Theology and Cultural Evolution

Lluis Oviedo

Cultural evolution is a broad theoretical framework that is applied to several disciplinary fields to stress the role that non-genetic information plays in configuring processes of evolution and adaptation, for animals, humans, and societies. Given the interrelationship between genes and culture, the applicability of cultural evolution as a research field is wide ranging. This heuristic allows us to more fully understand the development of religion as well, as a manifestation of cultural evolution and co-evolution. This article analyses the specific features of such processes, and shows how the biological model is too simplistic and that it fails to accurately describe these forms of cultural evolution. First, this article will outline the factors and dynamics relevant to the evolution of religion, drawing on current research across biological and cultural evolution. Secondly, the article will discuss and analyse the theological implications of cultural evolution, some of which are less obvious than others. It will be seen that different lines of inquiry, methods, and theories pertaining to the cultural evolution of religion generate different results. Finally, it will consider how theology needs to reflect on and incorporate such studies, and how theologians can evaluate the theological adequacy of contemporary theories of cultural evolution.

1 Introduction: what is cultural evolution?

Any attempt to describe cultural processes will have to address several issues and challenges. A first challenge is to define ‘culture’ in a way that is broad enough to encompass the many distinct aspects and forms inherent to culture, while at the same time render it accurate enough to make the concept applicable to the many social phenomena scholars seek to understand. Given the seeming undeniability of religion as an aspect of culture, some have argued that culture and religion were once indistinguishable or too entrenched to distinguish (Munson 1986; Beyers 2017).

Coming to terms with the definition of ‘culture’, rendering it sufficiently concrete, is the first step when trying to analyse its dynamics, changes, and evolution. In contemporary discussions, culture is approached from a range of disciplines; most notably from the perspectives of anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, cognitive psychology, and, recently, biology. Each field applies its own axioms and presuppositions to examine culture, generating distinct insights and results, as can be seen in relation to cultural evolution. In recent years, the conspicuous intervention of evolutionary studies has brought fresh air into this subject and has completely renewed the approach, offering a new relevance to the topic – or at least a complement to other traditional treatments.

A quick search for definitions of culture in scholarly dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and other sources offers many possibilities, but little consensus has been established. Some definitions emphasize the symbolic dimension of ‘culture’, but this risks neglecting the apparent ‘materiality’ of culture, as manifested in tools, art, and ritual objects. It has been mostly associated with human groups, but other animals are bearers of useful cultural information. This expression of symbolic and material culture takes on a clear social character, but not in a way that excludes the individual’s contribution or participation. It is, moreover, usually related to survival and adaptation, but other forms of cultural expression with little or null fitness value should not be excluded. Culture can be articulated in terms of ‘shared information’, whereby different levels of communication are established between groups and across populations. On this account, culture is the milieu by which different levels of communication is rendered possible. This process is exponentially more complex in humans, since we can resort to articulated language, symbols, beliefs, values, and to many material expressions.

It is helpful to compare the proposed approach with the one provided by contemporary practitioners of the Cultural Evolution Society (CES), which is significantly more biologically driven. Culture for the CES is ‘information capable of affecting individuals’ behaviour that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission’ (Richerson and Boyd 2005: 5). The CES then identify ‘cultural evolution’ as ‘change of culture over time’. In this case a behaviourist stance is assumed, an assumption which can be called into question; in fact, many transmitted cultural expressions are primarily associated with mere enjoyment, or behaviourally unidentifiable experiences or knowledge. For that reason, it is preferable to distinguish between a biologically-conditioned culture that applies mostly to non-human animals and a sense of culture associated with meaning that applies more accurately to the human domain. In very broad terms, ‘culture’ is information that can be shared for the benefit of a group or species. However, in humans that process usually gives rise to specific networks or systems, both symbolic and material, which are absent or clearly underdeveloped in other species. What is broadly assumed is that culture is always dynamic, changing over time. (Indeed, it can be understood as an adjective, ‘cultural’, rather than a substantive noun, which would reflect only a convenient abstraction.) There is less consensus about how such changes occur; even if one might call the process ‘evolution’, assuming a similar pattern to biological evolution, which entails some progress or fitness maximization. This is, again, quite problematic, considering that many forms of counter-adaptive human cultures seemingly nourish maladaptive behaviours.

Evolutionists inspired by Darwinian models and methods have generated a great deal of interest in the evolutionary study of culture; yet they by no means have the monopoly in that field. Other models and frameworks can be identified for seeking to understand cultural evolution, including traditional anthropological models and, more recently, social systems theory within sociology. Other notable subfields include the evolution of language, organizations, economy, art, and religion. It is clear that in these cases such approaches focus on human cultures and leave aside non-human animal expressions. Indeed, from a heuristic point of view, it is far from clear whether the biological approach, including the contrast with non-human animals and their shared information systems, is more helpful for understanding human cultures compared to those models that take into account non-biological factors. It is not certain whether more is gained or lost in trying to understand human cultural phenomena within a broader framework that includes other animals and the transmission of non-genetic information according to adaptation and fitness maximization.

The last issue to consider in this section concerns the theological relevance of this copious research field. The methodological presuppositions of cultural evolution have been applied to religion, and more recently scholars have begun to draw upon the biological evolution as well. The meetings of the CES and other conferences on this topic, taking place in the last decade, have generated the publication of numerous research papers on the intersection between biology and culture. Some have sought to combine cognitive and evolutionary studies of religion to offer a better explanation of religious processes. Still, it is one thing to apply such models to religion and its development; it is a different one for theology to be interested or become a stakeholder in this endeavour, or for a theologian to apply the insights of such studies on theological doctrines. Theologians are usually absent in these forums, and references to this research can hardly be found in theological essays or teaching. The potential implications of this research remains a thorny issue, which may be linked to the larger issue of how scientific research could be utilized as an instrument for theological progress. Given that contemporary theology develops in contact with and under the inspiration of science, an evolutionary understanding of culture may become a fertile area for theological reflection (see also Theology and Science). In any case, it has been argued that relevance of the current research needs to be evaluated in terms of to what extent it can help theologians to better understand the evolution of Christian faith as a way to complement its theological understanding.

This article will proceed in three stages. First, it outlines different approaches to cultural evolution, critical debates, and the topic’s complexity. Second, the article will examine the applicability and relevance of cultural evolution for the study of religion, and the ways in which religion, as a cultural product, is subjected to the same logic as other cultural expressions. Third, the article will explore how theology can benefit from a more robust interaction with research on cultural evolution for understanding theological anthropology, the origin of sin, and the evolution of Christian faith itself.

