Do Evolutionary Explanations of Religion Undermine Humanity’s Ability to Justify Beliefs in a Personal God?

Christopher Bennett
Friday 15 July 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

Derren Brown is a man familiar to fans of illusionism across the world, especially in Britain. His modus operandi typically involves psychological trickery and mentalism. The most famous tricks of Brown involve ‘predicting’ the lottery numbers and, in several shows, using simulated environments on unsuspecting participants to “reveal human nature” by showing how people can be influenced towards heroism or villainy by external factors and manipulation. Despite many of his tricks being condemned as tasteless or simply deceitful, his popularity endures. How convincing one finds Derren Brown’s tricks might depend on how much one is willing to suspend disbelief or engage with the deeper meaning, rather than the surface content- and this is a matter that he has also tackled.

I found myself watching Brown’s 2012 Faith and Fear special early last year (the joys of lockdown!).[1] The rather meta-trick he deploys in that show relating to suspension of disbelief offers unique insight into popular conceptions of a theological puzzle. Brown delves into how many conceive of the machinations of faith, and its relation to fear. The centrepiece of the show, in which he aims to give an atheist a conversion experience, is most interesting, as it comes with a pop-science explanation of why humans evolved to be religious, and carries with it an intonation that a successful Brown conversion (as opposed to a ‘real’ one) would in some measure discredit religious belief. Beneath the layers of illusionism and stagecraft there are significant theological and philosophical questions upon which Brown is treading, which I will discuss in this puzzle.

There is both popular and academic interest in the origins of religious belief.  Brown is not alone in wishing to explain religious belief (especially beliefs in a personal God) in a reductive way. Several popular books, such as Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion, or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, also treat religion similarly.[2] The tone in these works may not always be explicit about religious beliefs being untrue, but it often seems as though there is a stultifying and condescending tone to explanations of religion in terms of, say, the survival benefits it offers. I know from conversations with many acquaintances about these books that when religious belief is given a naturalistic explanation, it is demystified and any objective justification is made to seem improbable. The puzzle here, then, surrounds the question of whether the naturalistic origin of the phenomenon of religion makes religious beliefs unjustified. In this article I will tackle that puzzle, set up by Brown, and philosophers using arguments similar to his, by assessing how the scientific evidence and philosophical arguments combine.

Many philosophers of religion have explored the potential consequences that natural histories of religion might hold for the epistemic status of beliefs in a personal God. I call such arguments, which use natural histories to undermine religious beliefs, ‘Aetiological Evolutionary Debunking Arguments’ (EDAs). EDAs are a somewhat common philosophical style of argument that use evolutionary origins to attack certain classes of belief (another popular example is morality- if people are only good because it’s evolutionarily beneficial to be so, then why bother?). Such arguments threaten the increasingly harmonious relationship between science and religion.[3] If indeed naturalistic interpretations of religious belief are epistemically troublesome for religious believers, then Aetiological EDAs risk sparking conflict between components of science and elements of religious doctrine. What I believe will emerge as the strongest defence is a focus on the rational products of religious belief, rather than their origins. Explanations should not be used as a guide to the truth value of the phenomena that they explain. My hypothesis of this piece, therefore, is that ‘evolutionary explanations of religion, in and of themselves, do not undermine the justification of religious beliefs about a personal God’.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 The Epistemology of Christian Theology

The first field of study pertinent for this intersection is of course philosophy of religion, more particularly the epistemology of Christian theology. I’ll use this section to say why this field is relevant for investigating my hypothesis. Philosophers and theologians have questioned how religious beliefs are justified for millennia: from Augustine to Descartes, from Aquinas to Hume. Natural theology in particular has focussed on how evidence and human reason can be used to offer evidence of the truth of religious beliefs (often those pertaining to God).[4] For the sake of this article, I will be concentrating on Christian beliefs, and will especially consider the belief that there exists a personal God with whom humans can relate, about whom they can make statements such as “God loves me”.

