SYMPOSIUM ON THE QUESTION "HOW IS CULTURE BIOLOGICAL?" ~ Six Essays and Discussions: Essay # 3, by John Scott Price, "The Culture of Religious Belief Systems and Changes of Belief System"


Everyone has a belief system which they share with members of their group. A small percentage of people experience a change of belief system, and if they persuade others to share it, they are prophets, if they fail to persuade others, they are labeled psychotic. The new belief system is incompatible with the old, and results in the prophet and followers going to a “promised land”. This accelerates the process of colonizing vacant territory, and therefore both the capacity to develop a new belief system, and the capacity to be persuaded to switch to the belief system of the prophet, may have been selected for at both the individual and group level of selection.

Responses by Joseph Carroll, Diana Kornbrot, Anja Müller-Wood & John Carter Wood, and Robert Stonjek

Rejoinder by John Scott Price


John Scott Price

The Culture of Religious Belief Systems and Changes of Belief System

Belief Systems (Mazeways)

Human beings have a set of beliefs about themselves and the world they live in. Following the lead of anthropologist Anthony Wallace I will call this set of beliefs a “mazeway.1,2 The mazeway contains beliefs about the relationship of the individual to his group, his ancestry, his Gods, his purpose in the world, and his moral code. Most of the mazeway is shared with members of the same group and is learned during childhood. Learning about specific beliefs depends on language. Therefore, the development of mazeways must have begun after our hominid ancestors split off from the chimpanzee line and we began to develop a symbolic vocal language. Then each group could get one or more unique symbols to define it – a name, a unique language or dialect, a myth of its origins and maybe a flag or even a national anthem. This development of group symbols must have greatly enhanced the cohesiveness of groups and as a result encouraged group competition. Group efficiency and solidarity were further enhanced by the adoption of a unique concept of God, together with a myth of origin and a prescription for moral behaviour. Most writers on religion agree that such a group should have an advantage to out-compete any group lacking such beliefs.3

The elements of a mazeway – e.g., beliefs about God, purpose, moral code – are neither false nor true. They are unverifiable. They consist of what Roy Rappaport4 has called sacred knowledge, to distinguish it from ordinary practical (profane) knowledge. Stephen Jay Gould5 spoke of two non-overlapping “magisteria” of sacred and profane discourse, while Karen Armstrong6 distinguished between the sacred “mythos” and the profane “logos.” The existence of sacred knowledge makes it possible for every group to have a different mazeway. Each child learns the mazeway of its group, which then appears self-evident. One has no insight into the irrationality of one’s own belief. People who subscribe to different mazeways from one’s own are regarded as infidels or heathen. As Sir Thomas Browne pointed out as long ago as 1658, “The Religion of one seems madness unto another.”7 The ubiquity of mazeways suggests that over the past few million years groups whose members lacked the capacity to develop a mazeway must have died out.8

Change of Belief System (Mazeway Resynthesis)

Even more remarkable than the development of unique sacred belief systems is the capacity for change of belief system. This has been observed over and over again by anthropologists in the formation of cults and New Religious Movements. The future prophet or cult leader undergoes an intense experience, sometimes accompanied by apparent physical illness and often by auditory hallucinations. As a result a new mazeway is formed. It is as if the elements of the old mazeway were shaken in a kaleidoscope and a new and meaningful pattern emerges. There is a sense of mission and a compulsion to share the new mazeway with others. The reaction of those others is sharply divided between those who reject the new ideas, which are regarded as heresy, and those who accept them and regard them as being of supernatural origin. These latter undergo “conversion” to the new ideas of the prophet in what has been called “secondary mazeway resynthesis” (to distinguish it from the “primary mazeway resynthesis” of the prophet). They then become followers or cult members and a new social unit with a new and unique mazeway has been formed.9

Views from Anthropology

Many anthropologists have reported on New Religious Movements from around the world.9 They emphasise that they all begin in the revelatory experience of a single individual. “It is noteworthy that many Messianic movements, both in Africa and the Pacific, are best interpreted as the cultural extension of individual delusions and that they arise in religious settings which emphasise the emotional or non-rational interchange of beliefs between members.”10,11 Contrary to what one might expect, new belief systems do not emerge as a consensus from group discussion. They arise in the “primary mazeway resynthesis” of a single individual.

Roland Littlewood12 argues that “individual delusions may be converted into a shared public culture by the manipulation of previously accepted symbolism.” In his study of “charisma” Bryan Wilson points out that “If a man runs naked down the street proclaiming that he alone can save others from impending doom, and if he immediately wins a following, then he is a charismatic leader: a social relationship has come into being. If he does not win a following, then he is simply a lunatic.” 13

Felicitas D. Goodman and colleagues conclude:

Not infrequently in primitive societies the code, or the core of it, is formulated by one individual in the course of a hallucinatory revelation: such prophetic experiences are apt to launch religiously oriented movements, since the source of the revelation is apt to be regarded as a supernatural being. 14

Group Competition and Group Selection

I pointed out above that group efficiency and solidarity are enhanced by the adoption of a unique God together with a myth of origin and a prescription for moral behaviour. Such a group should outcompete any group lacking such beliefs. Other adaptations favour group cohesiveness. For instance, we have suggested that affective disorders are part of an appeasement system which reduces within-group conflict and permits a harmonious distribution of leader and follower roles within the group.15 Co-operation within groups and aggression between groups appears to have been the rule during hominid evolution16 although this is not a universal view.17