2 Different levels and versions of cultural evolution

Culture is a multilevel phenomenon and thus requires a multidisciplinary approach. ‘Levels’ may suggest a disputable notion of hierarchy, and so it is better to understand culture in terms of ‘dimensions’, assuming the reality of multilevel processes. In its most basic dimension, culture takes on a biological form, close to what can be observed in other animal species. It also exhibits a psychological dimension in the way it interacts with cognitive and other mental structures which may be understood within an ‘extended mind’ model (Newen, De Bruin, and Gallagher 2018; Clark and Chalmers 1998). A second dimension is the anthropological, in the sense of how human cultures facilitate social structuring and communication. A third dimension is sociological, which focuses on how cultures interact and co-develop with social systems. A last dimension pertains to the symbolic and meaning-giving dimensions of culture, giving rise to new perspectives and beliefs over time; this level can be labelled ‘cultural history or philosophy’, as, for example, championed by Charles Taylor (2007). In many cases, it is difficult to distinguish between these dimensions. Nevertheless, this approach has a heuristic advantage by offering a way to more accurately-illustrate the plurality and richness in the dynamics of culture. This article applies distinct approaches to make sense of the same very complex phenomenon, conscious that a reduction to just one aspect – in an attempt to provide more explanatory power – would neglect other dimensions and limit understanding.

2.1 The biological dimension

This first dimension can be considered the main approach or dominant paradigm in the study of culture. The central idea is that cultures and their evolution follow a similar pattern to living organisms: they are born from other existing sets, gain some environmental stability, and at some point lose strength and may go extinct. The analogies go further, as the mechanisms of selection and inheritance can be identified both in living beings and in cultural processes. Cultures are clear subjects of biological evolutionary analysis, as they can be seen to be transmitting non-genetic information, by virtue of inheritance, contributing to the fitness of living beings or entire populations. Even if the process of cultural transmission is more complex and richer than the genetic counterpart, it possesses many characteristics similar to the rules of biology which centre on factors contributing to survival and reproductive success. By analogy, cultural transmission and evolution follow similar ways to genetic mechanisms, even if they also widen the nature of transmission channels, which now include learning, imitation, and contagion.

The above paradigm is becoming dominant in the scientific study of culture. It relies on data collected from empirical observation, analysis, and even mathematical formalization to describe relevant processes. It is apparent in more academic settings that human evolution is ‘not by genes alone’ as Richerson and Boyd claimed (2005), and that culture is the missing piece as described in Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony (2017). Cultural transmission is considered an unavoidable component of what many designate as a processes of co-evolution, through which the integration of genetic and cultural dimensions maximizes adaptation. Such co-evolution is more explicit in humans. Such development has inspired the ‘gene-culture co-evolution’ model (or ‘dual-inheritance’ theory), according to which there is steady interaction between genetic and cultural dimensions, or between the intergenerational gene transmission on one hand and social learning dynamics on the other. This interaction drives the evolutionary development of individuals and populations. A clear example of this can be seen in how humans developed the ability to digest lactose due to new breeding practices of herds that provided abundance of milk. Over time, forms of imitation and learning can influence more socially-driven populations through epigenetic dynamics and selection pressures.

However, a significant discussion has persisted over at least fifteen years about the adequacy of biological models inspired by classical Darwinian thinking as a way to better understand how culture works. Many voices have contested such an approach, and the ease with which scholars try to apply the Darwinian schema of selective adaptation among variations in a species on culture. The critics point to facts like the comparatively higher complexity of cultural processes in human populations, which involve several factors, and the uncertainty about the adaptive outcome in many apparently successful human cultural developments, at least in the short and medium term (Fracchia and Lewontin 1999; Ingold 2007; Claidière and André 2012).

The defence by those who bid for the biological model points to the more parsimonious character of the biological explanation and its heuristic power of being able to explain phenomena beyond a merely psychological or sociological level. For instance, concepts such as ‘population thinking’, ‘group selection’, or even ‘fitness’ could provide better tools to explain why cultures emerge, expand, and stabilize, and still more why cultures evolve or change over time to give place to more fitting expressions. Culture, in these cases, is integrated in biology as something we cannot decouple from living processes. However, for others, it would be the other way around: we need to appreciate culture as a factor to better understand biological development. To some extent, ‘culture’ distorts the logic of sheer selection and adaptation, introducing a higher complexity in that process. In any case, alternative approaches are needed to achieve a more balanced view on this issue (Laland et al. 2014; Hemminger 2020).

2.2 The psychological dimension

Cultures interact in many different ways with individual minds. Together culture and minds may constitute an integrated system which evolves as a result of proper cognitive conditions. For instance, the defenders of the 4e mind model claim that human cognition operates in an embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended way (Newen, De Bruin, and Gallagher 2018). In this model, the human mind cannot be detached from the cultural environment in which it operates: it is pointless trying to distinguish between an internal and an external dimension, or individual mind and shared culture, as both levels work together and form systems of mutual interactions and influences.

A clear case to help better understand such systems is the way that human cognition filters available information in our environment through interests, biases, and other cognitive constrains like coherence or relevance. This role is played more by the mind. Cultural patterns clearly condition and bias what we perceive as relevant or convenient. Being immersed and situated in a cultural context biases our perceptions about almost everything. For instance, in a very secularized milieu, people may be conditioned to not recognize any value in religion, as the cultural frame discourages appreciation of its meaning. It may be beneficial to evoke what Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966) called ‘structures of plausibility’ to explain the weight that culture has in this dynamic process.

The human mind is able to enact many cultural elements. For instance, participating in intense religious rituals nourishes beliefs and values and renders participants aware of the divine presence (Luhrmann 2020). Enactment is a way in which the human mind generates and sustains cultural sets which may otherwise vanish over time – as happens to many religious and other cultural expressions when they are not steadily nourished by this process of enactment, thus requiring a high cognitive and practical commitment by engaged individuals.

Cultural evolution follows a different pattern in this case. The forces that determine cultural change are more related to the cognitive investment, biases, and attractors at the cognitive and emotional level. A clear case is the formation and evolution of beliefs, a central component in descriptions of cultures. Beliefs move between the individual cognition (with its constraints) and the available sets of belief that often are supported by physical repositories, like books, news, education, and other cultural contents. The filters that drive such evolution can be identified, such as cognitive biases, the need for continuation with previously held beliefs and traditions which are sometimes impervious to change, personal experiences and vital trajectories, and the body of knowledge acquired through instruction. All of these factors influence how a cultural form is perceived, including its plausibility. Although the human mind has developed the ability to discern and choose among available cultures and subcultures in a given environment, cultures also need to adapt to this mental world characterized by cognitive choice. By analogy, the human mind itself becomes a crucial environment in which cultural forms need to adapt to cognitive conditions and limitations – albeit in a different fashion to the one described in the previous section (2.1). Cultural evolution in this case deeply depends on the reception process of human minds and how they negotiate access to new content, information, and proposals.

2.3 The anthropological-cultural dimension

Researching the term ‘cultural evolution’ often generates a range of historical views. The concept emerged during the Enlightenment era between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, capturing expectations for human and social betterment. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for instance, describes cultural evolution as ‘the development of cultures from simpler to more complex forms’ (Pauls 2008). Several names can be associated with that program, such as Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, and Condorcet, later authors during the nineteenth century like August Comte and Herbert Spencer, and anthropologists like Edward Tylor and Lewis Morgan. Common to all of them is some faith in the human culture progressing towards higher civilizational levels or more developed social forms. The case of Herbert Spencer is emblematic of that approach whereby evolutionary principles are applied to society at large, pointing to universal development towards more complex societies, supported by science and the notion of selective pressures. This faith in human culture is called ‘unilinear theory’, and predicts cultural progress, which can be identified more in some societies and contexts than others. This approach, while optimistic, rests on certain ethnocentric assumptions that point to the theory as potentially damaging. Its anthropological emphasis has also led to the emergence of an alternative model, the ‘multilinear theory’, advocated by anthropologists like Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, which came to replace the unilinear theory by opposing ethnocentric and cultural generalizations and affirming other adaptive branches in the cultural evolutionary tree.