A popular model of justifying religious beliefs like those that tell us we have a personal relationship with God relies on evidence. This is the natural theological approach favoured by Aquinas and others. The integral motivation is that evidential justification of religious beliefs is important – and this appears logical. Most people would like to know that their beliefs generally are based on something, and can be defended when put under strain. This extends to beliefs about God. Certain models of justification concentrate more on the processes used to form religious beliefs as a source of justification, and they might also be vulnerable to the kinds of attack considered here, but in my view believers commonly want evidential justification, so I will primarily examine that approach.

As already mentioned, one key point about natural theology is that religious beliefs are viewed as states of mind to be defended. But of course, for them to be defended there must be an element of vulnerability. And it is when they are put under attack that yet more interesting consequences arise. What is it that puts religious beliefs under strain? Historically, the answer to that question has varied: the Problem of Evil is a famous logical and evidential argument against a personal God, while other arguments about the lack of religious experience can often dispel belief too. In this article though, I look at an argument that utilises science, namely evolutionary thinking, in an attempt to attack the justification of beliefs. So from the epistemology of Christian theology we begin with the belief that God exists and humans relate to Him, noting that that belief is supposed to be defensible with evidence.

2.2 The Evolutionary Study of Religion

In this section I address growing scientific understandings of the evolution of religion. From fields of evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary psychology, there are significant, novel explanations of how religion arose that some philosophers employ as the basis for an attack on religious beliefs. These are sometimes known as Cognitive Science of Religion – an umbrella term for many kinds of scientific explanation of the origins of belief that often use evolutionary reasoning. By setting out some evolutionary explanations of religious belief, the empirical groundwork will be laid for the inter-disciplinary discussion to come. Natural theology engages with the evolutionary study of religion in several ways. The one I find most interesting, and which I will explain in more detail here, involves the evolution of religion and beliefs in a personal, loving God.

The evolution of religion is itself a vast topic. This is in part due to the breadth of ‘religion’ as an explanatory category, and the multitude of methods for studying it and its growth. Anthropologists as famous as Emile Durkheim and Edward Tylor offered explanations of why religion evolved from the perspective of culture, while noted psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and biologists like E. O. Wilson have addressed the issue too. There are many different ways of comprehending how religion arose and spread, and significant interest from many quarters. To simplify matters, I will therefore focus on one possible evolutionary explanation of religion, from evolutionary psychology, which has recently received significant attention.

One very substantial hypothesis explaining the evolutionary origins of religion is known as HADD theory. The term “HADD” as it pertains to religion was coined by the cognitive scientist Justin Barrett, to describe areas of the brain that act as a “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device” (Barrett 2000).[5] Agency detection is a vital function of the brain, which involves noticing when there are other creatures nearby. This is beneficial in an array of scenarios, for example when noticing movement in the distance and correctly interpreting that as a predator. It is also useful to have the function be hyperactive rather than underactive, because running away from something that is not in fact a threat incurs a relatively small cost, whereas not running away from an actual threat incurs a great cost. The fact that human detection of agency is oversensitive is a potential factor in the development of religious belief. Barrett discusses how this can occur in two ways: the first and most popularly conceived version involves looking at some natural phenomenon and falsely ascribing agency behind it, not unlike mentalising. For example, a person might look at a tree that toppled during a storm and imagine that a supernatural being felled it. The second way in which HADD relates to belief requires pre-existing awareness of religion. If a person is aware of supernatural ideas, and something happens in their life that accords with those tales of agency, then they are likely to be brought closer to religious belief (Barrett 2000).[6]

On a related note, the work of child psychologist Deborah Kelemen has further examined the ways in which people may be led towards religion by their evolved capacities. Her work found that children are “promiscuously teleological” (Kelemen 2004). By this she meant that when seeking to explain phenomena, children naturally are inclined towards explanations that utilise teleology. For example, when explaining why a rock is pointy, children are likely to generate reasons such as “to cut things”- they see the world through the lens of purpose – a tendency that never dissipates entirely. Theoretically, this teleological proclivity, in a similar way to the HADD, leads humans to ascribe purpose to natural events. Matt J. Rossanno and Benjamin Vandewalle offer an example of such a theory, stating that HADD, in conjunction with humanity’s imagination, and theory of mind and purpose, can lead humans to form ideas about supernatural beings which then develop into fully-fledged religious beliefs like “I can relate to God” (Rossanno and Vandewalle 2016).

