How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

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As societies get bigger, we require more and more elaborate and law-like forms of religion to prevent breakdown

Matthew Reisz in The Guardian: Robin Dunbar sets out to offer nothing less than “an overarching theory for why and how humans are religious”. Unlike most writers on such themes, he is largely uninterested in the truth or otherwise of religious claims and has little to say about the damage caused by religions, although he does touch on their “militant violence” and the predatory promiscuity we find among the charismatic leaders of small cults. But he is intrigued by the “seeming universality” of religions and their constant tendency to fragment. His stimulating and hugely ambitious book, therefore, uses a variety of different approaches to throw light on three really big questions: “the functions that religion has served”, “the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that make this possible” and “the timing of the origins of religion”.

At the emotional heart of religion, as Dunbar sees it, is something he calls “the mystical stance”, which includes “a susceptibility to enter trance-like states”, “belief in a transcendental (or spirit) world” and “a belief that we can call on hidden power(s) to help us”. More here.

How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures by Robin Dunbar is published by Pelican (£22).

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