The debate between universal, unilinear, diversified, and multilinear understandings of cultural evolution has not yet been settled. For instance, anthropological collections of thousands of items, such as in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, reveal convergences between distant cultures, and a ‘resonance’ or ‘isomorphism’ in many tools, arts, crafts, and even magic and religious items. The cultural evolutionary forces apparently drive different populations in a similar direction of increased efficacy, performance, or utility maximization according to the practical needs of a given population. When comparing different cultures and their material culture, differences in specific traits can be observed, including belief systems, values, and rules for social interaction. Again, it is likely that shared patterns can be observed, for instance in mythological languages, as Mircea Eliade argued (1964), and even in the development of a universal religious grammar (Oviedo and Canteras 2013).

A hotly disputed question is to what extent theories of cultural evolution allow for some prediction about cultures successfully moving forward in this historical race, and whether some cultures will be left behind. A similar challenge applies to the study of the evolution of religion, preventing quick comparisons between simpler and more complex religious forms. Indeed, given these challenges, such analysis of religious cultures appear quite problematic in contemporary contexts. What can observed, however, is the evolution of the same religious tradition across longer periods of time, like the Christian religion, giving rise to many expressions. But it would be less legitimate to compare religious forms rooted in animism and magic with the so-called ‘post-axial’ religions, or those appearing after the sixth century BCE and converging towards more ethical, salvific, and universalistic expressions. In this new context, research on cultural evolution may aid in discerning the relationship between devotion and ethical attitudes, as manifested in conjunction between ‘the sacred’ and ‘the social’.

To add more arguments to the ongoing discussion, recent contributions from optimistic anthropologies have given a new life to the old idea of cultural evolution (or better, a co-evolution leading to social and cultural forms) interacting with the ability of individuals to filter out our aggressive and selfish ancestral instincts in favour of more cooperative or altruistic behaviours, and to give place to new social, more peaceful, cultural configurations. According to such proposals, this process is already ongoing and data demonstrating how violence has decreased over time adds flesh to these speculative bones. This is not just relevant to culture but about a broad system integrating genetic and epigenetic evolution, whereby social and cultural change accelerate human evolution (Pinker 2011).

The anthropological model should be integrated into the multilevel approach (Jablonka and Lamb 2005). Cultural evolution, as analysed by cultural anthropologists, has garnered significant insights and has earned its place in the toolbox of those studying culture in its long historical developments. Identifying the mechanisms or the engine of such evolution is nevertheless a challenge, as theories like greater rationalization, socialization, or solidarity are hard to verify against the historical record. The next dimensions under examination clearly connect and, possibly, provide some further answer to this conundrum.

2.4 The social and systemic dimension

Cultural evolution is clearly linked to social evolution: the steady development of societies whereby structures change and new social systems emerge that are more adapted to environmental and historical circumstances. (Some researchers in social evolution would object to the idea that such development is ‘steady’, but that it can increase or ‘slow down’ at certain points.) Few scholars doubt that such long-term adaptive processes are influenced by the combination of structural, social, and cultural representations. The central issue is, perhaps, which models or explanations can better track this evolution and so explain the assumed interaction between social structures and culture.

Sociology, since the nineteenth century, has identified a connection between social structures and culture. For instance, Marxist theory described these in terms of ‘infrastructure’, or the economic material basis, and the ‘superstructure’, or the ideological level, which is associated with the idea of culture. Max Weber’s work on historical sociology, and his essays on the perceived affinity between cultural traits and socioeconomic development, can be recognized as an attempt to describe the ways in which culture and social configuration interact to advance societies and render them more resilient and efficient. This process was termed as ‘rationalization’. Subsequent sociologists like Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann should be cited for their efforts to better integrate both dimensions into a more complex model. The basic idea is that the cultural dimension is involved in social change, and that culture too evolves due to this interaction. It is well-known that Parsons offered a model to better explain how that evolution proceeds: in broad strokes, culture evolves alongside social structures, and that interaction requires functions from culture (Parsons 1951). These functions include generalization and integration of values, legitimation, communication, and even a well-ingrained religious system providing a sense of finality.

Abstracting this model, culture is related to ‘information’ and society to ‘energy’. Both are necessary and functional, and when combined they generate a social system. The evolution of that system corresponds to an effective evolution from a cultural or informational perspective, which at the same time is conditioned by the needs and advances at the structural level (Parsons 1972).

In addition to Parsons, and clearly influenced by him, the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann provides another elaborate, complex, and abstract model within the framework of functional systems theory. For Luhmann, culture is associated with semantics and, therefore, linked to meaning. Societies evolve through the combination of structural and the semantic levels, giving rise to new selections or configurations. Semantics pertains to availability of information and capacity of selection, and this process is connected to social structure in a circular way: culture or semantics assist in driving social change, and structural changes, in turn, condition the semantic orientation (Luhmann 1980). Again, the model resembles an integrated package, comprising structural and cultural dimensions which co-evolve, resulting in a concept through which other evolutionary forms can be described. Other sociologists, like Pierre Bourdieu, have observed a similar relationship, distinguishing between the ‘logic of practices’ and the ‘discursive production’, embedded in texts, lessons, and different reality-representing languages (Bourdieu 1990).

Some lessons can be learned from the sociological approach to cultural evolution. The first and most obvious is that it cannot be detached from other evolutionary dynamics taking place at other levels, as for instance the social structure, institutions, or differentiated social systems like economics, politics, science, and others. Isolating culture from these other realities with which it interacts and by which it is nourished would miss the way culture influences and is influenced in those social configurations. The second lesson is that such a process can be traced back to reconstruct historical dynamics, as in the way both Parsons and Luhmann have tried applying their theoretical models to better describe long-term historical changes. A third consequence is that, in the described models, culture differentiates itself, as do the interacting social systems. For instance, it gives place to specific forms like an economic, a political, a literary, and even a religious culture. Following this pattern, culture can be generalized and abstracted, and it can also be specified, according to the differentiated interacting social systems and structures with their respective functions, needs, and performances. A final consequence, at least in the analysis of Luhmann’s model, is that cultural variation is not necessarily linked to the environment and the need to adapt. The environment is seen rather as ‘irritation’, and cultural evolution experiences some autonomy and follows its own logic, more linked to social systems and their communication codes.

Again, this model of cultural evolution shares in part the axioms of the biologically-inspired model, such as the possibility of identifying variations and selections related to adaptive needs. However, the sociological approach vindicates some specific features such as those Parsons has described: generalization of values, legitimation, setting goals, and other more abstract features found in Luhmann, rendering culture a more decisive component in social evolution.

