Religion & the Social Brain

(funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, grant 0153)

This project, which begins in April 2017, aims to develop understanding of the evolution of religion, drawing heavily on the work of Professor Robin Dunbar, particularly his Social Brain Hypothesis (SBH). It will complement and enhance current explanations of the origins of religion, explaining its development and contemporary features more effectively and parsimoniously than other accounts.

We will examine how the understanding of the origins and evolution of religion can be transformed by the Social Brain Hypothesis (SBH) and will undertake research into the role of the endorphin system in social bonding. The significance for human evolution of the endorphin system, and time-budgeting constraints on the size of ancestral human groups, is beginning to be recognised. However, there has so far been little exploration of how these particular evolutionary mechanisms help explain how religion exploits certain evolved biological, psychological and social processes that facilitate social bonding.

We aim to shift the emphasis in evolutionary studies of religion towards the idea that religion helps to bond groups by inculcating an atmosphere of trust and communality in all members of a group simultaneously. We also hope that the project will impact on the public understanding of the scientific study of religion, and the historical and contemporary significance of religion for the flourishing of human communities. The project will follow a multi-faceted research programme involving the development of a novel theory of the evolution of religion, evolutionary modelling, empirical research on contemporary religion and philosophical/theological analysis.