Like the amoeba, a group needs to split in order to succeed in evolutionary terms. Therefore, in addition to the capacity to develop belief systems, human groups had to evolve the capacity for change of belief system, expressed in a small proportion of individuals. They also needed to have the capacity to be converted to someone else’s new belief system as expressed in a rather larger proportion of individuals.18,19

Of course a human social group can split without a new mazeway, as when colonisation occurs. But splitting associated with mazeway resynthesis must greatly enhance the rate of splitting. Rapid group splitting favours selection between groups as opposed to selection within groups. This is important for the evolution of group processes and for the co-evolution of genes and culture.20 Most important of all, it selects for the capacity of a group to decide which of its members shall be fittest in terms of reproduction, and so to select people who put the interests of the group (i.e., the common good) before their own selfish interests. Such a capacity cannot evolve by means of within-group selection.

The Capacity To Be Converted to a New Belief System

In the formation of a cult, it is necessary not only to have a leader who has generated a new belief system, but also a pool of potential followers who have the capacity to be converted to this new system. The vast majority of human beings grow up with a belief system inculcated into them by parents and teachers – the human child appears designed to take for granted what it is told. We have an innate quality of indoctrinability.21 What is surprising is that such belief systems can be changed radically in what is known as religious conversion.

This conversion of the followers to the mazeway of the prophet has been called “secondary mazeway resynthesis” to distinguish it from the primary mazeway resynthesis undergone by the prophet. For one thing it is reversible. Those who have been converted often revert back to their original beliefs, whereas the new beliefs of the prophet are relatively permanent. This means that in the convert the new belief system is held together with the original belief system, which is split off or dissociated from conscious awareness. Also, the new belief system is swallowed whole, and is not altered or added on to. As a result, all the members of the cult share the belief system generated by the prophet. The converts or followers have the capacity for various dissociative behaviours like speaking with tongues, seizures and possession by spirits. These characteristics are similar to the dissociation seen clinically in hysterical disorders such as fugues, paralyses and sensory impairments.

What is clear is that the capacities for primary and secondary mazeway resynthesis are complementary. Both are required for the formation of new groups with new belief systems. We need both the prophet to generate the new belief and the convert to transform the prophet and potential madman into a cult leader. The splitting of a human group is more complex than the cell division of the amoeba. However, both are required for the rapid dispersion of the species over the available habitat.


Dispersal is important in biology. Many amazing biological devices have evolved to ensure it, such as the production of fruits and nectar by plants and the provision of tasty protuberances called elaiosomes by seeds to attract insects. Often a species will produce two forms: (1) a maintenance phenotype (the outcome of genes and the structures they produce interacting with a specific environment) which is adapted to the environment in which it is born and (2) a dispersal phenotype which is programmed to move to a new area and which often has the capacity to adapt to a new environment.22 According to the present theory, humans have developed two dispersal phenotypes in the forms of the prophet and the follower. The co-ordinated action of these two phenotypes would serve to disperse us over the available habitat. This dispersal must have been aided by the major climatic changes over the past few million years in which vast areas of potential human habitat have repeatedly become available because of melting of ice sheets.

The dispersal phenotypes might have evolved through selection at the individual level, since the reproductive advantage of colonising a new habitat would have been enormous. They would also promote selection between groups. This is important because selection at the group level can achieve results not possible at the level of selection between individuals.23,24 One result of the dispersal phenotype includes ethnocentrism (the tendency to favour one’s own ethnic group over another) and the tendency to “ethnic cleansing.” The other result, as previously noted, is selection for co-operation, self-sacrifice and a devotion to group rather than individual goals. Factors that promote selection at the group level are rapid splitting of groups, small size of daughter groups, heterogeneity (differences) of culture between groups, and reduction in gene flow between groups. These factors are all promoted by the breaking away of prophet-led groups with new belief systems.

One of the problems of selection at the group level is that of free-riders. These are people who take more than their share and contribute to the common good of the group less than their proper share.25 Selection at the group level gives free-riders their free ride. They potentially could increase until they destroy the cooperative fabric of the group. However, the psychology of the free-rider, which is one of self-aggrandisement and neglect of group goals, is not likely to be indoctrinated with the mazeway of the group. Nor is it likely to be converted to the new belief system of the prophet. Therefore, theoretically one would predict that cults and New Religious Movements should be relatively free of free-riders. Such an absence of free riders would further enhance selection at the group level.

Relation of Mazeway Resynthesis to Psychosis

In Feet of Clay Anthony Storr26 lucidly equated the revelatory experiences of prophets and other types of guru with the delusions of psychotic patients. What distinguished the guru from the patient was his ability to persuade other people to share his new beliefs. As Storr put it, “some gurus avoid the stigma of being labelled insane or even being confined in a mental hospital because they have acquired a group of disciples who accept them as prophets rather than perceiving them as deluded.” If there was a biological advantage in being a guru and leading a group of disciples to a “promised land” this advantage might be great enough to balance those many cases in which a new sect died out for some reason, or committed mass suicide, or practised celibacy, or those other cases in which the guru failed to recruit followers and ended up in a hospital. Perhaps this might account for the persistence of the genetic predisposition to psychosis in spite of the reduced reproduction which is typical of such patients.18 It may also help us to understand the social deficits of future patients, whose phenotype appears designed to relate only to followers and not to peers; if there are no followers, there is no social life. Finally, it might also help us to understand the negative features of schizophrenia such as apathy and withdrawal, since the prospective guru has failed to have his new belief system validated by followers, has missed the “ecstatic merger of leader and follower which seems so central to the charismatic experience”27 and receives only negative responses from those to whom he communicates his message.