2.5 Cultural history or history of ideas

The last suggested dimension or approach to cultural evolution resorts to a rather different disciplinary realm. It is closer to philosophy, or the study of ideas in the historical process, but it assumes other forms, such as ‘cultural history’ – a multidisciplinary exercise that combines various methods and theoretical frameworks. For the present exploration, the philosophical-historical approach to cultural evolution is based on an in-depth investigation that is able to trace the changes in ideas that have signified long-term historical processes, like the Enlightenment, evolutionism, and the emergence of critical thinking. Some case studies illustrate how this approach works, and what is distinctive about it.

The first example is the work of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (1989; 2007). In his major works, he proceeds thorough an analysis of how ideas have changed and how these changes have configurated new fashions, styles, and social movements. His focus is placed on how developments in the area of ideas, worldviews, and values have determined far-reaching historical changes. One such change is the emergence of a sense of individuality in modern times (Taylor 1989), which was built on a search of authenticity and self-expression, giving rise to the modern self. This finds some starting points in early Romanticism, and has been growing ever since to become a mark of modern times and influencing everything, from politics to economics, aesthetics to education, and family. Another example – related to the first – is the process of secularization, examining how religion has become displaced over the last century (Taylor 2007). This is a deep social and cultural change that affected many areas of personal and common life; and again it is a process that can be traced by an analysis of the history of ideas, showing changes in mentalities whose origins date back to late medieval times, and which can be reconstructed in its many steps.

Ethan Shagan (2018) provides a second interesting case. Shagan is an American historian of ideas who has tried to better understand how Europeans dealt with the idea of belief, especially after the Reformation, and how that process developed through a dangerous and very demanding increase towards a relaxed view, during Enlightenment, which perceived belief as a personal attitude of opinion-making within a plurality of possibilities. From belief as a constraint, societies moved towards an idea of belief as a selection exercise, linked to one’s own identity formation and to social and cultural adscriptions in a thick network of symbolic contents.

The point in these, and in many other examples of approaches to culture and its evolution, is that only a detailed and deep analysis of cultural contents or ideas allows for an accurate identification of the factors in the perceived evolutionary process. The philosophical-historical gaze allows for a better understanding of what is at stake, of the internal and external dynamics that converge in each development, and of the role played by distinct actors and opinion-makers in each historical season. This means a much finer tuning-in to the process of cultural evolution regarding biological and other approaches, and introduces a much greater complexity which is impossible to reduce. As language contains an infinity of possible combinations, culture built on linguistic developments also allows for infinite combinations, and these cannot be harnessed by a simplified model or rule of variation and adaptation. Studying these processes enables a huge variety of attempts to develop human and social potentialities according to the available body of ideas and material, as well as to social developments whose expansion transcends sheer biological evolutionary patterns. Considering, for instance, the success of Baroque style or of Romantic ideas, one can hardly identify such rules. Rather, one observes a succession of styles and views that served the aesthetic and expressive needs of people in those times but were unrelated to demands of survival or reproduction. These ideas, frameworks, and styles arose and expanded, giving place to new configurations which could grow, specialize, and later lose their strength. The case of the formation and dynamics of beliefs offers a good contrast.

2.6 Section conclusion

This section has reviewed five different dimensions or approaches to the study of cultural evolution. It aims to avoid offering a reductive or restricted framework, and building a complex multilevel model, it was able to offer different perspectives on the same phenomenon. This is always an important step: to recognize that the study of culture and its evolution demands the collaboration of several disciplinary approaches to discern the different features involved and how they interact with the environment, the human mind, populations, and history. The study of Jablonka and Lamb on evolution, which identifies four different interacting levels – genetic, epigenetic, behavioural, and symbolic – offers a guide on how the study of cultural evolution needs to be tailored to the various dimensions of cultural evolution (Jablonka and Lamb 2005). In studying culture and cultural evolution, reductionism and miserliness are not good indicators when trying to make sense of so complex and polyhedric a feature.

The collected analyses open some windows to the study of religion, and still more to theology, as will be described later (sections 4.1; 4.2; 4.3). The central lesson is that religion is clearly involved in cultural phenomena because religious forms are passed across generations by social learning, and as such they are subjected to evolution and development through the centuries. Religion interacts with other differentiated cultural realms, and with social systems and institutions. Similar conditions as those previously described also apply to religion, even though this special system shows its own features and characteristics.

3 Cultural evolution applied to religion

Religion is a cultural phenomenon in a broad sense. It gathers available information that renders feasible a particular kind of experience and communication, and in so doing it generates a social system. Very generally speaking, religion is about transcendence – or all information related to a transcendent dimension – beyond the natural or physical realm. This cultural form interacts with a complex system of institutions, rituals, and rules, giving rise to historical religions and special institutions.

As with every other cultural form, religion evolves over time. Whether such evolution – which can be traced back in the history of many religions – can be analysed in terms of cultural evolution, or whether religion experiences its own cultural evolution, is an open question. This section aims to review the available theories describing religious cultural evolution, and to discern how far these theories provide a satisfactory explanation about such a trend. Alternatively, some other avenues can be opened to explore other possible approaches.

3.1 Reviewing main theories on religious cultural evolution

The study of religious evolution grew up in the last two decades from the development of cognitive and biological-evolutionist approaches. This added many new analyses and enriched the available theoretical stock. However, the ongoing discussion prevents a hasty integration of those models, and invites thinkers to deepen the discussion about the (in)adequacy of Darwinian evolutionary models to better understand religious dynamics. The discussion on this particular expression of culture (religious culture) prolongs the general one already discussed in reference to other cultural forms. In any case, it is convenient to refer to these attempts and to take stock of them, to enrich a plural repository of resources for the study of religion.

Reviewing the available literature, it is possible to identify three major senses in which the expression ‘evolution of religion’ has been used:

The first sense is related to the study of the origins of religion. Many published studies take a genetic approach based on the following assumptions: religion probably evolved from some previous forms present in ancient human or prehuman populations, and most likely resulted from a gradual process built after some proto-religious configuration, (in much the same way as language could have evolved from an elementary ‘proto-language’ or less-articulated form). The origins of religion could be then correlated to social changes, like bigger communities requiring greater coordination (Broom 2003; Dunbar 2022).

Regarding the second sense, other studies point to changes and transformations that were instrumental in religion’s evolution. Several studies focus on such factors that could trigger a significant step forward in a religion’s development. One factor might be the gradual assumption of moralizing deities, resulting in the promotion of mutual cooperation and thus paving the way for bigger societies (Norenzayan 2013; Coackley 2013; Davis 2020); or the developments taking place during the Axial Age (a special period during several centuries before the Christian era, involving different cultures moving towards more universal and moralizing religious forms), which pointed to a more spiritual stance, soteriology, and a moral orientation (Bellah 2011).

The third sense describes a long historical process in religions, starting from ancestral times and developing different stages or configurations. More versions point to a unique (or plurality of) factor(s) intervening in that process, making way for identifiable evolutive levels (genetic, individual, social, and cultural) and following a progressive pattern (Whitehouse 2013). This third category adds a theory of stages in the evolution of religions, moving on a recognizable historical trajectory.