Evolutionary psychology hence offers a partial explanation of why humans have certain tendencies to assume agency hyperactively even in situations where there is none. Significantly, the explanations thus far encompassed mental capacities such as the HADD or teleologising, which are themselves selected for by evolution. This is because those cognitive behaviours bring evolutionary benefits. These pre-existing tendencies then also generate religious beliefs, as a by-product of their normal functioning. It should be noted that there are many who argue that religious belief is adaptively useful in and of itself. One influential theory has been offered by Jesse Bering and Dominic Johnson, who argue that religion binds societies by providing an all-powerful being to enforce moral laws. This then helps groups and individuals to co-operate, creating an evolutionary benefit directly deriving from religious beliefs (Bering and Johnson 2006).[7] I lack the time to investigate these debates fully here, but suffice it to say that there is disagreement from an evolutionary perspective on the question of whether religion evolved as a by-product of other features, or as an adaptation in its own right.[8] Scientific perspectives are developing in their understanding of the origins of religious belief, and the use of this evidence can be problematic when brought into contact with the epistemology of Christian Theology, and beliefs in a personal God.

3. Discussion

I will now present several ways in which the above scientific evidence has been integrated into philosophical argumentation for the purpose of undermining religious belief. These ideas are common, and often expressed in the form of a gesturing towards the coincidental nature of religion being both true and improving evolutionary fitness, by new atheists such as Dawkins and Dennett (Dennett 2006, 175-192).[9] There are more sophisticated arguments from philosophers, too, who cleverly deploy scientific evidence of the evolution of religion to ask wider questions about the connections between explanations and justifications of beliefs. Although some are keen to seize upon scientific explanations of religious belief as competing with religious explanations, the two need not do so. Most religious believers can integrate scientific evidence about the origin of belief into their wider worldviews without major difficulty.

Having earlier explained popular evolutionary biological perspectives upon the origins of religion, and a common theological notion of how religious belief ought to be treated philosophically, the core of the puzzle emerges. Brown’s references to the origin of religion take two forms, and each represents an interesting idea about how science (in the form of evolutionary biology) explains (and perhaps discredits) religion. First, he explains religion in a cartoony fashion, as being the result of humanity’s need for a moral force to maintain order, and our inclination to generate a supernatural being and agency to natural events.[10] Elements of HADD theory and other CSR ideas (indeed he cites Bering’s work himself) blatantly underlie this presentation of belief. Using that groundwork, Derren moves to his second explanation, more within his domain. He contends religious belief is formed largely by environmental influences. Indeed, he believes he can replicate these to stimulate religion through psychological trickery. By placing a committed atheist in a beautiful church, having a 10 minute conversation with her to prime “triggers”, he sets up a religious experience. Dutifully, when left alone to contemplate the triggers and her surroundings, the lady obliges, having an apparently genuine and incredibly overwhelming conversion experience when left alone that leaves her sobbing.[11]

For this puzzle, I leave aside some of the manifold questions that attend Brown’s trick. I lack the space to consider whether it is genuine, or even ethical. The intriguing question Brown raises, one which has plagued many a doubting believer, is this one – “if certain contingent circumstances had been different, would my religious beliefs differ? And does that not detract from the justification of those beliefs?”. Adding a scientific twist makes the question especially pertinent, and drives home perhaps the most worrying aspect of the quandary- that belief in a personal, loving God has a non-religious origin, which somehow makes it less true. The question sharpens to a point of whether there is an incompatibility between the justification and explanation of religious belief. Hence, I will examine a specimen argument of that ilk.


