 152 years since 'Origin' we have had 10+ schools of thought trying to Darwinise culture and they have all failed to generate an accepted theory of culture from the evolutionary perspective. No underlying mechanisms, no laws of cultural motion and yet there still persists the myth and over extension of the evidence that culture (and religion is a cultural phenomenon) is a biological phenomena.

    As Roy Baumeister writes and reminds in 'The Cultural Animal' culture and meaning are a new kind of causation and it's important to understand that a central term 'artificial' that pulls together all human cultural phenomena, has almost nothing to do with 100s of millions of species that are not human.

    The biology of faith, the evolution of religion, etc are all rather unconvincing extensions of evolutionary theory, and another 'relaxing' of scientific rigour in this field. No doubt there will be other schools of thought we can add to the 10+ and they will all be doomed to failure. That's not to say that we won't discover the underlying mechanisms of culture and the laws of motion, it's just that this won't be a biological-level awareness.

    We could look at 'life' as an epiphenomenon of physical processes and we could/would expect physicists explain life and it's workings. That's not how it has panned out, and the natural sciences worked through, and worked out in large part the story of life. Culture as an epiphenomenon and extension from the evolutionary process will be worked out but by the custodians of the social world, the social sciences.

    Like I said, this is more narrative and without the deeper theoretical roots such claims require it'll be blown away with the unquestionably cultural winds that will pass. It's all very unsatisfying, unscientific, common but far from truthful.

  24. J. A. Le Fevre Fear not, science will catch up.
    04.01.2012 | 16:43

    Choices have consequences.
    A few million years back some of our ancestral cousins chose to live in the forests and eat roots and berries. They developed into chimps. Others stayed in the savannas choosing a diet richer in protein. Weapons for catching meat and tools for processing were then developed along with language, fire and etc. Our culture, our life choices were the deciding factor between man and chimp. Absent our culture, humans would not even be a viable species – we could never have evolved without it. Science is well aware of that and the recent push of gene-culture co-evolution is looking at that.

  25. John Jacob Lyons "IT'S BOTH STUPID"
    06.01.2012 | 09:39

    In the early 1990s the phrase "It's the economy stupid" became a political mantra for Bill Clinton's Democrats in the US as the Republicans appeared to take their eye off that particular ball.

    I want to suggest the variant "It's both stupid" to scientists and others discussing animal behaviour. It's never 'Nature v Nurture' nor is it ever 'Genetic v Culture/ Environmental'. With very, very few exceptions - particularly when these matters are in dispute - it's always an interaction between both stupid.

    Homo sapiens religious behaviour is no exception to this rule.

  26. John Jacob Lyons Subject
    10.08.2012 | 12:44


    Several authors, including our own Michael Blume, have studied the demography of the religions and religiosity and shown conclusively – and correctly - that religious communities tend to be more fecund than less religious ones. Many have concluded that genuine belief is evolutionarily adaptive for Homo sapiens . But are they right? Let’s take a closer look.

    It is often pointed out that the process of Natural Selection is reliant on three phenomena; phenotypic trait-variability, selection between trait-variants for fecundity and, thirdly, inheritability. A trait is said to be ‘adaptive’ if it tends to increase the fecundity of the individual possessing the trait. How do cultural/ behavioural differences between individuals come into the picture? According to the Modern Darwinian Synthesis, they don’t. ( However, I don’t agree. See

    Let’s take religiosity in Israel as an example. As usual, empirical studies reveal that the devout are much more fecund – i.e. they have many more children - than the secular. However, there are several cultural factors playing a part in driving this fecundity:-

    - Scripture encourages believers to ‘Go forth and multiply’. Religious leaders therefore tend to preach fecundity to their flock.

    - Parents teach their children to marry within the faith, have lots of children and to bring them up as devout Jews.

    - Political leaders tend to encourage fecundity in the face of the perceived threat from neighbouring contries. There is the potential of political/ intellectual/ military strength in numbers.

    - The devout are offered a number of concessions and considerable financial support by the Israeli constitution. They don’t have to participate in National Service and their family-oriented life-style is subsidized by the State.

    It is clear that the fecundity of the devout is, at least partly, due to these cultural factors.
    But are they relevant to the Darwinian notion of phenotypic trait-variability? No. Phenotypic trait-variability is wholly the result of genetic/ epigenetic variants between individuals. The teaching of scripture/ parents/ rabbis and concessions granted by the state are not genetic/ epigenetic factors; they are purely cultural factors and can change at the whim of human leaders and the people they lead.

    In order to claim that religiosity is adaptive, it is certainly necessary to show that the devout are more fecund. But this is not sufficient. You also need to provide evidence that religiosity has a direct genetic/ epigenetic correlate and to show that this innate religiosity plays a role in the observed increase in fecundity. It may well have such a correlate and I have argued elsewhere that it indeed has. But we need to prove it. It appears to me that you can’t argue that religiosity is adaptive without accepting my Genetic Priming theory or another theory that proposes that religiosity tends to be associated with particular genetic/ epigenetic variants.

    11.08.2012 | 01:39

    I say above "You also need to provide evidence that religiosity has a direct genetic/ epigenetic correlate and to show that this innate religiosity plays a role in the observed increase in fecundity."

    My Genetic Priming Theory (I have written a formal paper that is now being peer-reviewed) supports the view that religiosity does indeed have genetic/ epigenetic correlates. However I don't believe that this innate religiosity plays any role at all in increasing fecundity. Without the cultural factors that I referred to in my last post, there would be no religiosity-generated increase in fecundity in my opinion. To my knowledge, there is no counter-evidence to this view at the present time.

    Therefore I suggest that religiosity itself is not adaptive. It is the associated cultural practices/ conditions alone that have caused the difference we observe between the fecundity of religious and secular groups.

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