The success (or failure) that societies have had in the wake of COVID-19 offers a simple reminder that the success of Homo sapiens has been essentially a cooperative enterprise, not unlike the sciences, and not unlike religions. It is also a shame that both science and religion are seen to form distinct groups that are sometimes set in competition with one another.  Within academia, there are also groups that approach the study of a given subject in ways that pitch themselves against one another in similarly competitive arenas. In order to survive such conditions, various proponents of these groups form cooperative interdisciplinary institutions – drawing on one another’s expertise toward the advancement of knowledge. This has very much happened with the scientific study of religion – but historically, not everybody has got along. Tensions have risen over handling such a hot potato, and there remains some antagonism when perhaps there shouldn’t.

I would like to paint the current scene by framing it within the context of several controversial approaches to religion, claiming – a) that it evolved; b) that it is cognitively natural; and c) that it spreads like a virus – but not necessarily in that order, and nor does the order matter because they’re all part of the same picture. Each of these approaches fits quite neatly with the other. At this point, the unprepared militant atheist is likely braced for an argument, and the evangelical theist may be itching to edge in claims about God’s real existence – but here’s the problem: if the atheist is correct about God’s existence, how does the concept of God enter into our ontology?1 From where do we get it – from parents? From parent’s parents, and so on and so forth?

The God ‘meme’2 has to come from somewhere at some point in our evolutionary ancestry and cognitive scientists of religion have provided an ingenious answer to the question. Robert McCauley first suggested the idea3 of a hyperactive agency detection device (HADD) that registers false-positive agency ascription rather than make the potentially life-threatening error of a false negative.4 HADD, coupled with the more sophisticated evolutionary advent of theory of mind (ToM) – a concomitant co-function of agency ascription – makes an animal, whose psychology evolved in a large part to deal with the social world, highly likely to appropriate the workings of the natural world in terms of natural agency. Such natural agency ascription that begins with a false positive is the birth of the supernatural; and from such small beginnings, the concept of gods evolved, whittled down by natural selection, into the ‘Big Gods’5 with which most religious groups are familiar as the more scattered polytheistic (uncooperative gods) religions go extinct. Thusly, thoughts about God are cognitively natural,6 requiring no special spiritual equipment beyond the ordinary cognition used to appropriate the intentional qualities of characters in any work of fiction – people are not ‘simply delusional’ about God’s existence, as Dawkins would have us believe.7

Being mindful of these big Gods has had the effect of generating evolutionarily improbable large-scale cooperation of the sort David Sloan Wilson has described in Darwin’s Cathedral (2002) and This View of Life (2019).8 There, Wilson describes the Darwinian dynamics of religion as binding individuals into socially cohesive units which outcompete less organized selfish individuals – natural selection acting thusly at the group level. That view has been controversial,9 but has been widely accepted by philosophers of biology and those not schooled solely in the gene-centric view of evolution.10 That is not to say that religion doesn’t benefit the genes,11 or that group selection is even an alternative to gene selection.12 On the contrary, a multi-level selectionist view would regard them as complementary. The controversy therein comes in knowing which level to invoke as having been the dominant selection pressure needed to explain the evolution of a given trait.

But out of that frying pan – into the fire. Many people don’t like religion, which isn’t surprising if its truth is of more concern than its function,13 perhaps remaining sympathetic to the idea that religious memes are like a virus,14 with those in close proximity to the faithful herd likely to contract it.15  What a scary thought – except it isn’t. The transmission of cultural information between cognitively equipped members of large-scale cooperative enterprises such as religions, and in the same way (horizontally and vertically) as a virus, is absolutely necessary. Without it, communication breaks down, the cultural markers are cast off, and nobody knows who’s playing for your team. Not only that, without factoring in the role of cultural transmission, it would seem like a huge leap to get from the false-positive agential ascription origins of gods to the big-God-religions of the present – an absurdity brilliantly captured by Joseph Bulbulia: “I detect an agent, therefore off my foreskin!”16 Cultural information – in this case, religions – has to replicate, transmit, and accumulate in order to arrive at the memeplexes17 we call, say, Christianity or Islam and those groups need to outcompete other groups in order to survive.18 So fragile those systems of cooperation might be, that contemplating infection with another group’s memes amounts to outgroup hostility. Ironically, those (believers) who would reject the viral transmission view of religion indeed treat ‘outgroups’ like they have a virus. Such moral disgust even activates the same cognitive machinery that evolved for pathogen avoidance.19

At a time when we are under the constant threat of viruses, many geographical groups have closed their physical borders, an act which is not entirely selfish and in fact for the good of the species. But not all doors have closed. In fact, we see a united global effort to combat such things, sharing culturally transmissible information, financial aid, and a 99-year-old war veteran doing laps of his garden raising millions for health services. So what if religions spread like a memetic virus? So what if natural selection has pulled from the top-down, too? Groups need such an epidemiology of representations to remain stable, and they need the cognitively competent individuals to colonize them. Memes need the kinds of mind it takes, and minds need genes and memes to build them. These approaches to understanding religious ecosystems, while historically at loggerheads, are all part of the picture and need not necessarily be at odds. Perhaps, something akin to a major evolutionary transition has happened with them, because each cannot survive without the other as explanations of religious evolution. Interdisciplinary collaboration is key.

Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:

  1. Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
  2. Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
  3. Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
  4. Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
  5. Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
  6. Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
  7. The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
  8. Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
  9. The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
  10. Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
  11. For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson


[1] Andrew Atkinson, “HIDD’n HADD in Intelligent Design,” Journal of Cognition & Culture, 2020.

[2] Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

[3] Ernest Thomas Lawson, “Religious Thought and Behavior,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, September 2012, pg526.

[4] Martie G. Haselton and David M. Buss, “Error Management Theory: A New Perspective on Biases in Cross-Sex Mind Reading.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, no. 1 (2000): 81–91,

[5] Edward Slingerland, “Big Gods, Historical Explanation, and the Value of Integrating the History of Religion into the Broader Academy,” Religion 45, no. 4 (2015): 585–602,; Ara Norenzayan, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); Russell D. Gray and Joseph Watts, “Cultural Macroevolution Matters,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114, no. 30 (2017),

[6] Robert N McCauley, Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[7] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2006).

[8] David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life : Completing the Darwinian Revolution (Pantheon, 2019); David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, And The Nature Of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[9] Samir Okasha, “Why Won’t the Group Selection Controversy Go Away?” 52, no. 1 (March 1, 2001): 25–50,

[10] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).

[11] M Blume, “The Reproductive Benefits of Religious Affiliation,” in The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior, ed. Eckart Voland and Wulf Schiefenhövel (Heildelberg: Springer-Verlag, 2009), 117–26,

[12] E. Sober and D.S. Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour. (Harvard University Press, 1998).

[13] Konrad Talmont-Kaminski, “For God and Country, Not Necessarily for Truth,” Monist 96, no. 3 (2013): 447–61,

[14] D. C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin Books, 2007); Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain : Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (Houghton Mifflin Co, 2003).

[15] Dan Sperber, “Anthropology and Psychology: Towards and Epidemiology of Representations,” Man 20, no. 1 (1985): 73–89,

[16] Joseph Bulbulia, “The Cognitive and Evolutionary Psychology of Religion,” Biology & Philosophy 19 (2004): 655–86.

[17] Hans-cees Speel, “Memetics: On a Conceptual Framework for Cultural Evolution,” IN THE EVOLUTION OF COMPLEXITY, 1996,

[18] Kim Sterelny, “Memes Revisited,” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57, no. 1 (March 1, 2006): 145–65,

[19] Anastasia Makhanova et al., “Binding Together to Avoid Illness: Pathogen Avoidance and Moral Worldviews,” Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences 13, no. 2 (2019),; Joshua M Tybur et al., “Is the Relationship between Pathogen Avoidance and Ideological Conservatism Explained by Sexual Strategies?,” Evolution and Human Behavior 36, no. 6 (2015): 489–97,; Elizabeth Cashdan and Matthew Steele, “Pathogen Prevalence, Group Bias, and Collectivism in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample,” Human Nature 24, no. 1 (2013): 59–75,; Brock Bastian et al., “Explaining Illness with Evil: Pathogen Prevalence Fosters Moral Vitalism,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 286, no. 1914 (2019),

Published On: September 14, 2020

Andrew Atkinson

Andrew Atkinson

Andrew is an independent researcher within the Social Cognition Unit at the University of Bialystok. Before that, he was an Honorary Researcher at the University of Bristol where he completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science and Evolutionary Religious Studies under the supervision of Samir Okasha. His current research interests still include evolutionary approaches to religion, but also on the relationship between autism, agential cognition, religiosity, and ritual behavior. He is not interested in writing about himself in the third person.


One Comment

  • Frederick Ermlich says:

    For God’s Sake! There *is* intelligent life on Earth after all. I am so relieved. I wrote a paper on the co-evolution of science and religion — and I used a lot of big words like you folks do. It felt right, what I learned, and my university, Portland State University in Oregon, must have felt the same way. I might have been the only undergrad who suddenly didn’t have to pay tuition ever again.
    Thank you for . . . y’know, being there (here).

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