A philosophical presentation of the first of Brown’s proposed problematic explanations can be found in Robert Nola’s Aetiological Evolutionary Debunking Argument, in which he attempts to “demystify” religious belief. As described in the introduction, this family of arguments typically take evolutionary facts and use them to undermine the beliefs that they explain. Building on naturalistic explanations of religion, Nola argues that if our religious inclinations are given to us by a part of the brain that is hyperactive, that part of the brain “is not reliable in what it indicates as existing”, because it provides false beliefs, such as that the rustling of leaves is a leopard rather than the wind (Nola 2018, 1). Hence, Nola believes he has debunked religious beliefs, because they are based upon a belief-generating process that is, in natural contexts, unreliable, and so should be disregarded.

The evolutionary explanation is being used to debunk here due to its seeming supercession of religious truth. Nola argues that the ‘folk’ explanation of religion (which holds that God or another supernatural force causes religious beliefs) and the naturalistic explanation both explain the same facts, “but they adopt incompatible hypotheses about what is to do the explaining” (Nola 2013, 6). Thus, Nola states that religious beliefs like “God loves me” are dependent upon supernatural explanation (and not naturalistic explanation) for their truth. That is, for such beliefs to be true it must be true that God exists and guides us to know Him (as an example). Seeing as the supernatural explanation has been out-competed (according to Nola), the truth value of religion is undermined and debunked by the incompatible evolutionary explanation. This kind of argument is a more explicit positioning of the intonation that Brown and others provide alongside their explanations of religion.

Nola somewhat brushes over his key assertion of incompatibility, as if it were blatant, before going on to establish why one ought to favour the naturalistic explanatory hypothesis over the ‘folk’, religious one (Nola 2013, 7-8). Yet for religion to adopt an incompatible hypothesis it would have to contradict the empirical account of religion explicitly. As an example, one could imagine a Christian viewpoint that asserted, uncompromisingly, that religion is God-given and came about not because of evolution but through supernatural intervention alone. This view would certainly be ‘debunked’ by a Nola-esque argument. However, the exact genesis of religion is not a dogmatic concept; e.g. Christians tend to believe God gave them religion in order to relate to them, but rarely cling to specific details on how this occurred. Indeed, belief in a loving God makes the evolutionary standpoint seem logical. If God chose humans to relate to Him, then it seems reasonable that He would make religion advantageous to human development, rather than destructive or useless.

Nola does not contend that merely possessing a naturalistic explanation of religion makes religious beliefs such as those in a personal God unjustified. Instead, he establishes two competing explanations of religious belief, with one to be crowned the winner. In this, a plain similarity can be drawn with the popular presentations of this puzzle from those such as Brown. A naturalistic explanation is offered, and it is either implied or stated that religious beliefs lose their claim to being justified as a result of this new understanding. It is exactly this ambiguous attack on religious belief that generates much perceived conflict between science and religion, and which this puzzle investigates.

The main philosophical disagreement with arguments like Nola’s that I will highlight and develop is called the “Genetic Fallacy”. This fallacy is common, and often an alluring trap to fall into. In essence, it states that it is fallacious to connect an explanation of how a belief arose (its ‘genesis’) with its epistemic value (Whittaker 1978; Blackburn 2016). That means that, for example, just because I can explain why you believe Newcastle United are the best football club (perhaps because of family connections), I cannot use that explanation alone to say your belief about Newcastle United is unjustified (nor is it!).

Nola’s argument falls afoul of the genetic fallacy because it would have no power to debunk beliefs in a personal God without the unspoken premise that only one explanation of those beliefs can be true. For his argument to succeed, the naturalistic explanation must be the only possible explanation. Yet that claim is an archetypal example of the genetic fallacy, because it conflates an origin story with an epistemic claim. Moreover, even if the religious explanation of why religion came about is incorrect, or if religion offers no plausible story at all, Nola’s argument still would not debunk. The naturalistic explanation cannot speak to the metaphysical truth of the beliefs it describes, and any attempt to use it to do so is doomed to failure.

These aetiological EDAs that sneakily suggest the negation of beliefs through science erroneously equate explaining the origin for a belief with removing or denying the justification of that belief. But as William James says when referring to beliefs produced by religious experiences: “by their fruits shall ye know them, not by their roots” (James 2011, 27). By this he meant that one should not judge whether a religious belief is true by where it arose (its roots), but rather consider whether it is well-evidenced (its fruits) to see if it is justified.  One need not accept the reductionist conclusions of certain naturalists. Theologians can instead view the evolution of religion as aiding a fulsome understanding of religion’s origins. Scientific explanations accompany, rather than subvert, religious explanations.

