Evolutionary Perspectives on Unbelief: An Introduction from the Editor


The scientific study of atheism and unbelief is at a pivotal turning point: past research is being evaluated, and new directions for research are being paved. Organizations are being formed with an exclusive focus on unbelief research, and large grants are funding the topic in ways that historically have never happened before. This article serves as an introduction to the state of the literature and study of evolutionary perspectives towards unbelief, which incorporates cognitive, adaptive, and biological contributors. This article serves to contextualize the subsequent articles, which all have distinct perspectives on the evolutionary factors that contribute towards unbelief.

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  • 1. Aghababaei, N., Sohrabi, F., Eskandari, H., Borjali, A., Farrokhi, N., & Chen, Z. J. Predicting Subjective Well-being by Religious and Scientific Attitudes with Hope, Purpose in Life, and Death Anxiety as Mediators, Personality and Individual Differences 90, 2016, pp. 93-98.

  • 2. Asp, E., Ramchandran, K., & Tranel, D. Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, and the Human Prefrontal Cortex, Neuropsychology 26 (4), 2012, pp. 414-421.

  • 3. Barrett, J. L. Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief, New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2012.

  • 4. Barrett, J. L. Metarepresentation, Homo religious, and Homo symbolicus, In C. Henshilwood and F. D’Errico (eds.), Homo Symbolicus, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011, pp. 205-224.

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  • 8. Farias, M., van Mulukom, V., Kahane, G. Kreplin, U., Joyce, A., Soares, P., Oviedo, L., Hernu, M., Rokita, K., Savulescu, J., & Möttönen, R. Supernatural Belief is not Modulated by Intuitive Thinking Style or Cognitive Inhibition, Scientific Reports 15100, 2017, pp. 1-8.

  • 9. Harris, E., McNamara, P. Neurologic Constraints on Evolutionary Theories of Religion. The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior, Berlin Heidelberg: Springer, 2009, pp. 205-215.

  • 10. Johnson, D. God is Watching You, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

  • 11. Jones, J. W. Can Science Explain Religion? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

  • 12. Ladd, K. L., Messick, K. J. A Brief History of the Psychological Study of the Role(s) of Religion, In W. Woody, R. Miller, & W. Wozniak (eds.), Psychological specialties in historical context: Enriching the classroom experience for teachers and students, 2016, pp. 204-216. Division 2, American Psychological Association, retrieved from https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/psychspec.

  • 13. Lindeman, M., Svedholm-Häkkinen, A. M. Let Us Be Careful with the Evidence on Mentalizing, Cognitive Biases, and Religious Beliefs, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39, 2016, pp. 33-34.

  • 14. Lindeman, M., Jari, L. Diverse Cognitive Profiles of Religious Believers and Nonbelievers, The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 26 (3), 2016, pp. 185-192.

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  • 16. McNamara, P., Durso, R., Brown, A., & Harris, E. The Chemistry of Religiosity: Evidence from Patients with Parkinson’s Disease, In P. McNamara (ed.), Where God and Science Meet, Volume 2 The Neurology of Religious Experience, Westport, CT, US: Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, pp. 1-14.

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  • 21. Park, C. L., McNamara, P. Religion, Meaning, and the Brain, In P. McNamara (ed.), Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion: The Psychology of Religious Experience, Westport, CT, US: Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, pp. 82-104.

  • 22. Schmack, K., Rössler, H., Sekutowicz, M., Brandl, E. J., Müller, D. J., Petrovic, P., & Sterzer, P. Linking Unfounded Beliefs to Genetic Dopamine Availability, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 9, 2015, pp. 1-10.

  • 23. Schnell, T. Dimensions of Secularity (DoS): An Open Inventory to Measure Facets of Secular Identities, The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 25 (4), 2015, pp. 272-292.

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  • 25. Schwartenbeck, P., FitzGerald, T. H., & Dolan, R. Neural Signals Encoding Shifts in Beliefs, NeuroImage 125, 2016, pp. 578-586.

  • 26. Shenhav, A., Rand, D. G., & Greene, J. D. Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141, 2012, pp. 423-428.

  • 27. Shor, E., Roelfs, D. J. The Longevity Effects of Religious and Nonreligious Participation: A Meta-analysis and Meta-regression, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52 (1), 2013, pp. 120-145.

  • 28. Silver, C. F., Coleman III, T. J., Hood Jr, R. W., & Holcombe, J. M. The Six Types of Nonbelief: a Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative, Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17 (10), 2014, pp. 990-1001.

  • 29. Szocik, K. Adaptationist Accounts Can Tell Us More About Religion than Cognitive Accounts Can, In H. van Eyghen, G. van den Brink, & R. Peels (eds.), New Developments in the Cognitive Science of Religion, Cham: Springer, 2018, pp. 93-108.

  • 30. Urgesi, C., Aglioti, S. M., Skrap, M., & Fabbro, F. The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence, Neuron 65 (3), 2010, pp. 309-319.

  • 31. Van Eyghen, H. Religious Belief is Not Natural. Why Cognitive Science of Religion does not show that Religious Belief is Trustworthy, Studia Humana 5 (4), 2016, pp. 34-44.

  • 32. Wiech, K., Farias, M., Kahane, G., Shackel, N., Tiede, W., & Tracey, I. An fMRI Study Measuring Analgesia Enhanced by Religion as a Belief System, PAIN 139 (2), 2009, pp. 467-476.


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