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How Religion Evolved: And why it endures

June 19, 2022 @ 5:30 pm - 6:30 pm


Event details

Every society in the history of humanity has lived with religion. But when did humans develop spiritual thought? What is religion’s evolutionary purpose? And – in our increasingly secular world – why has it endured?

Join evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar as he tracks the origins of religion back to what he terms the ‘mystical stance’ – the aspect of human psychology that predisposes us to believe in a transcendent world, and which makes an encounter with the spiritual possible.

As he explores world religions and their many derivatives, as well as religions of experience practised by hunter-gatherer societies since time immemorial, Robin argues that this instinct is not a peculiar human quirk, an aberration on our otherwise efficient evolutionary journey.

Rather, religion confers an advantage: it can benefit our individual health and wellbeing, but, more importantly, it fosters social bonding at large scale, helping hold fractious societies together. Dunbar suggests these dimensions might provide the basis for an overarching theory for why and how humans are religious, and so help unify the myriad strands that currently populate this field.

Based on path-breaking research, clinical case studies and fieldwork from around the globe, as well as stories of charismatic cult leaders, mysterious sects and lost faiths, this talk offers a fascinating and far-reaching analysis of this quintessentially human impulse – to believe.

This is a hybrid event that you can either attend in person or join via Zoom. You’ll receive a link to join via Zoom a couple of days before the event takes place and a reminder an hour before. During the event, you can ask questions via the Zoom Q&A function, but audience cameras and microphones will remain muted throughout.

Book sales

You can buy copies of many of our speakers’ books from Fox Lane Books, a local independent bookseller and Festival partner. In some cases, author signed bookplates are available too.


About the speaker

Robin Dunbar is Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and an elected Foreign Member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. He has been awarded the Osman Hill Medal and the Huxley Medal. His popular science books have been translated into a dozen languages. They include The Human StoryHow Many Friends Does One Person Need? and Human Evolution.


June 19, 2022
5:30 pm - 6:30 pm


York Festival of Ideas


Location:In-person and online Ron Cooke Hub, Campus East, University of York
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