The problem with conceiving explanations as competing is that explanations can operate on different levels. For example, evolutionary explanations operate as explanations within the physical world. Religion operates not just within the physical world but also in a supernatural realm. Evolutionary, naturalistic explanations of religion cannot preclude the possibility of a non-physical religious explanation. Nola’s contention that theological and evolutionary explanations of religion are incompatible is false, barring exceptionally rare circumstances. Therefore, there is no good reason to connect the origin of religious beliefs with how they are justified, and debunking religious belief on the grounds that it arose due to a HADD, rather than something explicitly supernatural, is a failure.


Another way in which one can conceive Brown’s arguments about religion resembles what I term “sensitivity” style Aetiological EDAs. Several philosophers of religion have presented versions of a sensitivity EDA. Michael Murray provides a succinct summary of their foundational premise: “religious belief would, it seems, exist whether or not there is any supernatural reality” (Murray 2009, 174-175).  Brown gestures towards this premise in his show by setting up religious belief as caused by thoroughly mundane, psychological factors, with the implication that nothing supernatural is therefore behind such beliefs. The lady whose conversion was inspired by Brown has the justification of her beliefs questioned, as a proxy for others with similar experiences. This sentiment is similar to that expressed by Murray: human religious beliefs are not sensitive to supernatural truth, so it would be a coincidence if they were true, given that that was not the reason why they developed. The central point for all sensitivity EDAs is to stress that naturalistic aetiologies of belief show that belief in a personal God is ‘insensitive’ to supernatural reality. “Insensitive” here means, in essence, “not caused by, or reflective of, the truth of their subject matter”. If indeed debunkers (such as Matthew Braddock) can successfully show that their aetiology demonstrates the insensitivity of religious beliefs, then it appears to be difficult to defend the veracity of beliefs like ‘God loves me’, which would arise whether true or not.[12]

The problem with this form of the aetiological EDA is that it does not provide any truly compelling reason for debunking. It is true that, according to scientific theories, religious beliefs are not caused by the truth of their subject matter. It is also true that the HADD, within the natural context, provides false positives. Yet these two facts together do not make religious belief one iota less true. The genetic fallacy continues to linger. “Sensitivity” EDAs attempt to draw an unsustainable link between why people have beliefs and whether they are true. The fact that religious beliefs are insensitive means that it is possible they are not true. But we knew that all along! Moreover, where Nola’s prior argument was stricken with problems over the possibility for simultaneous explanations, this sensitivity EDA performs no better under the same strain. The HADD might seem hyperactive in the biological context because we can only verify its natural results. Yet if indeed the same process furnishes us with religious beliefs, then in that context the HADD might be neither hyper, nor underactive, but in fact perfectly attuned to the signals it is meant to process from the supernatural realm. Knowing the HADD is unreliable within a physical context tells us nothing of its reliability in a metaphysical context and thus nothing about how justifiable beliefs about a personal God are.

There is a related style of ‘sensitivity’ argument that I think expresses the common unease more aptly, through specificity. It takes this form: “religious beliefs are influenced by cultural environments. Therefore, they are sensitive to environments, not truth”. A version of this argument is presented by Jon Marsh and Jason Marsh (Marsh and Marsh 2016).  They argue that one’s religion is to a large extent based on the way one was brought up, the prevailing culture, and other similar factors, all of which should be totally irrelevant to the truth value of religious beliefs. Yet there are very few conversions and people typically retain their culture’s faith, implying that the real determinant of belief is not whether it corresponds with supernatural truth, but whether it corresponds with a believer’s environment (Barro, Hwang, and McCleary 2010).[13] The naturalistic portion of this argument is sound. There are few conversions, and thus the seemingly predominating factor in what a person believes is his or her environment. The Marshes kind of argument is in my view most similar to that expressed by popular atheists such as Dawkins, and that advanced by Brown in his television show, because it offers specific explanation of why one’s religious beliefs are a certain way, and then (with a lesser or greater extent of explicitness) suggests that this affects whether one’s beliefs are justified.  This style of argument must be answered; it is the strongest sensitivity EDA, painting a convincing picture of the insensitivity of religious beliefs to truth.