1. Wallace, A.F.C. 1956. Mazeway resynthesis: a biocultural theory of religious inspiration. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences 18:626-638.

2. Price, J.S. 2009. The capacity for change of religious belief system. In Feierman, J. R. (ed.), The Biology of Religious Behavior: The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion. Praeger. Pp. 175-189.

3. Wilson, D.S. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4. Rappaport, R.A. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5. Gould, S.J. 2001. Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. London: Cape.

6. Armstrong, K. 2000. The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. London: Harper.

7. In: Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, Chapter 4.

8. Hinde, R.A. 1999. Why Gods Persist: A Scientific Approach to Religion. London: Routledge.

9. Galanter, M. 1989. Cults and new religious movements. In M. Galanter, M., ed. Cults and New Religious Movements. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

10. Bigelow, R. 1969. The Dawn Warriors: Man’s Evolution towards Peace. Boston: Little, Brown.

11. Lanternari, V. 1963. The Religions of the Oppressed: A Study of Modern Messianic Cults. Translated from the Italian by L. Sergio. London: Macgibbon & Kee.

12. Littlewood, R. 1984. The imitation of madness: the influence of psychopathology upon culture. Social Science and Medicine 19:705-715.

13. Wilson, B. 1975. The Noble Savages: The Primitive Origins of Charisma and its Contemporary Survival. Berkeley CA: University of California Press

14. Goodman, F.D., J. Henney, and E. Pressel, 1974. Trance, Healing and Hallucination: Three Field Studies of Religious Experience. London: Wiley, p. 192.

15. Price, J.S., R. Gardner, Jr, D. Wilson, L. Sloman, P. Rohde, and M. Erickson, 2007. Territory, rank and mental health: The history of an idea. Evolutionary Psychology 5(3):531

16. Alexander, R.D.1979.Darwinism and Human Affairs. Seattle: University of Washington Press, pp. 228-9.

17. Fry,D.P., 2007. Beyond war: The Human Potential for Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

18. Stevens A. and J. Price, 2000. Evolutionary Psychiatry: A New Beginning. Second edition. London: Routledge.

19. Stevens A, and J. Price, 2000. Prophets, Cults and Madness. London: Duckworth.

20. Boyd, R. and P. Richerson, 1985. Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago (IL): University of Chicago Press.

21. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. 1982. Warfare, man’s indoctrinability and group selection. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 60:177-198.

22. Geist, V. 1989. Environmentally guided phenotype plasticity in mammals and some of its consequences to theoretical and applied biology. In Bruton, M.N. ed. Alternative Life-history Styles of Animals. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 153-176.

23. Krebs, J.R. and N. Davies, 1993. An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology, 3rd edition. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.

24. Hewitt, G.M. and R. Butlin, 1997. Causes and consequences of population structure. In Krebs, J.R. and N. Davies, eds. Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach. Fourth edition. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 350-372.

25. Wilson, D.S. and E. Wilson, 2007. Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. Quarterly Revue of Biology, 82(4):327-48.

26. Storr, A. 1996. Feet of Clay: a Study of Gurus. London: HarperCollins. p. xv.

27. Lindholm, C. 1990. Charisma. Oxford: Blackwell. p.63



to John Scott Price

1. Joseph Carroll’s response to John Price

John Price formulates some plausible ideas that would apply to all religions equally. He considers religion at a level of generalization in which they all arise from the same evolutionary social dynamic and fulfill the same adaptive social functions. From this angle of vision, differences among religions seem parallel to selectively neutral mutations, the cultural equivalent of junk DNA. This might be true, but many readers will probably have intuitive reservations. At the least, they might feel that the assumption is very broad and should be probed and tested. Hinduism, Mohammedanism, Roman Catholicism, Calvinism, Zen Buddhism, Voodoo—do all these religions fulfill precisely the same psychological and social functions? Can the differences among them be effectively contained within a single set of plausible generalizations? At the very least, surely, the various forms of religion produce different affects, involve different attitudes, elicit different cognitive states—in short, produce different neurochemical effects in the minds of their adherents. So also, with these individual differences, they would have to interact in different ways with other aspects of culture, with politics, sexual mores, the arts, and economics, for instance.

An important challenge for all forms of evolutionary cultural theory—about religion, the arts, politics, or anything else—is to formulate explanations at the level of human universals but also to treat the universals as elements and potentials that combine with other cultural elements in complex ways that have adaptive (or maladaptive) functions that are not always predictable. Another way to say this is that evolutionary cultural theory needs to offer explanation both at the level of human universals and the level of cultural differences.

2. Diana Kornbrot’s Response to John Price

This contributions discusses how new religious cults evolve and how their founders get to be leaders rather than lunatics. The interesting biological component lies in the regulatory in their formation process. The empirical studies cited show that the source tends to be a single individual who has a ‘revelation’, rather than a consensus from individuals with a common reaction.