Another way to classify the available literature on this topic is to focus on the factors that influence religion’s evolution. A broad distinction again identifies three groups:

  • Biological factors, such as: neurological networks; the physical preconditions of religious mind; or – on a different level – the contribution of religion to enhance prosocial behaviours, cohesion, and other factors that contribute to individual and social fitness (Bloom 2012; Oviedo 2016).
  • Cognitive factors, or those correlated with new cognitive abilities like higher symbolic capacities, creativity, or emotional control. These cognitive factors depend on biases, as well as the double cognitive system (intuitive and analytic) that helps to better comprehend religious processes, such as the progression from more intuitive to more self-reflective forms.
  • Social or structural factors, linked to the formation and development of social structures and institutions. These structural factors follow the model already mentioned connecting religious culture and social institutions.

Several studies try to combine more factors in describing cultural evolutionary processes applied to religion. Others add original suggestions to renew the available models, such as taking religion as its own unit of selection (Wunn and Grojnowski 2016). It is then discussed whether a trajectory can be identified in religious evolution, perhaps towards greater complexity, rationalization, or coordination. Here the ideas developed by Laland and others who advocate a multifactor approach apply, taking into account ‘developmental bias, environment-driven plasticity, niche construction, and cultural coevolution’ (Laland et al. 2014: 163). The plurality of factors and other variables appear as the clear consequence of the reviewed literature. This principle also applies to the variety of methods and theoretical frameworks that can assist in discerning religious evolution, which is by no means linear, progressive, or simple. For instance, it is unclear how language and religion coevolved, or consciousness and symbolic capacity, or religious and supernatural perceptions. What is needed is a program able to investigate these aspects that are somewhat neglected in current research programs.

3.2 The enigma of religion’s cultural evolution

Religions evolve through time, and often it is relatively easy to identify patterns – similar to those found in other evolutionary processes – that follow biological and social rules. However, the registered changes do not always adjust to such models, or in other words, they sometimes follow their own dynamics, proper to the religious mind and experience. Cultural evolution models add several more traits to our understanding of the evolution of religion, like accumulative disposition and learning. When trying to make sense of multiple religious dynamics, identifying a complex pattern is more fitting than reducing those dynamics to a simpler paradigm. However, existing cultural evolution models still present some problems when religion is the subject under scrutiny. This point invites greater caution on the application of these approaches and encourages the exploration of more suitable models for understanding the dynamics of religion.

These problems with the existing models concern, first, the difficulty to relate religion’s evolution to what might be described as adaptive strategies, which are often taken as characteristic of other forms of evolution. This is because adaptive strategies appear in combination with counter-adaptive traits in the religious domain. Niklas Luhmann, for instance, pointed to the unavoidable counter-adaptive character of religion in modern societies, writing that ‘this may be the very reason of its survival’ (Luhmann 1985: 17). Second is the extent to which religion contributes to social stability and order, or – as the historical record often shows – disrupts it, challenging a linear pattern. Religion has been a cause of instability and social disruption. Third, religions have, historically, tended to follow less of a pattern of gradual change than of leaps, discontinuity, and sudden departures, with the emergence of prophets and innovators, rendering the evolutionary paradigm less fitting and requiring adjustment when applied to religions. Fourth, religions evolve through a combination of several factors – some of them clearly specific, like those described in a broad sense as ‘theological’ – rendering it difficult to identify a dominant variable that influences its development, and therefore difficult to predict its course.

It is probable that some solutions can be found within the evolutionary paradigm to address the issue of a ‘special cultural evolution’. For instance, evolution can be conceived in terms of discontinuity and leaps, as a minority scholarly tradition among evolutionary biologists holds (Gould 2002). Cultural evolution recognizes variations of existing forms in culture that appear as counter-adaptive but later give rise to their own niches and become adaptive in the long run. Furthermore, adaptation in cultural terms amounts to a complex process that involves many factors and is usually unpredictable. These factors configure a matrix of different forces, resulting in very complex dynamics.

The difficulty persists when dealing with historical cases. For example, Christian origins and early expansion clearly defy attempts at locating a precise evolutionary pattern, creating a historical enigma that invited analysts to find more plausible explanations. The enigma is that Christianity is a religious form that managed to expand quite swiftly, despite a very hostile environment and all sorts of pressures and persecutions that rendered it very unfitting among the prevalent cultural forces. Several scholars have provided explanations that identify new, better survival and reproduction strategies in Christianity’s first centuries (Stark 1997). However, these explanations are probably not sufficient on their own, and if other factors are ignored it becomes difficult to identify the immediate and ultimate causes that were responsible for such a puzzling development in the history of religions.

A second example of the difficulties applying cultural evolution to religious history is the contrast between two very different models that are used to describe religious evolution: those developed, respectively, by Robin Dunbar (2022) and Karen Armstrong (2022). In Dunbar’s model, the engine that pushes religion forward is the ability to conceive powerful personal gods as a key to the formation of well-ingrained and expanding societies. This view has been suggested by the studies of Norenzayan and associates (Norenzayan 2013; Norenzayan et al. 2016) and has a long development that essentially tries to link religions’ survival and development to their ability to enhance prosocial behaviours. The thesis has been fiercely debated, and the evidence gathered from the history of religions would appear to lead away from this theory, since many surviving religious forms do not specifically privilege prosociality (Oviedo 2016). The alternative model from Armstrong moves in a different direction: religion is not driven by the belief in powerful gods leaning towards dominion or promoting coordination, but by the capacity to conceive the mysterious ground of being, intimately shared by every creature, which renders all beings connected. This allows religions to find a more harmonious relationship with their members and their natural environment. However, such a pattern is not easy to identify in practice, in the sense that more evolved religions would become inclusive, peaceful, and harmonious. The dynamics of religion are not always so simple, and critics might consider Armstrong’s model to be somewhat wishful thinking. These two models of religious evolution reveal a deep difficulty in building a sound theory to account for all the relevant facts.

Interest and research in religious cultural evolution has been promoted in the last twenty years by the cognitive science of religion (CSR) field, which has converged biological and evolutionary models. In a nutshell, CSR is ‘the science of understanding how mental processes and religious expression interact’ (Barrett and Greenway 2017: 96). Such processes are understood to drive and condition religious evolution, and at the same time are produced by evolutionary forces. However, it is far from settled the extent to which such models can explain religious evolutionary process – a process which appears too complex to be reduced to the cognitive dimension, even if the cognitive aspect plays a role in that evolution.

It is possible that the study of religion and its evolution can contribute to the general study of cultural evolution and expand the existing models, integrating some traits specific to religions. For example, a modern tradition in the study of religion has postulated a ‘dialectic’ form of evolution leading religious evolution. In this view, religion often evolves through tensions between contrasting positions, with an eventual synthesis born and progressing from such tension. Other theological forces are at play, like those that emphasize an oppositional stance towards the world or those that rather stress convergence and cultural assimilation – a contrast that can be perceived in the contemporary tensions between conservative or evangelical expressions of Christianity and those which are more liberal. Cultural evolution apparently nourishes two different branches and leads towards diversified forms and expressions of the same religion, with both branches continuing to survive and showing vitality.

The enigmatic character of religion reflects other enigmas arising from human traits and their respective evolution: consciousness, altruism, language, and morality, to draw on only a few significant domains. The expectation is that their study, inside an evolutionary framework, will provide insight about the human condition and build less-reductive evolutionary models.

