Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved by Matt J. Rossano, Ph.D.

June 2010 Oxford Press

Publisher: “The roots of religion stretch as far back as half a million years, when our ancestors developed the motor control to engage in social rituals–that is, to sing and dance together. Then, about 70,000 years ago, a global ecological crisis drove humanity to the edge of extinction. It forced the survivors to create new strategies for survival, and religious rituals were foremost among them. Fundamentally, Rossano writes, religion is a way for humans to relate to each other and the world around them–and, in the grim struggles of prehistory, it offered significant survival and reproductive advantages. It emerged as our ancestors’ first health care system, and a critical part of that health care system was social support. Religious groups tended to be far more cohesive, which gave them a competitive advantage over non-religious groups, and enabled them to conquer the globe.”

In his new book, Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, Dr. Matt Rossano provides an integrative view of the evolutionary history of religion, an approach filled with insights and stimulating logic. He shows how belief in the supernatural has served an adaptive purpose for humans–that it is religion that has made us human.

Analyzing both sides of a debate spurred by Richard Dawkins’ atheist manifesto, The God Delusion, Dr. Matt Rossano believes that this debate overlooks what science can tell us about religion.

Chair of the Psychology Department at Southeastern and an evolutionary psychologist, Matt said, “For Richard Dawkins and a few other notables, the world knows nothing quite so wicked as religion. We would all be far better off without it and all that trails in its wake: suicide bombers, Taliban-style tyranny, child-abusing clergy, science-denying creationists, etc.” Matt believes that Dawkins was missing or ignoring something very fundamental. “If religion was so clearly damaging to the human psyche and so corrosive of human society how could it have ever evolved?” And he wondered, “How is it possible that every culture throughout human history has had religion?”

Matt said, “Compounding the conundrum is the fact that time and again studies showed that religious people tended to be happier, healthier, more generous and civic minded than their non-religious counterparts. Religion is also tenacious,” he said. “Enlightenment thinkers promised that religion would fade as science and reason provided a more accurate picture of the natural world. To the bewilderment of Dawkins and his ilk, the world seems to have reneged on that Enlightenment promise.”

Matt has studied the evolution of religion and other uniquely human cognitive traits for some time. He is the author of Evolutionary Psychology: The Science of Human Behavior and Evolution. His book chapter “The Archaeology of Consciousness,” in Cognitive Archaeology and Human Evolution, and other numerous papers, address evolution, ritual, religion, and moral behavior. “Making friends, making tools, and making symbols,” is coming out soon in a special issue of Current Anthropology, focusing on working memory and human evolution.

“It was not until I ran across an essay by William James,” Matt said, “that the central theme of the book began to take shape.” In The Will to Believe, James contended that relational trust provided a rational basis for religious faith. If we want friends, James argued, we have to be willing to trust them. “Demanding up-front evidence of someone’s trustworthiness risked insulting them,” Matt explained, “thereby killing the friendship before it ever got started. Relationships require a bit of irrational risk-taking. For James, the risk was worth it since the rewards of personal relationships far outweighed the intellectual compromise required to set things in motion.” James then extended this logic to religion.

“Other evidence seemed to confirm that at its core, religion was not about doctrines, creeds, institutions, or even miracles, but about relationships,” Matt said. In Supernatural Selection, he reviews important work by psychologist Lee Kirkpatrick, who has shown that attachment theory provides a profitable theoretical framework for understanding religion. “A secure attachment to God can provide the same physical and psychological benefits as secure attachments to other humans,” he noted. Additionally, anthropologist Roger Lohmann’s fieldwork found that religious conversion was better understood as the adoption of a new set of relationships rather than a new set of doctrines or beliefs.

Prominent Darwinian philosopher Dr. Michael Ruse (Florida State University) heartily endorses Rossano’s approach to the subject: “Supernatural Selection is a fascinating account of how religion arose in response to our human adaptive needs”, says Ruse, “…[it] will be at the forefront of all future discussion on this topic.”

Matt said, “I hope the book gives people a different perspective on religion. Just as human relationships can be either good or bad, so to with religious relationships. Just as human relationships almost necessarily involve a degree of irrationality, so to with religious relationships.”

“Really, the focus in both cases ought to be more on the outcomes of the relationship. Is it good or bad for the person and those around them?”

Dr. Matt Rossano, Chair of the Psychology Department at Southeastern Louisiana University, on the steps of the old Holy Ghost Church, Hammond, LA. Supernatural Selection will be available in June at Amazon and selected bookstores

2 thoughts on “Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved by Matt J. Rossano, Ph.D.

  1. Clifford Stevens

    If by evolve, Dr. ROssano means evolve through a biological evolutionary process, I can’t see how biology can be the cause of religion, since religion is an act of human intelligence and is really a comological problem: in answer to questions about the universe. It is a judgment of human reason, not an adaptive behavior from evolutionary ancestors, it seems to me.

    I suggest a careful reading of St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the intellectual powers in the Summa Theologica, since religion, according to him, is a human act, originating in the intellect and will.

    Perhaps St. Rossano should define his concept of reiigion.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    \Boys Town, Nebraska

  2. Clifford Stevens

    Religion is not a scientific question, it is a theological question, and Dr. Rossano is outside his field of competence in trying to explain it. Theology is precisely the “science” of God and God is outside the scope of evoltionary or biological science. Evolutionary science does not make one an authority on all things human, and that is especially true when it comes to the nature and activities of the human intelligence and free choice. That which is specific in human beings cannot be explained by biology, evolutionary or otherwise.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska


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