This raise interesting questions about other group culture changes. For example, what charismatic figure introduced the min-skirt in the 1960s? Are regime changes in democracy, or attitudes to wars or banks, led by charismatic figures, or simply “I’m fed up with this lot, lets try the others.” Or both and in what proportions or situations. How did the ideas of the enlightenment take root? How is the to-ing and froi-ng between rationalism and romanticism mediated? Is the seesaw in our biology, or will the pendulum eventually settle?

So does the science so far, suggest that change is only via charisma, or can it delineate when other mechanism will take over?

3. Anja Müller Wood’s & John Carter Wood’s Response to John Price

ANJA MÜLLER-WOOD is professor of English Literature at Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. She is the author of Angela Carter: Identity constructed/Deconstructed (1997) and The Theatre of Civilized Excess: New Perspectives on Jacobean Tragedy (2007). She has published numerous articles on early modern drama and culture and twentieth-century and contemporary Anglophone writing and is co-editor of several essay collections. Her interest in reading literature from an evolutionary perspective is reflected in her forthcoming work: articles on emotions in Angela Carter and Shakespeare and the special issue “Biological Constraints on the Literary Imagination” of the journal Studies in the Literary Imagination, co-edited with Katja Mellmann. JOHN CARTER WOOD, a researcher at the Open University, is the author of Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-Century England: The Shadow of Our Refinement (2004), and several articles and essays on violence, crime, policing and the media. The latest, ‘“Those Who Have Had Trouble Can Sympathise with You’: Press Writing, Reader Responses and a Murder Trial in Interwar Britain,” appears in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of Social History. He is currently working with Prof. Peter King on a study of ethnicity and the criminal justice system in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as well as on a research project on police powers, gender and the media in the 1920s.

While we agree with John S. Price that it is important to examine and understand the extent to which innate psychological (and hence evolutionary) mechanisms enable common human behaviours (such as the maintenance of group relationships and the tendency to hold religious beliefs), we are sceptical about some aspects of Price’s approach and find some of his conclusions problematic.

The first problem is one of scale and definition. In essence, Price argues for the adaptive value of one broad (and vaguely defined) type of phenomenon—”religious belief systems”—in supporting another broad (and undefined) phenomenon—group “cohesion.” The failure to break down these broad categories into more specific components makes it difficult to suggest what precise psychological mechanisms would underlie them (let alone to develop testable hypotheses about them). Price implies, for example, that the ability to generate “mazeways” (a concept that we admit we find rather opaque) was adaptive by claiming those who “lacked the capacity” for them “must have died out.” Alternatively, of course, it may be that the various features that enable the elaboration of individual belief systems may have evolved for other purposes. This is not a semantic quibble: misjudging the scale of adaptations and overlooking the relevance of evolutionary side-effects are fundamental analytical problems. (This has been pointed out by Steven Pinker [2007] with regard to art.) Thus, Price seeks to explain religion via too many adaptations of too great complexity. Both “group cohesion” and group dissolution (based on a need to split, “like the amoeba,” to prosper) were evolutionarily vital, so each contradictory behaviour—it is at least implied—is governed by its own adaptation. How an adaptation for firm commitment to one’s own group beliefs coexists with one allowing conversion (which human groups “needed,” thereby implying an adaptation) is inadequately explained. “Adaptations” becomes both ubiquitous and ambiguous, not least since they are mostly applied on a “group” level.

We find it more analytically helpful to break cultural forms down into far narrower elements that allow more precise theorising about the psychological mechanisms that support them. Boyer and Bergstrom (2008) demonstrate the utility of this approach. Rather than considering “religion” as such, they lay out the diverse elements that commonly constitute it, such as “mental representations of nonphysical agents,” ritual practices, moral intuitions or codes; what constitutes religion “remains disputed” (112), but this approach allows clearer thinking about better-defined cultural (and mental) processes. Similarly Johnson and Bering (2006) offer a thought-provoking hypothesis about the role played by beliefs about punishment by supernatural agents in enforcing group cooperation; their analysis defines specific cultural problems as well as the evolved mechanisms that could have solved them. Both articles also point out the need for scepticism about sui generis “religious” qualities of cultural or psychological processes: in other words, it is not clear that a “religious” moral code or “sacred” contribution to group identity functions differently than non-religious or “profane” ones. Considering both these issues would improve Price’s analysis, such as his claim that “splitting associated with mazeway resynthesis” (with “mazeways” being seen as essentially religious) was essential “for the rapid dispersion of the species over the available habitat.” Religious schisms might be one factor leading to group dispersion, but there are countless others (internal conflicts, overcrowding, the search for new resources, the conquest of neighbouring groups, etc.), none of which require the rather unwieldy notion of special “dispersal phenotypes” in the form of “the prophet” and “the follower.” In arguing that religious belief is adaptive behaviour, it is necessary to consider the alternatives.

Is “cohesion” as such a universally valid value? Some forms of belief may enhance group cohesion while limiting other kinds of effectiveness. A cloistered community of strictly pacifist celibates is “cohesive,” but this must arguably be balanced against the costs—evolutionary and otherwise—that such a group would face. Similarly, religious beliefs that drain too many resources from, say, food production or defence (or that dogmatically resist practical forms of worldly knowledge) might make a group not only cohesive but also doomed. Even accepting the notion of “cohesion,” it is not clear that it must necessarily be based upon “sacred” categories, as many modern examples—based on political ideology or ethnic belonging—attest.