3.3 Some alternative paths

Recent research provides new apparatus that could be applied to understanding religious cultural evolution without renouncing the formerly-available tools. The most important is the development of ‘belief and believing studies’, a topic very close to religion and its expansion. Other areas of note are the study of rituals (which play an important role in religion and are themselves subject to evolution) and the study of the therapeutic effects of religion, opening new avenues which could help to better understand religious evolution.

3.3.1 The study of beliefs

Among the primary factors that determine religion’s evolution, the process of believing deserves a prominent place. Since belief systems are at the heart of religions and follow their own dynamics, they become a key factor in the study of religion. Beliefs are acquired, gain stability, are enforced, and may eventually lose ground and even go extinct. Such a process is better explained in the growing contemporary field of belief studies, which help to understand religion’s evolution and dynamics. To some extent, the evolution of religious beliefs is a proxy for the evolution of religions in general, even if it would be inaccurate to reduce religion’s evolution to the evolution of beliefs (Oviedo 2020).

The question about how beliefs evolve, and how they influence religions and their dynamics, is an open one. Several factors that play a part in the process can be identified, including (but not limited to): adaptiveness, or the capacity to render beliefs’ holders more fitting in their environment cognitive constraints, as beliefs build on existing mental structures and biases; sociocultural conditions, as beliefs serve and follow cultural needs and plausibility structures; systemic conditions, i.e. those conditions derived from their connection with social systems and their communication codes; and internal coherence, as held beliefs adapt to previously-existing frameworks and avoid forms of dissonance. Several models are available to describe the dynamics presiding over the formation of beliefs and how they gain plausibility and even become impervious to contrary evidence. These issues are analysed in a transdisciplinary way. The expectation is that this ongoing research might add to the existing tools available to the study of religions and deepen the analysis of religious evolution beyond reductivist approaches.

3.3.2 The study of rituals

Rituals comprise another area of research with resonance in the study of religious evolution. It is apparent that rituals, despite their perceived stability and the care to keep them relatively constant within traditions, change and evolve (Bellah 2011). Religious rituals – such as the changing ways of celebrating mass in Catholic churches – can provide examples of such evolution. Again, it is less clear how the rituals’ own dynamics interact with the wider religious expressions in which these rituals are embedded. It is possible that they configure an integrated system together with beliefs, religious structures and organizations, and other factors.

A quick search of the published literature on rituals and their evolution often reveals the already-discussed motives of ritual as fulfilling social needs or serving social functions, like stability, cohesion, punishment of those who disrupt or exploit the system, or rules-enhancement (Whitehouse 2021; Legare and Watson-Jones 2015). This view greatly simplifies a more complex phenomenon in the case of ritual activity, a tendency which pervasive in many areas of research – not just religion – and makes assumptions about the significance of a ritual and the importance of its functions. If rituals develop according to their own dynamics, one might argue it is appropriate to apply a similar understanding to religious evolution. For instance, rituals sometimes gain complexity, integrating new elements, and sometimes following a logic of simplification, rendering them easier and more effective. They can express a greater or lesser sense of sacredness and awe, or they can involve bigger or smaller collectives. Exploring how modifications to rituals are related to changes in forms of religion – leading to religious evolution – is an unfinished task.

3.3.3 Studies on religion and therapy

A third alternative for better understanding how religions evolve is a growing field of research into the positive effects of religious beliefs and practices in health, resilience, wellbeing, and flourishing. This field reveals, with a considerable amount of data, how religion can be perceived as a beneficial factor for individuals, families, and larger collectives. If religious behaviours were not adaptive, they would not be so prevalent in human populations across history. Religion requires too much social and individual investment if there is not some adaptive advantage to engaging in it.

What is the relevance of these studies to the evolution of religion? The first and most obvious answer is that religions could evolve towards serving this priority: helping personal and social health, growth, and quality of life. If, according with some recent analysis, religion is related to vitality (Flood 2019), its evolution should serve that scope, to heal the wounds of life and increase living quality and conditions. The history of major religions can be traced according to this criterion of how a religion has served such a function.

This research program can be extended to cover, for example, changes in religion concerning its interaction with broader cultural environments. Such changes can be observed in contemporary times as religious forms adapt and find their own niche in therapeutic practices and in supplying platforms for healing and wellbeing. This is not a factor in competition with other available explanations on religious evolution, but an important complement rendered more visible by the plenitude of published studies on religious coping, religion, resilience, and wellbeing (Pargament 2010). It is, therefore, a dimension that should not be ignored when considering how religions evolve or which engines drive that evolution.

4 Theological applications

When trying to find a theological applications to the ongoing research on cultural evolution and its concrete relevance in the study of religion, an issue arises that needs special attention: if science manages to explain cultural and religious evolution, what can the theological perspective add? Some theological scholars seek to better understand the long process that is at work through revelation and salvation history with the tools described above (variations, adaptation, and transmission; see sections 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3). Therefore, a narrow view would see the addition of an explicitly theological framework as redundant, since it adds very little to the explanations already available through cultural evolution – which can be quite satisfactory at analysing, for instance, how the biblical tradition proceeded through the centuries.

A comparison could be helpful in this case. Theology faces a similar test when dealing with biological evolution: divine action becomes less necessary to understanding the evolution, and theological explanations still less, as they appear unable to add much of significance to the general frame provided by the evolutionary model (Dupre 2003). This issue has been addressed several times, and the theological view has been vindicated as providing meaning to a process that could otherwise be perceived as too random, blind, contingent, and meaningless. It is not certain that this happens with the analogous area of cultural evolution, following its own logic and transmission of relevant information, explaining a complex and very open evolutionary process. An initial answer could replicate the one regarding the biological evolution: theology provides meaning in what could be perceived as a blind, aimless process. Christian theology has its own way to approach cultural evolution, and still more the evolution of its own tradition: i.e. God in his great wisdom leads that process, revealing himself and his salvation plans through successive steps, historical experiences, trials, reflection, and – above all – inspiration.

A further challenge is posed by those who are suspicious of (or refute) the truth content of religious statements, which could be simply functional or subserving social needs like coordination and moral enhancement. In this sort of ‘debunking strategy’, it has been shown by theological scholars that such functions do not logically entail a debunking or a devaluation of religions’ truth-content. Actually, theology follows rigorous standards, as do many other humanistic disciplines, to achieve the most accurate representations of the shared faith (Davis 2020; van Eyghen 2020; Launonen and Visala 2022).

Contemporary theology is under pressure to adjust its views to incorporate developments describing evolutionary processes – especially those that concern religion – and to take stock of new insights of evolutionary research in order to update its own understanding. This is the hard part in the interaction between science and theology: making place in the theological frame for new scientific approaches that have a clear relevance to traditional theological interpretation. According to Reformed theologian Gijsbert van den Brink, the trajectory from Darwin to Spencer – and even Hitler – made many Christians wary of evolutionary theory as such, fearing that a ‘social Darwinism’ would erode the moral foundation of society (2020: 232). Van den Brink points out, however, that such attempts at deducing social normativity from evolutionary theory risk committing the naturalistic fallacy, whereby what ‘ought’ to be the case is deduced from what ‘is’. At the same time, van den Brink continues, Christians should be careful not to reject social Darwinism because of its close proximity to several isms – including Marxism, atheism, and colonialism – as this would be committing the logical fallacy of ‘guilt by association’ (2022: 233). Although some of these sociobiological arguments can be easily addressed, it remains the case that Darwin’s theory in general, and cultural evolution in particular, pose significant challenges to Christian notions of morality and ethics.

