Robin Dunbar has been hailed as one of the most insightful and creative evolutionary thinkers of our time, famed for his work on human networks and communities (he came up with the Dunbar number, the idea that humans can have no more than 150 meaningful relationships). Now he turns his attention to religion and in July 2022 he came to Intelligence Squared to answer some of the most fundamental questions about human existence: Why is religion a fact of every human culture? When did humans develop spiritual thought? What is religion’s evolutionary purpose? And in our increasingly secular world, why has it endured?
Drawing on the themes of his new book How Religion Evolved, Dunbar tracked the origins of religion back to what he terms the ‘mystical stance’ – an aspect of human psychology that predisposes us to believe in a transcendent world. And he argued that our instinct for religion is not a peculiar quirk or aberration on our otherwise efficient evolutionary journey. Instead he showed how religion confers an advantage: not just to the individual in terms of health and wellbeing, but, more importantly, to society in general, fostering social bonding at a large scale.
Dunbar took us on a tour of religious expression from Neolithic times up to today, exploring mysterious sects and lost faiths across multiple cultures, to discover the deep psychological basis for the quintessentially human impulse – to believe.