Given the importance of religious belief to Price’s argument, we find it remarkable that his depiction of religion remains so narrowly focused. He highlights the influence of irrationality, charismatic (and possibly psychotic) leaders, and an inherent human “indoctrinability”: whether this relates only to “cults” and “New Religious Movements” or applies more generally to religion as such is not made clear. But is it true that ‘one has no insight into the irrationality of one’s own belief’ or that ‘new belief systems do not emerge as a consensus from group discussion’? This would deny the capacity for self-critical doubt and internal reform among religious believers that—even confining our view to Western Europe over the past millennium—has been seen countless times. Is “sacred” knowledge really “unverifiable” and, protected via the notion of “nonoverlapping magisteria,” unavailable to rational interrogation? We are doubtful: sacred belief systems have frequently made (testable) claims about the natural world or human life, and relatively recent history has seen a steady encroachment of “verifiable” knowledge on previously “spiritual” domains. One might argue that this is a special feature of relatively recent European society and that tribal belief systems function differently. However, any evolutionary explanation for cultural phenomena should clearly define the elements of culture, propose specific underlying psychological mechanisms and be generally applicable.


Boyer, Pascal and Brian Bergstrom. 2008. Evolutionary perspectives on religion. Annual Review of Anthropology 37:111–30.

Johnson, Dominic and Jesse Bering. 2006. Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary Psychology 4: 219-33.

Pinker, Steven. 2007. Toward a consilient study of literature. Philosophy and Literature 31: 161-77.

4. Robert Stonjek’s Response to John Price

The Weakness of this outline of the roots of religion and of those cited is the lack of reference to the history of religious belief and Palaeolithic belief systems that have survived into modern times and been studied scientifically. The assumption always seems to be that the earliest religions include a human-like God and a complete system of belief. This is not so.

Comprehensive studies, such as The Golden Bough: A History of Myth and Religion by Sir James Frazer and The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell clearly demonstrate that all early religious belief involved belief in nature spirits (plants and animals). Further, belief systems rarely extend to beliefs beyond what the tribe knows of through first hand experience eg the whole world is as far as they can see.

The later extension of such belief systems to beyond the senses is the subject of many Hindu stories about ages extending for billions of years, uncountable stars harbouring life forms like ourselves, of objects way smaller than can be seen, unimaginably great distances and so on.

In the west, tales of undiscovered lands and the edge of the world extended imagination to way beyond any living person’s first hand experience.

But all of this came late in the day, evolutionarily speaking. The first understanding of one’s place among relations is clearly seen in the kin relationships and hierarchies that develop in non-human primates. One’s place in, say, a bonobo troop, is very important and individuals have a mental map of where they stand relative to others as well as knowing who their kin and friends are. Thus basic “mazeways” exist without language.

Tribal belief systems have more to do with the transmission of information between generations than religious belief in the modern sense. The nature of animals, methods of harvesting food, treatment of injury and disease are all transmitted between generations in the form of stories involving mythical beings and spirit animals.

The old Testament Bible is a good example of the period of changeover from anecdotal moral stories, such as “the good Samaritan,” and direct instruction, such as the ten commandments. This may well indicate the changeover from a whole verbal tradition to one of where sacred texts and writings could preserve information without the need of catchy stories to help in its telling and preservation (even those who don’t understand or “get” the moral of a story can still aid in its transmission between generations).

Thus by ignoring the period from the last common ancestor (mentioned as “hominid ancestors split off from the chimpanzee line” in the first paragraph of Price’s essay) and the belief in a God, Price has drawn an incorrect conclusion about the roots and utility of religion.

Religion has and still serves many functions, but those functions have changed over time. The very first utility of religious-like beliefs was the simple use of stories as a very robust form of extra-DNA and extra-individual information preservation within tribal groups (culture). Only later did the stories in and of themselves become the focus of attention, particularly where the information being transmitted no longer mapped on to the immediate environment, as when people moved onto farms and into villages where the material object of the stories may no longer be present and so stories may easily mutate, perhaps, along the way, finding a new utility relevant to the newer urban environment.

With an understanding of the roots of religion in the earliest tribes we can build up a picture of the manifestations of the earlier and each later form in modern society. Stories, for instance, are still the most effective means of transmitting information, especially moral information, to infants. Story telling in the form of movies persists but has long since separated from religion, which was the first to utilise the story telling form of communication. At one time, however, stories and religion would have been synonymous.

From the earliest times to the present, and without any exceptions, religion has been a first means of transmitting information that can not be transmitted by any other means known. That is, religion is a form of communication of abstract information beyond the members of that religion’s ability to transmit that information in any other way, at least initially. Religion has served many other roles through its history, but none span as far as the communicative ability of religion ~ tribal knowledge, especially on how to survive; social knowledge that allows large groups of people to live together; relief of mortality anxiety; revelation of the unknown or unknowable eg the “true nature of God” and so on.

