In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Explanations of Religion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Historical Explanations of Religion

Philosophy Explanations of Religion
Justin McBrayer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0358


Every known human culture includes beliefs and behaviors deemed religious. Why are humans this way? This is an empirical question. Scientists are in the business of explaining the origin, persistence, ubiquity, and diversity of religion. While such issues were certainly entertained by early thinkers in the West, they did not receive extended and careful treatment until the late modern and contemporary era. A combination of factors including the knowledge of religious diversity resulting from world exploration and the articulation of explanatorily powerful scientific theories such as those from the evolutionary sciences gave later thinkers an edge on offering testable, naturalistic explanations for religious phenomena. Contemporary scientists continue to improve our understanding of religion with exceptional work coming out of genetics, neurology, cognitive psychology, anthropology, and social psychology/sociology. But these empirically grounded explanations of religion raise a great many philosophical questions. Some of these questions concern the nature and success of the explanations themselves. For example, how do explanations from different fields “fit together” and what would count as a good explanation of religion? Other questions concern the implications of such explanations for the truth or rationality of religious belief, the prudence of religious practice, or the metaphysical theories of human or divine nature. This article surveys both the empirical work on religion and also the philosophical issues generated by this work. With the exception of the sections on textbooks and anthologies, all entries are book-length monographs or articles. Criteria for inclusion on the list include both the influence of the work and its accessibility to non-experts.

General Overviews

The classic text that surveys historical theories of religion in clear, contemporary language is Pals 2014. Hinde 1999 provides a clear overview of the main components of religion (belief, behavior, moral code) and scientific explanations for each. Barrett 2011, Visala 2011, and Jones 2016 present non-technical overviews of the findings from cognitive science of religion (CSR) and some of the philosophical issues raised by such research. De Cruz and De Smedt 2015 surveys the strength of various natural theological arguments for God, given the findings of CSR.

  • Barrett, Justin. Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds. West Conshohoken, PA: Templeton, 2011.

    A clear exposition of the field of cognitive science, including its basic conceptual repertoire, methodology, and findings. Barrett offers a detailed presentation of the non-reflective beliefs that humans naturally form about the world, other humans, and gods. The book closes with several opinionated discussions of the philosophical implications of the findings of CSR for religious belief, largely siding with epistemologists like Thomas Reid who argue that natural beliefs are epistemically innocent until proven guilty.

  • De Cruz, Helen, and Johan De Smedt. A Natural History of Natural Theology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2015.

    An application of the findings of CSR to classical arguments for the existence of God, with chapters on the teleological argument, the cosmological argument, the moral argument, the aesthetic argument, and the argument from miracles. The core of the book addresses the philosophical implications of CSR as it applies to the reliability of intuitions undergirding arguments in natural theology and an evaluation of various evolutionary debunking strategies.

  • Hinde, Robert. Why Gods Persist: A Scientific Approach to Religion. New York: Routledge, 1999.

    Focused on the question of why religion persists in the contemporary world and offers an answer based in evolutionary biology and cognitive science. Hinde thinks of religions as primarily systems of beliefs, rituals, and moral codes, and the book has multiple chapters on each facet.

  • Jones, James W. Can Science Explain Religion? The Cognitive Science Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190249380.001.0001

    A brief overview of contemporary, cognitive explanations of religion and an argument that the empirical data does not support a physicalist, reductionist account of religion. Jones concludes that no comprehensive explanation of religion is available, and so contemporary theories have no untoward philosophical implications for religion.

  • Pals, Daniel L. Nine Theories of Religion. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    A clearly written, second-person description of nine of the most influential, historical attempts to explain religion with chapters on Tylor and Frazer, Freud, Durkheim, James, Marx, Weber, Eliade, Evans-Pritchard, and Geertz. Each chapter presents the major themes of each thinker followed by a series of evaluative remarks.

  • Visala, Aku. Naturalism, Theism, and the Cognitive Science of Religion: Religion Explained? Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    A quick overview of the methodology and findings of contemporary CSR research combined with an extensive discussion of the explanatory success of such research. The author rejects a naturalistic, reductionist interpretation of CSR findings in favor of a kind of explanatory pluralism that is consistent with theistic frameworks.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.