Did Religion 'Emerge' through Evolution?

How did mankind develop its unique ability to participate in religion? This question was recently explored by evolutionists who found that morals do not necessarily proceed from religious, cultural, or any other learned aspect. From this, they reasoned that religion “emerged” as a by-product of cognitive faculties that evolved for other reasons. But there is a key consideration they seem to have skipped.

In their study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers Ilkka Pyysiäinen of the University of Helsinki and Marc Hauser from Harvard University stated, “Religion stands on the shoulders of cognitive giants, psychological mechanisms that evolved for [sic] solving more general problems.”1 They argued that “a suite of mental mechanisms” give humans the ability to “think what others think,” even if they are not present. Other mechanisms that are accessed for religious involvement include “commitment signals,” the ability to form coalitions, and “moral feelings.”1

Hauser conducts a large Internet-based ongoing study through Harvard called the Moral Sense Test.2 About 100,000 respondents have answered moral dilemma questions that are designed to bypass current issues and tap into a more intuitive sense of right and wrong. Hauser found that humans’ moral senses are remarkably consistent―from teenagers to the aged, and in people from dozens of countries and many different religions. This means that morals are a part of mankind’s cognitive furniture and are not the result of any particular religion—including atheism.

From these kinds of results, Hauser argued in his 2006 book Moral Minds that “morality is grounded in our biology” and that “we are born with abstract rules or principles.”3 Where did these and other foundational mechanisms for human religion come from?

The recent paper in Trends stated, “A more plausible view, we suggest, is that most, if not all, of the psychological ingredients that enter into religion originally evolved to solve more general problems of social interaction and subsequently were co-opted for use in religious activities.”1

But this assumes naturalism and broad-scale evolution in general, as well as the unlikely idea that these immaterial cognitive capacities “could have been a target for selection.”1 Such speculations over the origins of religion have been framed entirely within the religiously held tenets of naturalism, which holds that the only legitimate cause for any phenomenon is found within nature. According to this philosophy, even if evidence in nature clearly points to the supernatural, it is invalid by definition and therefore excluded from consideration.

Nowhere in the discussion about the origin of religion is there mention of the idea that religious devotion could actually have been provided to mankind for a specific purpose.

Hauser and Pyysiäinen asked whether religion evolved as a trait that increased survivability, or if it evolved as a natural consequence of the independent evolution of each of several cognitive mechanisms that undergird mankind’s ability to participate in religion. They did not ask if religion evolved. That is taken for granted―taken on faith.

But the Bible would predict Hauser and Pyysiäinen’s study results. From a biblical perspective, when Hauser found an innate knowledge of right and wrong in so many different people, what he evidently encountered was mental “furniture” that had been set in place by the Creator. The book of Romans relates that moral sensibility is present even in people who have not been exposed to religious instruction: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts.”4

On a related note, it turns out that the Ten Commandments line up well with each person’s basic moral structure, whether or not he is specifically familiar with them.5 For example, almost every married person gets upset when his/her spouse commits adultery. They would not get upset unless they knew it was wrong.

Thus, the Creator’s Word accurately accounts for a scientific observation about the moral nature of mankind. Given the illogic behind assertions of how something immaterial like a knowledge of right and wrong arose from a Darwinian process of selection of material traits, it makes more sense that God, being all-good, would endow His humanity with a sense of what is good.


  1. Pyysiäinen, I. and M. Hauser. 2010. The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product? Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 14 (3): 104-109.
  2. The Moral Sense Test. Posted on harvard.edu. Accessed February 19, 2010.
  3. Hauser, M. D. 2006. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. New York: Ecco Press, quoted in Rorty, R. Born to Be Good. The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Posted on nytimes.com August 27, 2006, accessed February 21, 2008.
  4. Romans 2:14-15.
  5. Budziszewski, J. 2003. What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Co.

* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.

Article posted on March 5, 2010.

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