Characterised in this way, it is hardly surprising that cosmology, for instance, has been both an area of interest in religion and, later, science. Every unique area of human knowledge has passed through the orb of religion. Religion has been the means by which the inner concerns of individuals that have arisen from an increased capacity to handle abstract and symbolic thinking have been drawn from the inner personal sanctum and shared publicly. Thus the first use of human-like symbolic language would have had religious overtones; “The Word” is still held as sacred into the present era. Philosophy, science, government, education and medicine were all once part of religion before separating off into more dispassionate and empirically based separate disciplines, a separation process continuing to this day.

“Mazeways” are now learnt in schools and have an existence quite separate from religion, though religious versions or appendages to empirical mazeways still exist, hence the debate, for instance, between intelligent design and Evolution Theory in the USA.


Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God. Penguin, 1991.

Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough: A History of Myth and Religion. Octopus Publishing Group, 2000 (1890).

Gardenfors, Peter. How Homo Became Sapiens: On the Evolution of Thinking. Oxford, 2003.



by John Scott Price

Rejoinder to Joe Carroll

The analogy of junk DNA is a fascinating one. So junk DNA is to active DNA as sacred knowledge is to profane knowledge (or, to use Katherine Armstrong’s terminology, as mythos is to logos). As I see it, each religion has the same two functions. One is to hold the group together in a way that makes it an efficient competitive force. It does this by acting as a “serotonin factory” according to Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire’s God’s Brain”, and so making everyone less anxious and able to get on better, and also by saving the elders of the group from punishing wrongdoers by delegating this function to god and the afterlife. According to Feierman1, all religions manifest the non-vocal component of petitioning prayer (making oneself smaller, or lower, or more vulnerable – what he calls SLV behavior – even Buddhists who have no god bow down to statues of the Buddha and prostrate themselves on certain pilgrimages; and, again according to Feierman, those who pray together tend to lay together, and so discourage exchange of genetic material between groups. The other function of religion is to distinguish the group from other groups, such that the configuration of mythos which forms its mazeway is incompatible with the mazeways of neighboring groups.

Rejoinder to Diana Kornbrot

I agree that the charismatic prophet is a generator of cultural change. It only requires a very few “bits” of information in his message to change society in drastic ways. For instance, the message, “Success is good” can produce the competitive, hierarchical social systems so common to man; but if the prophet’s message is, “Success is bad” , you are likely to get the egalitarian counter-dominance structure described by Boehm2 and seen in immediate-return hunter-gatherers such as the Kalahari bushmen. To savor the counter-dominance atmosphere, read the first act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but the outcome was not egalitarian, perhaps because the conspirators had no charismatic prophet to keep them in order.

Regarding other cultural change, I am aware that there is disagreement among historians as to whether single individuals are important in inducing change – for instance, would the mini-skirt have come in without Mary Quant? But here I am straying far from my field.

Rejoinder to Anja Müller-Wood and John Carter Wood

The Woods are quite right to point out that I am superficial in my approach to religion.

I am not really concerned with religion. It is not my field and as they point out, others have studied it more effectively. Also, as a psychiatrist, I am interested in the pathological, and there seems nothing pathological in human beings having an archetypal moral grammar, backed up by a belief in a benevolent intelligent designer, with associated beliefs in a soul which has an afterlife. What is counterintuitive is the exclusivity of religion. Why can’t everyone accept that they are all worshipping the same God? If God created Man through a process of evolution and natural selection, He also created different cultures, and, as a verse in the Koran says, he sent prophets to all the different peoples to tell them about Him and give them a chance to worship Him. Timothy Keller puts the case well in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism (London: Penguin, 2008). If the Pope had been born in Mecca, he would inevitably now be a Muslim—should that deprive him of everlasting life? This exclusivity of religion leads to conflict: to the Muslim/Hindu conflict which threatens to destroy the Indian subcontinent (where I am writing this) and to the conflict between militant Islam and fundamentalist Christianity which threatens to destroy the whole world. I believe that this exclusivity (which is a form of insanity) is connected to the experience of primary mazeway resynthesis which, as I have said in my main essay, can lead either to acceptance by followers and so to the formation of a cult which may grow into a religion, or to the diagnosis of psychosis and commitment to a mental hospital. I will take the Woods’ advice and focus down on this crucial event, looking at it in three stages:

1. The Primary Mazeway Resynthesis

This has been well described by my old mentor Sir Martin Roth, formerly Professor of Psychiatry in Cambridge (UK) and President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists3. He is talking of delusion formation, but the same applies to the revelation of the prophet:

The patient may have already begun to see the outside world as transfigured by elements of threat, mystery, danger and unreality, the “delusional atmosphere” common in this disorder. It is at this stage that an overwhelming idea of wide-ranging significance often erupts out of a clear sky in the minds of schizophrenic patients and leaves an indelible impression. It arrives direct and unmediated by any relevant or understandable antecedent even of experience. Such a “primary delusion” instils in the patient the total conviction that he is the new Messiah or the reincarnation of St John the Baptist or Mohammed or a delusion of similar character. The fear-laden perplexity and confusion of the patient abates for a period. The world is once again perceived as whole and authentic. The delusion explains it all. This symptom marks perhaps the most clear break in the continuity of psychic life of the schizophrenic patient.

Melvin R. Lansky4 uses the term “reconstruction of reality” for the change in world-design experienced by the psychotic patient. He states that a delusion confers a “sense of specialness” on the holder. The patient may come to “consider himself as a specially ordained pillar of God, the messianic center around which all world phenomena are organised.”

