Peering into the Minds of Gods

What Cross-Cultural Variation in Gods’ Concerns Can Tell Us about the Evolution of Religion


  • Theiss Bendixen Aarhus University
  • Benjamin Grant Purzycki Aarhus University



cognitive science of religion, cultural evolution, behavioral ecology, minds of gods, cultural evolutionary psychology, cognitive anthropology


Cross-cultural beliefs about gods’ concerns point to local socioecological challenges. Such appeals to gods’ concerns provide insights for understanding religious cognition specifically and the evolution of religious systems more generally. Here, we review case studies to this effect, and introduce the “god-problem problem”: to the extent that gods are concerned with local socioecological problems, which criteria does a problem need to satisfy in order to become an object of supernatural attention? We offer some preliminary solutions to this puzzle, which leads to a related, but often-overlooked, question: granted that features of religions may culturally evolve to adaptively fit to and resolve aspects of the local socioecological environment, what are the psychological processes through which this adaptation could occur? We wager that in order to answer the question satisfactorily, contemporary evolutionary approaches need to work together. Psychologically, the socioecological environment provides the initial impetus for a belief or practice by increasing the cognitive salience of a corresponding local problem and its costs. This increased receptivity makes such ideas and corollary behaviors easier to learn and transmit along the routes posited by dual-inheritance theorists. Behaviors feed back to beliefs and can offset the costs of social life in a variety of ways. As such, examining how cognition, social learning, behavior, and ecological pressures inform each other is especially crucial for understanding the persistence, diffusion, and evolution of religious ideas and practices.


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How to Cite

Bendixen, T. ., & Purzycki, B. G. (2020). Peering into the Minds of Gods: What Cross-Cultural Variation in Gods’ Concerns Can Tell Us about the Evolution of Religion. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 5(2), 142–165.