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Category: Science

Is religious cognition adaptive?

There was a paper recently in PNAS on “The cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief“. A couple of bloggers, Epiphenom and I Am David, come to opposite conclusions. Epiphenom says that the study shows that religion is not a side-effect of the evolution of cognitive processes, while IAD says that is exactly what it shows.

The paper purports to show that when thinking about God or beliefs about God, the very same areas of the brain are used that are used in ordinary social interactions and so on:

The MDS results confirmed the validity of the proposed psychological structure of religious belief. The 2 psychological processes previously implicated in religious belief, assessment of God’s level of involvement and God’s level of anger (11), as well as the hypothesized doctrinal to experiential continuum for religious knowledge, were identifiable dimensions in our MDS analysis. In addition, the neural correlates of these psychological dimensions were revealed to be well-known brain networks, mediating evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions.


The findings support the view that religiosity is integrated in cognitive processes and brain networks used in social cognition, rather than being sui generis (2–4). The evolution of these networks was likely driven by their primary roles in social cognition, language, and logical reasoning (1, 3, 4, 51). Religious cognition likely emerged as a unique combination of these several evolutionarily important cognitive processes (52).

Does this mean religion is not an adaptation? Well, yes, and no. It depends on what you are trying to explain.