The strength of this argument lies in its seductive connection between contingency and unjustified belief. Nevertheless, I still do not believe that this sensitivity EDA evades the genetic fallacy. The philosopher Roger White illustrates the difficulty through the example of philosophical schools of thought (White 2010). There is survey evidence that around 80% of philosophy graduates from Oxford endorse one particular answer to a common philosophical question (endorsing the analytic/synthetic divide), while graduates of Harvard, again at a rate of approximately 80%, have exactly the opposite answer to the same question (denying the divide) (White 2010, 2). It is plain to see that their environment has had a huge influence on the philosophical beliefs that these graduates support. Does this therefore mean that we should say that both groups are unjustified? Surely not, as each likely has supporting reasons for their answers. The analogy to religion is plain- if religion was not evolutionarily beneficial (a seemingly contingent possibility), then humans would not be religious, or if Pope Benedict XVI had been born in Saudi Arabia not Germany, he might not be Catholic. White usefully distils the ‘sensitivity’ difficulty to the unease that even “if p were false, I would still believe p”, due to contingent factors (White 2010, 9). The Marshes powerfully evidence this uneasy claim.

White provides a modest dismissal – the unease is no more than general anxiety that clever people disagree on the truth of beliefs (White 2009, 36). It is concerning when one learns that there are perfectly reasonable people who come to different conclusions based on similar evidence, due to contingent events. But this discouragement should not constitute evidence against one’s beliefs. As long as one has good reasons for one’s beliefs that are normally admissible, the fact that things could be different should not worry one unduly. If such strict criteria were applied to all beliefs, then it would be almost impossible to believe anything at all, because clever people disagree on a wealth of matters. Such scepticism is impractical, White argues, preferring to retain normal justification of beliefs – why we hold beliefs is not a relevant factor in justifying them in ordinary circumstances.

I apply White’s ideas to religious beliefs to argue that the attempt from sensitivity arguments to tie explanations of religious beliefs to their epistemic failure still engages in a genetic fallacy. If religious believers said that their beliefs are true because their HADD mechanisms are sensitive to truth, then evidence of insensitivity that evolutionary explanations offer us is relevant. But that is an improbable and rare position. This crucial point bears repeating- religious believers have bases for their beliefs that are external to their origins. By using these reasons, no amount of suspicion arising from naturalistic explanations denies belief in a personal God. The religious response to the aetiological EDA is obvious – maintain the importance of non-evolutionary reasons to hold religious beliefs. Evolutionary biology may offer a valid naturalistic explanation of religious beliefs, but its explanations alone are mute on questions concerning the strength of the reasons believers use as justification.

Sensitivity EDAs stem partly from a recognition that the genetic fallacy must be overcome somehow. But the correct method of escaping the fallacy’s clutches does not lie in merely (and falsely) claiming that justification is based in origin. Any power to which EDAs could claim would in that case be totally reliant upon fallacious connections between roots of knowledge and truth. Just because Brown can make a woman have a religious experience through psychological triggers (if indeed he can) does not mean that she, or other religious believers whose beliefs rely upon contingent factors, has false beliefs. It is far more important to consider whether those believers have good reason to believe in a personal God (for example), as that has a far greater bearing on whether their beliefs are justified. Religious beliefs, just like many other beliefs, are sensitive to the environments in which they arise, but that fact alone cannot detract from their epistemic value.

4. Conclusion

To conclude, I will consider how this encounter between science and religion may change theological thought. As a Theological Puzzle, the answer is clear that explanations of religious belief from evolutionary biology are not harmful to religious belief’s rationality – the intriguing empirical evidence can be put to use in a dialogical, not confrontational, fashion. My introductory hypothesis has therefore been confirmed. Hence, this example of science-engaged theology has resulted in a greater appreciation of the different kinds of explanations at play in different disciplines, and can caution believers to consider the scientific origins of belief in a personal God, and monitor rational justification.

