The vast majority of people who have ever lived believed in some sort of a supernatural agent. Call it God, call it Vishnu, call it Zeus, call it a djinn, call it an ancestor spirit, and this fact remains: We are, and perhaps always have been, a largely religious species. What is it about human evolution, human culture, and human cognition that makes supernatural agent concepts so easy to think about and—often—believe in?
Currently, I’m working with a dual inheritance model of the evolution of religion that seeks to accommodate three basic observations:
1) Ordinary human cognition seems equipped with a number of biases that support supernatural concepts, including folk (mind-body) dualism, a tendency to see purpose and design (“promiscuous teleology”), and a variety of motivational structures that make these concepts attractive
2) We can mentally represent a wide variety of supernatural agents, but most of us only believe in a select few, or none at all
3) The distribution of different types of supernatural agent beliefs (ranging from morally fickle and geographically constrained ancestor spirits to omnipotent and omniscient Big Moralizing Gods) is decidedly nonrandom, and seems to covary with various outcomes for societies.
So my research focuses on the interplay between the representation of gods, the acquisition of beliefs in gods, and the different types of gods that people have. The (very tentative) framework I’m adopting posits that the capacity to represent supernatural agents comes about as a byproduct of cognitive mechanisms that evolved for tracking core domains of knowledge (folk psychology being the prime mover). Yet belief largely comes from cultural transmission: We believe in the gods that people—especially prestigious people—in our cultures endorse. Further, different types of religious beliefs may have downstream cultural consequences that give advantages to some groups over others in intergroup competition.