The Evolution of Religiosity and Human Coalitional Psychology

Legend of the Nile (1937) by Paul Klee Fall Semester 2010

3 Credit Hours

Students may enroll under Biology 419/519 (CRN 33912 & 34405, respectively)

or Religious Studies 347/547 (CRN 27033 & ?????, respectively).

Call for information about taking the course for RS graduate credit.


Meeting times: Mondays and Fridays 1:00-2:30 pm

Classroom: Castetter Hall (Biology) 107

Office hours: Monday 10:30-12:30; Friday 10:30-12:30, 2:30-3:30.

Off-hour appointments also may be arranged.

Dr. Paul J. Watson

Research Assistant Professor

Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology, Etc.

Department of Biology, 110 Castetter Hall

An incisive and hopefully nuanced materialist analysis of all aspects of religious behavior and experience from the point of view of modern Darwinian theory. The course shall NOT be an evangelical atheist rant! Background in key basic and mid-level theories of evolutionary psychology will be provided. Many cognitive by-product (epiphenomenalist), memetic, and functionalist (adaptationist) evolutionary hypotheses covering pancultural manifestations of religiosity will be discussed and integrated.

The role of human religious instincts in the dynamics of coalitions, the formation of social commitments, the nature of moral deliberations, and our reasoning about social exchange contracts will be emphasized. We will also examine religiosity's significance for the generation of willpower: the resolve to sacrifice small near term rewards to more successfully undertake individual and group projects with large long term payoffs.

Here is a good discussion, on the Nature web site, that is in line with the spirit of the course, even though I do not think group selection works.

What do you think of being spiritual but not religious? We'll discuss many such questions, and there will be a theoretical basis, grounded in reality, for developing relatively objective perspectives, if not answers.

The course is offered, in unprecedented fashion, for either Biology or Religious Studies credit (undergraduate or graduate) and will be taught in a hybrid lecture and discussion format. Lectures and readings will cover a sampling of key empirical literature in addition to giving needed theoretical background. The first half of each meeting will be predominantly lecture and the second half discussion.

I emphasize questioning. Both student-to-professor and student-to-student questioning and challenges will be encouraged throughout. Such interchanges will reflect the fact that this is a science course, which necessitates the respectful sharing of reasoned viewpoints, all offered in a comradely spirit of devising tests of opposing propositions about religion as a natural phenomenon. The content of our discussions will derive, in a disciplined yet nonrigid fashion, from “point lists” handed in by every student at the beginning of each class; these will be graded and cumulatively account for a sizeable portion (about 40%) of each student’s final grade. I will help choose the most stimulating and burning points to raise from these papers, asking their authors to verbally state and expand on them, and calling on the whole class to discuss them. See the downloadable syllabus for much more information on course format, requirements, and grading.

The evolutionary focus of the course is not designed to dissuade students of their religious views. But, indirectly it will cause any thinking student to ponder the source of their views and their very nature. It will also cause many non-religious students to question innate and learned assumptions about how their minds operate and “who they really are.”

 Again, I must emphasize, the course material will provide rigorously materialist, biologically reasoned analyses of religiosity. It will open incisive and perhaps disquieting questions for many students (religious and non-religious) about the reasons and sources of their beliefs, behaviors, and even their dearest most sacred inner experiences.

Students will not be allowed to take class time pushing untestable belief or faith-based supernatural views of reality, as these do not logically compete with scientific perspectives. However the class will be a safe place to share actual experiences regarding religious thought patterns and emotions. Anyone who makes this educationally important sharing process unsafe will be dropped from the course.


We will use the new book, "The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior" (2009), edited by Eckart Voland and Wulf Schiefenhövel, as one of two required texts for 2010. It will largely replace the 2008/2009 text "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion" (2002), by cognitive anthropologist, Scott Atran, from the "Evolution and Cognition Series" of Oxford University Press, although we may read chapters from this as well, or a condensation of its views published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Atran and Norenzayan 2004). We also will read most of a second required text, "The Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion" (2008) by evolutionary psychologists Lyle B. Steadman and Craig T. Palmer; this book is part of the Series "Studies in Comparative Social Sciences," published by Paradigm Press.
There will also be some chapter readings from from "The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology" (2005), edited by David Buss (see below).

SYLLABUS, version 13 August 2010, available here in PDF format. Please note this is a mature draft of our 2010 syllabus. It will evolve as I attempt to lead us down a bleeding edge path, jumping off high cliffs and trying to construct wings on the way down. However, the information on course requirements in this syllabus is well set.

Here are the PDF's of our readings from outside the two main texts. See the syllabus (updated 8-09-2009) for the exact reading schedule (subject to further revision).

Please read these first two papers before our first class:
(1) Boyer, Pascal. 2003. Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function. TRENDS in Cognitive Science 7 (3) 119-124.

(2) Animal Behavior - A brand new entry in Encyclopedia Britannica Online by two top Cornell University behavioral ecologists, Tom Seeley and Paul W. Sherman; very helpful background for the course and an excellent read! (html version).

Probable readings from the Buss Handbook include:
The Buss Handbook Foreward, Introduction and Afterword.
Chapter 26: The evolution of morality, by Dennis Krebs (pp. 747-768; pp 22).
Chapter 5: Controversial issues in evolutionary psychology, by Edward Hagen (pp. 145-171; 27 pp).
Chapter 1: Conceptual foundations of evolutionary psychology, by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (pp. 5-63; 59 pp).
Chapter 3: Domain specificity and intuitive ontology, by Pascal Boyer and Clark Barrett (pp. 96-113; 18 pp).

Songs for downloading (MPEG-4 Audio Files):

Bad Karma, by Warren Zevon

Mystery, by Paul Winter Consort

Page updated 5 September 2010.