In this case, the challenge is even more demanding, because theology itself is involved and affected. Some have suggested that theological issues and doctrines may need to be revised or rearticulated in light of research in cultural evolution. The first key issue, discussed below, pertains to any understanding of revelation, its transmission and growth, and the concept of salvation history. The second concerns the changes and adaptation of churches and other Christian communities, including the thorny issue of tradition and innovation. The third concerns the cultural evolution of theology, which can be analysed inside the heuristics discussed in this article. Some other issues are related to Christian anthropology, or the understanding of the human condition.

4.1 Cultural evolution, salvation history, and revelation

Christian theology has always identified the Bible as a revealed book, based on events and experiences occurring over a long historical period, with special concentration on the person of Christ and his subsequent impact through apostolic preaching. The formation of the Bible, however, can be seen at the same time as a good case for cultural evolution, as it shows the same dynamics present in other religions and their foundational texts. At work are adaptive forces, cognitive constraints, biases, anthropological cultural conditions, and the long tension and struggle of competing ideas to better describe human experiences and provide meaning. The issue is that this history, and the text that results, can be seen in a naturalistic way – leading to a study of the dynamics that contribute to it – or in a transcendent or religious way, as a divinely-driven history and an inspired text. Indeed, some attempts have tried to describe biblical traditions by applying the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion (Czachesz and Theissen 2019).

This duality need not be necessarily a bad thing. Many phenomena admit more than one explanation. Historical events can be told by applying very different axioms such as political, economic, or cultural forces, or human factors, among others. Naturalistic and theological supernatural views simply reveal the multifaceted character of the events and texts under discussion. This plurality was already noted (section 2) in the attempt to make sense of such a complex feature as cultural evolution. The question is whether the theological element appears as legitimate, and whether it helps scholars to better understand the development of biblical traditions. A simple answer is that such a religious view is relevant for those who share a belief system that assumes a divine presence and action in the world, but not for others who might approach it for non-religious reasons or simple curiosity as something that has a role in a wider cultural configuration. Indeed, for believers, it works the other way around: the naturalist explanation of what they consider inspired and sacred may arise from curiosity that provides another way to approach its meaning.

In an attempt to move from the former dual model that places the natural and supernatural in strict opposition – a model which could lead to some form of ‘double magisterium’ or division of territories and maps (Harrison 2015; McGrath 2019) – Christian theology has tried, since very early on, to understand phenomena that could be seen as both natural and as supernatural as reflecting God’s will. A double causality could be perceived by the educated theological gaze: God acts through the natural secondary causes, and the faithful will identify the ultimate cause of everything in God’s will and wise design. The recently-developed heuristic to observe cultural evolution represents a rich means to follow and understand the divine wisdom acting through natural processes, whose ultimate meaning (in a Christian frame) is disclosed to those who confess their trust in divine providence.

The book Conjunctive Explanations (Finnegan et al. 2023) offers an interesting way to see both explanatory levels as complementary, and as enriching our understanding of very complex phenomena where the scientific approach remains somehow incomplete. The central issue concerns the specific theological contribution to explanations of religious cultural evolution. Several chapters try to address this point in relation to general evolutionary studies. One shared concern shared by the book is a focus on meaning, or the capacity of the theological gaze to provide meaning to an otherwise blind and enigmatic process. In a more subtle way, teleology or a sense of direction or end goal in evolution – and the intriguing case of emergence from some sets giving place to different phenomena, like life and consciousness – can be better understood within a theological framework.

4.2 Tradition and innovation

The second area of theological application concerns fidelity to tradition (a characteristic of most Christian churches) and the possibility to conceive change and innovation. The discussion runs deep in churches in which fidelity to tradition becomes an essential part of the community’s identity, problematizing change as a potential challenge to sacred traditions and teachings.

Nevertheless, despite claims to the contrary, Christian churches and confessions have evolved throughout history, sometimes in radical ways as churches needed to adapt to modern times, dress, social and cultural environments, technologies, and mentalities. Older believers can look to the past and recognize how different the Christianity they presently confess and celebrate is from the model they knew in their youth. An issue discussed in many churches is whether the evolution they have experienced has been positive and adaptive or negative and counter-adaptive in view of the impact of changes such as secularization and other evolving cultural factors, as well as those arising from within churches themselves. It is hard to assess whether alternative strategies and actions – like persisting in a fixed tradition without any change or innovation – would result in better outcomes for church communities and provide more resistant or resilient forms of religion.

This question is more than just theological, and invites greater analysis and testing to discover which religious forms or expressions demonstrate better adaptation to changing contexts. Christian churches have evolved institutionally and culturally over the centuries, and important reforms and epochal changes can be identified during times which have been subjected to powerful transformative dynamics. It is futile to ignore this fact or to pretend that nothing in Christianity has changed after the second century, when the biblical canon was fixed and the churches underwent their first institutionalization. For that reason, theology needs to be very cautious when trying to look back to Christian origins – a movement named ressourcement – to produce normative interpretations, as if the later evolution of the church makes little sense and only its origins were able to provide the true meaning of the Christian message and ecclesial forms. To recognize this evolution means to assume that each historical time has had its own ways to adapt to new situations, always considering the canonical texts and references but reading them from new perspectives.

4.3 The evolution of theology

Theology can be seen as a standard form of academic culture, and as such it has undergone an evolution of its own. Despite changes over time, a set of texts that form the ‘Great Tradition’ in the church became classics and preserve a normative character. The question is: to what extent can theology be observed as a reflexive activity, following similar evolutionary patterns as other disciplines and academic activities by combining a respect for the classical works with the need to progress and find fitting adaptations to new times and circumstances? If theology becomes merely a commentary on classic texts, the evolutionary stance is less relevant. If theology is understood as an effort to adapt canonical doctrines to changing times and to deal with new circumstances in order to deliver salvific content, then theology’s task clearly assumes a more evolutionary form; it is based on continuous challenges, revising its errors and failed proposals, correcting them, and looking for better expressions. This kind of reflective process can be observed in the ways the perception of God and Christ have changed through Christian history (Campbell 2006; Pelikan 1985; Knight 2020).

One open question is to what extent such changes in theology can be identified as an evolution (in a sense close to the models of cultural evolution), or as a process that brings more adaptive versions or better perspectives that enrich the Christian tradition and the possibilities to live and express that faith. It is important to appreciate that theology, from a strictly evolutionary perspective, can be seen as a direct object of natural selection. In that framework, religion-specific theologies that increase the growth rate or longevity of a population will survive; those that do not will become extinct. However, this narrow evolutionary perspective is reductive. Theology as a discipline has evolved and continues to evolve beyond the interests of its own continued expansion, and can be better appreciated at the symbolic level, where developments based on ideas and language assume a meaning of their own and allow believers to enjoy spiritual and aesthetic experiences mostly unrelated to demands of mere evolutionary survival.