The delusions of our patients are held with utter conviction. Generations of psychiatrists and other mental health workers have tried to argue patients out of their delusions, but none has been successful. Sooner argue a Jesuit out of his Christian belief.

2. Presentation of the New Mazeway to the World.

The message is presented to the world in an uncompromising, “take it or leave it” fashion. Timothy Keller quotes Bono, the lead singer of U2, describing the way Jesus presented himself to his disciples:

“And he goes, No, no, I know you’re expecting me to come back with an army and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At his point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says, Oh, my God, he’s gonna keep saying this. So what you’re left with is either Christ was who he said He was – the Messiah – or a complete nutcase. I mean, you’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson…”

Like the patient I described in a previous essay5, there is no room for compromise. My patient was offered a compromise in the form of study in a theological college, but he not only insisted he was the Messiah, but also insisted on continuing his ministry. Like the emergency services, the judge had no hesitation in declaring him insane and ordered continued compulsory detention. He then escaped from our secure unit and was arrested shortly after while preaching in a town 100 miles away.

3. Response of the World to the New Mazeway.

This crucially decides between the formation of a new religion and a “Section” under the Mental Health Act (leading to committal to a mental hospital).

Let us take Steadman et al.’s definition of religious behavior6:

Thus, we propose, as a testable hypothesis, that religious behavior is distinguished by, and hence can be defined as, the communicated acceptance of a supernatural claim. That is, the communicated acceptance of another person’s claim as true that cannot be shown to be true by the senses constitutes the necessary and sufficient elements for identifying behavior as religious.

Steadman et al. are concerned with distinguishing religious behavior from other forms of ceremony, but my interest is in the distinction of religious behavior from psychotic behavior. If, for instance, Jack says, “I am the Messiah”, one might say that Jack is potentially psychotic; but if Jill then says to Jack, “Yes, you are the Messiah”, she has not only carried out religious behaviour, but she has also converted Jack’s statement from psychotic behavior to religious behavior.

Think of it from Jack’s point of view. He has just had a revelation of immense significance, which places him at the centre of the Universe, and he has a mission to spread the good tidings to the whole world. If his message is negated, invalidated and rejected, his whole world is destroyed and it would not be surprising if it led to a state described under “the negative features of schizophrenia”. But if Jill and others accept him as the Messiah, he can enjoy the “ecstatic merger of leader and follower which seems so central to the charismatic experience” and be invigorated with the energy and determination to take his band of followers to the Promised Land.

He will not compromise. His mazeway is the only correct one. The mazeway in which he was brought up is wrong, even sinful, and must be avoided or even destroyed. This exclusivity and refusal to compromise is passed on to his followers and to future generations, so that the elements of the new mazeway which differentiate them from other faiths are seen as vital to their existence and must be defended at all costs. Hence religious wars.

It is not enough for the disciple to admire the prophet and to consider him a great moral teacher. To such a person (as Thomas Jefferson was) C.S. Lewis replied (quoted by Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great):

“That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman and something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit on Him and kill Him as a demon: or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Thus the follower either rejects the prophet as mad, or accepts his supernatural claim and so alienates himself from everyone else except the prophet and fellow followers.

Religious Pluralism

Of course, not everyone is at daggers drawn all the time. There is a widespread tendency towards religious tolerance, especially among eastern religions. Over two millennia ago, the Emperor Ashoka, who converted from Hinduism to Buddhism, wrote,

Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought “Let me glorify my own religion,” only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.

Ashoka the Great, 304 BC to 323 BC (from Wikipedia)

The Moghul Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) is quoted as saying7:

The followers of each religion regard the institutions of their own religion as better than those of any other. Not only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If these refuse to be coverted, they not only despise them, but also regard them for this very reason as their enemies. And this causes me to feel many serious doubts and scruples. (p. 90)

Akbar was severely criticised for his liberal views by Abdul Qadir Badauni, who wrote a history of India’s Muslim kings, and the Emperor was thought to be in danger of assassination by more radical Muslims.

Guru Nanak (1469-1539) who founded the Sikh religion, had a divine revelation during a mystical experience, following which he pronounced7, “There is no Hindu; there is no Mussalman.” (p. 83) Many Hindus and Muslims then became Sikhs.

The Bahi’a Faith is a current example of a religion which expresses pluralism. According to Wikipedia, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith states: “The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society.” (The Faith of Bahá’u’lláh” in World Order, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1972-73).

John Macquarrie, described in the Handbook of Anglican Theologians (1998) as “unquestionably Anglicanism‘s most distinguished systematic theologian in the second half of the twentieth century,” wrote that “there should be an end to proselytizing but that equally there should be no syncretism of the kind typified by the Baha’i movement” (p. 2). In discussing 9 founders of major faith traditions (Moses, Zoroaster, Lao-zu, Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Krishna, Jesus, and Muhammad), which he called “mediators between the human and the divine,” Macquarrie wrote that:

“I do not deny for a moment that the truth of God has reached others through other channels – indeed, I hope and pray that it has. So while I have a special attachment to one mediator, I have respect for them all.” (p. 12)

In this lovely subcontinent where I am writing, pluralism and exclusivity have alternated. In the 1920s when opposition to the British united Hindu and Muslim, it was said that “Hindu and Muslim drink from the same cup” (hitherto unthinkable because of caste rules) and Gandhi is quoted as saying, “I believe with my whole soul that the God of the Qur’an is also the God of the Gita.” (Gandhi, op. cit., p. 154).

