The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion


  • Terrence Deacon University of California, Berkeley
  • Tyrone Cashman University of California, Berkeley



emergence, symbolic capacity, origin of religion, evolutionary biology


The scientific investigation of the human religious predisposition has recently been augmented by considering it from an evolutionary perspective. This approach has provided new insights but has also generated controversy because of its reductionist goals. Here we explore the religious predisposition in terms of its emergent characteristics, specifically those that we consider to be a consequence of the evolution of symbolic abilities. We argue that the evolution of symbolic capacity has resulted in three unprecedented modifications of hominid cognitive and emotional predispositions that are particularly relevant for explaining some of the more distinctive and enigmatic characteristics of religion: (1) a predisposition to understand worldly events and one’s own identity and place within the world in narrative terms; (2) a predisposition to conceive of the world as two-layered, so that some objects and events of mundane experience are like signs expressing meanings that concern a hidden and more fundamental level of existence; and (3) a capacity for what we describe as emergent emotional experiences that are of a higher-order than primary evolved emotions, and which are in turn the source of transcendent forms of experience—often considered to be the most exalted aspects of a spiritual life.

Author Biographies

Terrence Deacon, University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley

Tyrone Cashman, University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley


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How to Cite

Deacon, T., & Cashman, T. (2010). The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 3(4), 490–517.