In any case, theology evolves as a result of many tensions and pressures exerted from several instances. Some that exert greater gravity are: a sense of reasonableness in its interpretations; aesthetic or rhetoric force; connecting with contemporary trends or cultural environments and sensitivities; remaining faithful to canonical texts; and favouring cohesion or communion.

When understood within a cultural evolutionary framework, contemporary times can be seen to represent a particularly difficult trial for Christian theology. Theology is faced with challenges concerning the survival of Christianity’s entire religious system, included its reflexive dimension. If it fails to overcome that test and is unable to evolve to cope with current threats and challenges, it could mean its own ‘extinction’, following the biological parallel.

4.4 Theological anthropology and the doctrine of sin

Some theologians have highlighted the implications of cultural evolution for theological anthropology. In Alone in the World? (2006), based on his 2004 Gifford Lectures, Wentzel van Huyssteen explores how evolutionary biology, genetics, palaeoanthropology, and an evolutionary understanding of culture more broadly can challenge and inform the doctrine of the imago Dei. In particular, van Huyssteen evaluates to what extent the evolutionary narrative may challenge conceived notions of human uniqueness, and whether an interdisciplinary understanding of human origins allows believers to say that humans are uniquely created in the image of God. Although van Huyssteen resists the reductionist message of some evolutionary thinkers, he ultimately offers a ‘revisioning of the imago Dei’ that acknowledges human embeddedness in the natural world and close ties to the animal kingdom (2006: 271ff). This view of the imago Dei locates human distinctiveness in the relational capacities of symbolic representation, imagination, and language.

Christopher Hays and Michael Burdett (2017) suggest something similar when they reject a ‘purely “substantive” anthropology, which identifies the human intellect and rationality with the image of God’. Instead, they propose a relational and functional anthropology that takes into account human responsibility as God’s representatives in the world and the ‘distinct relationship human beings have with God’ (Hays and Burdett 2017: 477).

A second issue concerns the doctrine of sin in light of biological and cultural evolutionary dynamics. Lluis Oviedo contends that scientific data strongly indicates the implausibility of an ‘original’ or ‘first sinful action’ and argues that we may need to embrace an apophatic attitude, acknowledging our epistemic ignorance about the nature of sin and evil (2020: 115). This does not, however, mean that we should ‘downplay the doctrine of original sin’; rather, we should more deeply recognize that its complexity escapes a ‘complete naturalization’ (2020: 115).

According to Benno van den Toren, an evolutionary-cultural understanding of original sin suggests that humans are bound by sin in the sense that we inherit a range of sinful practices from our community, parents, and educators. For good or for evil, we ‘are biologically hardwired to imitate their practices’ (Van den Toren 2018: 182). This realization allows us to avoid the Pelagian assertion that human nature is essentially good, while moving beyond the opposite problem of Manichaeism, according to which the world is radically and intrinsically evil. A similar view is expressed by Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt (2022) who have explored the congruency between Friedrich Schleiermacher’s social account of the transmission of sin and a biocultural evolutionary model of human nature. Schleiermacher’s view that sin is socially transmitted coheres well with recent research into the inheritance of cultural and behavioural norms, suggesting that ‘young children are to an important extent guided by the norms of their community and the behaviour of their elders when deciding how to behave’ (De Cruz and De Smedt 2022: 17). Combining this theological account with recent research in cultural evolution can avoid the apparent tension of saying that sin is an unavoidable feature of human nature and also something for which we are personally responsible (2022: 11).

Hays and Burdett, as well as van den Toren, seek to apply the cultural evolution framework to better understand several theological features of human condition, such as the divine image, sinfulness, and capacity for extreme love (Hays and Burdett 2017; Van den Toren 2018). Their analyses point out to how cultural evolutionary processes, like imitation, social learning, and conformity, could contribute to, enforce, or increase both positive and negative human trends, like moral capacity and mutual love on the one hand and selfishness, aggressiveness, and promiscuity on the other. The application of such a theory presupposes the genetic dimension, and hence assumes a version of gene-culture co-evolution, offering a better explanation of these human tendencies in all their complexity. The problem is that such a theory apparently explains a tendency both to love and to selfishness, generating some perplexity. Nevertheless, Christian anthropology can learn more about the human condition by broadening its toolbox beyond the traditional views.

The range of theological applications of cultural evolution can be extended, for instance, to ecclesiology: that is, to how the Christian churches have developed along their difficult history following the patterns of cultural evolution, or similar patterns, and how churches can be better conceived as the result of dynamics of social learning, imitation, and conformity. However, such a paradigm is always limited, and the observation of Christian communities offers examples relating to conformity and disconformity, and to positive social and negative asocial biases.

5 Concluding remarks: theology observing evolutionary processes

This article has presented cultural evolution as a multifaceted phenomenon that is common to all dimensions of culture, yet which involves patterns and factors specific to various cultural forms in a complex and interrelated evolutionary process. The study of such influences tries to harness cultural complexity to better understand its internal dynamics.

The article’s second goal has been to review how the described paradigm of cultural evolution applies to the study of religion – since religion itself evolves through its multiform expressions – and to suggest some additional factors that are involved in the development of religious systems which may be less present in other cultural forms. The specific character of religions can be better understood by considering the role that beliefs, rituals, and wellbeing play in that process.

Thirdly, the article has offered a brief description of how the acquired heuristics of cultural evolution can be fruitfully applied to theology. It has been suggested that this framework can contribute to theological scholarship, provided theology is open to engaging with cultural evolutionary models. This analysis highlighted the pressing challenges to theology presented by alternative naturalist explanations to understandings of revelation; the issue of tradition and innovation; and theology as itself an evolving part of culture. It remains to be seen whether by incorporating such heuristics, Christian theology is at risk of a theological identity crisis, or even whether theology might become ‘less theological’ and more of a standard social science. The pressure exerted by naturalistic explanations about traditional religious processes, which only theology tried to explain, remains strong. Theology needs to engage more on this frontier in order to respond to the theologically incomplete character of strictly scientific explanations. Theological engagement is needed to address the increasingly complex questions – and even mysteries – regarding human existence arising through evolutionary studies, not only in the field of cultural evolution; and to vindicate theology’s capacity to provide richer explanations and perspectives that can be combined with the insights and findings generated by science.

The expectation is that theology might learn from this interaction, and that it might be able to incorporate the evolutionary heuristic into its own self-understanding and development, while at the same time contributing its own perspective to those trying to better understand the unique evolution of theology and religion.


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  • Further reading

    • Bellah, Robert N. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
    • Bulbulia, Joseph Abdul, and Richard Sosis. 2008. The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques. Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press.
    • Fuentes, Agustin. 2019. Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.
    • Hemminger, Hansjörg. 2021. Evolutionary Processes in the Natural History of Religion Body, Brain, Belief. Cham: Springer.
    • Laland, Kevin N. 2017. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    • Richerson, Peter J., and Robert Boyd. 2005. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.
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    • Armstrong, Karen. 2022. Sacred Nature: How We Can Recover Our Bond with the Natural World. London: The Bodley Head.
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    • Bellah, Robert N. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
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