Debate Magazine

Explanatory Theories of Religion

By Cris

After spending several years doing research for a book tentatively titled Evolutionary Theories of Religion: A Guide for the Perplexed, I came to the conclusion that while there were many good evolutionary theories of religion, there was no “master” theory. When the project began, my goal was to identify the best theories and synthesize them into singular theory that provided the best possible scientific answer to an apparently simple question: How did “religion” evolve?

This is not, of course, a simple question and no single theory provides a definitive answer. Since 1990, scholars have proposed so many varieties of “cognitive byproduct” and “social adaptive” theories that simply surveying, sorting, and analyzing them is a considerable challenge. Synthesizing them is an even greater challenge and it may ultimately prove to be impossible.

While thinking about these issues, I realized that the debates surrounding modern (i.e., post 1990) evolutionary theories of religion had deep historical precedents and that few modern theorists either considered these or took them into serious account. Seeking clarity, last year I decided to conduct an intensive review of all previous theories that could be variously characterized as: (1) explanatory, (2) developmental, and (3) evolutionary. The latter category can be confusing because many scholars working within an evolutionary paradigm tend to conflate biological with cultural evolution.

This richly rewarding review resulted in a great deal of writing, most of which has appeared in scattered posts on the blog over the past year and half. Now that the review is (almost) finished, I want to gather all those posts and links on a single page. The theorists are listed mostly in chronological order of their appearance:

Pre-Darwinian Developmental Theories of Religion

  • Lucretius
  • David Hume
  • Ludwig Feurbach

Social-Psychological (Evolutionist) Theories of Religion

  • Karl Marx
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Sigmund Freud

Early Evolutionary Theories of Religion

  • Charles Darwin
  • John Lubbock
  • Edward Burnett Tylor
  • James George Frazer
  • RR Marett
  • Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

Sociological (Evolutionist) Theories of Religion

  • Auguste Comte
  • William Robertson Smith
  • Emile Durkheim

“Primitive” (Evolutionist) Theories of Religion

  • Robert Lowie
  • Paul Radin
  • EE Evans-Pritchard

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