But this Hindu/Muslim pluralism was precarious. In Understanding the Muslim Mind, Rajmohan Gandhi (grandson of the Mahatma) comments, “Judging their own community by its highest ideals, both Hindus and Muslims nevertheless judged the other community by its lowest deeds.” (p. 313). And he quotes Muhammad Ali (a friend and supporter of the Mahatma) as saying, “But between belief and character there is a great difference. As a follower of Islam I am bound to regard the creed of even a fallen and degraded Mussulman [as] entitled to a higher place than that of any other non-Muslim irrespective of his high character, even though the person in question be Mahatma Gandhi himself” and the author adds in a footnote, “Several centuries earlier, asked what would happen in the next world to a non-Muslim of excellent character, Nizamuddin Aulia, the sufi saint, had answered: “This is a matter for God to decide in his mercy; you cannot decide the matter for Him.” (pp. 109-110)

Twenty years later people who had lived together peacefully for years, even for generations, were burning each other alive, Hindu fathers were seen beheading their daughters to save them from being raped and forcibly converted by Muslims, and Muslim fathers were doing the same thing.8

William Dalrymple in Nine Lives described the Sufis on the border of India and Pakistan who are uniting Hindu and Moslem (but they are being stamped out by the Taliban). Religious pluralism expresses the rational element of people who find themselves with an inconvenient unconscious tendency to uncompromising exclusivity.

Two Group Processes: Expansion and Splitting

Just like a single celled organism, a human group needs to expand and to split. It seems likely that evolution has arranged that each individual in the group has a certain amount of energy to devote to group processes. Of course, individual objectives such as courting, mating, obtaining food, bringing up children and building shelter take up a lot of time and energy, but we should note that those engaged on group enterprises have reported a sense of fulfillment that appears to be lacking in those whose lives are devoted solely to individual advancement.

Two groups of people have conspicuously reported a sense of complete fulfillment, and these are people who are directly involved with group expansion and group splitting. I have previously documented that fighting men have reported a sense of involvement and commitment in their battle against neighboring groups, compared to which their previous lives seemed empty and barren.5 The other group of people are those involved with group splitting, namely, members of cults who are splitting off from the main group and forming a daughter group. These people report feeling fully energized for the first time in their lives, and they regard their former selves, and all other people, as being half asleep. The followers of Gurdjieff have expressed this very clearly.5

These individual commitments to group expansion and splitting suggest that selection at the group level has been more important in human evolution than many scholars have been willing to accept.9

Conclusion: Mazeways Can Be Differentiated but Not Integrated.

It is inherently improbable that a prophet, brought up to believe in a mazeway, should have a resynthesis and come to believe in an entirely new mazeway. It is equally improbable that a group of followers should come to reject their own mazeway and accept that of the prophet. The prophet offers his potential followers a mazeway which is not only of supernatural origin, but also is incompatible with their existing mazeway (and with every other mazeway). He (or she) forces them to choose between accepting his message or classifying him as a “nutcase”. The counterintuitive reality is that so many followers accept bizarre mazeways, but we should note that Aldous Huxley gave as his opinion:

“There is no dogma so queer, no behaviour so eccentric or even outrageous, but a group of people can be found to think it divinely inspired.”

(Aldous Huxley. Justifications, From The Olive Tree. London: Chatto and Windus, 1936)

Once they have accepted his exclusive mazeway, the followers pass on this exclusivity to succeeding generations.

The sad fact is that present day religions are the inheritors of cults which were fashioned by evolution to split groups and to reject other groups and even to destroy them. This, I would suggest, is why present day religions are exclusive and why many members of different faiths are unable to see that they are all worshipping the same God.


1. Feierman, J.R. 2009. The Evolutionary History of Religious Behavior. In The Biology of Religious Behavior: The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion. Edited by Feierman JR. Santa Barbara (CA): Praeger, pp. 71-86.

2. Boehm, C. 1993. Egalitarian behaviour and reverse dominance hierarchy. Current Anthropology 34: 227-254.

3. Roth, M. 1996. Commentary on “audible thoughts” and “speech defect” in schizophrenia. British Journal of Psychiatry 168: 536-538.

4. Lansky, M.R. 1977. Schizophrenic delusional phenomena. Comprehensive Psychiatry 68: 157-168.

5. Price, J.S. 2009. The capacity for change of religious belief system. In Feierman, J. R. (ed.), The Biology of Religious Behavior: The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion. Santa Barbara (Ca): Praeger. Pp. 175-189.

6. Steadman, L.B., Palmer, C.T., Ellsworth, R.M. 2009. Towards a testable definition of religious behavior. In Feierman, J. R. (ed.), The Biology of Religious Behavior: The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion. Santa Barbara (Ca): Praeger. Pp. 20-35.

7 Gandhi, Rajmohan. 1999. Revenge and Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History. New Delhi: Penguin.

8. Butalia, Urvashi. 1998. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. London: Penguin Books.

9. Wilson, D.S., Wilson, E. 2007. Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. Quarterly Revue of Biology, 82:327-48.

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