One can go beyond simply answering the hypothesis stated at the outset of this paper, however, to delve into related questions. What ramifications do evolutionary explanations of religious belief hold for a Christian’s belief in a personal God? Certainly, if religious beliefs are justified by resort to their origin, EDAs are very effective at dispelling that possibility. Given, however, that religious believers ordinarily have independent justifications for their beliefs, or at least could have them, aetiological EDAs should not reduce confidence in the truth of religious beliefs. It would be foolish and hasty, though, to think that in deflecting the efficacy of aetiological EDAs there are no repercussions for religious belief, or future debunking.[14]

Religious belief must, in the face of EDAs, be reinforced by justification based on reasons external to tales of causation. Arguably this is not tremendously noteworthy, because very few theologians would assess that ‘I believe in God because I live in a society that makes it beneficial to believe in God’ is a valid defence, but aetiological EDAs underline its importance. They reaffirm the need for beliefs to be well-justified and rationally validated. Furthermore, they reveal where pernicious faculties or processes lead to the genesis of religious belief, and rightly attack those cases. Though those arguments were insufficient to debunk religious belief meaningfully, it is important for believers to recognise where any beliefs they hold might be caused by a “sinister” CSR mechanism, to borrow a term used by Helen De Cruz, and contemplate whether that ought to affect confidence in such beliefs (De Cruz 2018). Hence, it seems the role aetiological EDAs play for religious beliefs is in issuing a clarion call for a renewed focus on justification, rather than undermining or debunking as they initially aimed. The science of religion can operate alongside the philosophy without conflict. Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien was correct, in stating that, despite (or perhaps even because of) our lowly origins “the heart of man is not compound of lies, but draws some wisdom from the only Wise” (Tolkien 1988).


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[1] This can be found in full on Youtube at this link:

[2] Dawkins argues knowledge of evolution makes the supernatural explanation of religion superfluous and as such, wrong. Harari’s incredibly popular work of anthropology addresses the functional role that religion plays, suggesting that humans would believe regardless of truth value.

[3] The “conflict thesis” for interpreting relations between science and religion is now widely discredited in academic circles. For an explanation of its history and flaws, see: (Watts 1997); (McGrath 2010).

[4] For archetypal examples of those who have used natural theology this way, see Richard Swinburne or William Lane Craig’s works.

[5] In this article Barrett, a very influential voice in the field of CSR, introduces the notion of the HADD.

[6] Also in (Lewis 2017) there is a useful explanation of “mentalising”, and its cognitive effects.

[7] For another biological perspective on the fitness benefits of religious belief, see: (Crespi and Summers 2014)

[8] The interested reader can turn to (Szocik 2017) for more on this debate.

[9] As implied by the title Breaking the Spell, Dennett’s work aims to show that religion is a wholly natural phenomenon, and so demonstrate its falsehood

[10] Circa 16 minutes in the above video

[11] To be found throughout the above video, especially after about 36 minutes.

[12] I lack the space to expound and evaluate Braddock’s iteration of this kind of argument based on false god-beliefs and polytheism fully, but please see: (Braddock 2016) and (van Eyghen 2018), especially page 17 for a useful reply.

[13] Barro, Hwang, and McCleary provide an imperfect but useful overview of global statistics on conversions. While their analysis has some flaws, it usefully illustrates that the typical conversion rate is c. 5%, and rarely surpasses 10%, easily sufficient to demonstrate that conversions are rare.

[14] For example, other kinds of debunking do not base themselves entirely on the explanation of religious belief, but move to looking at the faculties that generate religious belief- a more compelling reason to find connection between explanations and justification. (Wilkins and Griffiths 2015).  For a direct response to the Milvian Bridge argument posited by Wilkins and Griffiths, see: (Kyriacou 2017).

Cite this article

Bennett, Christopher. 2022. Do Evolutionary Explanations of Religion Undermine Humanity’s Ability to Justify Beliefs in a Personal God? Theological Puzzles (Issue 12).

Contact the author

Christopher Bennett
[email protected]

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