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Trends Cogn Sci. 2010 Mar;14(3):104-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.007. Epub 2010 Feb 9.

The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product?

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Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, P.O. Box 4, FIN-00014 University of Helsinki, Finland.


Considerable debate has surrounded the question of the origins and evolution of religion. One proposal views religion as an adaptation for cooperation, whereas an alternative proposal views religion as a by-product of evolved, non-religious, cognitive functions. We critically evaluate each approach, explore the link between religion and morality in particular, and argue that recent empirical work in moral psychology provides stronger support for the by-product approach. Specifically, despite differences in religious background, individuals show no difference in the pattern of their moral judgments for unfamiliar moral scenarios. These findings suggest that religion evolved from pre-existing cognitive functions, but that it may then have been subject to selection, creating an adaptively designed system for solving the problem of cooperation.

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