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RELS240 The Cultural Evolution of Religious Systems

Cross-cultural variation and patterns in religious systems, contemporary theories about the transmission and evolution of human culture, and analysis of prominent theories about the cultural evolution of religion.

Religions show variation between groups, they are transmitted and modified over generations, and they differ in their ability to gain and retain members. In other words, religions show the key properties of an evolutionary system. This paper will identify structure and variation in religious systems across societies, and explore how contemporary theories of cultural evolution help explain this structure and variation. Students will study ritual practices and supernatural beliefs across hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, agricultural and industrialised societies.

Students will also learn about contemporary theories of cultural evolution, such as meme theory, cultural attractor theory, and dual inheritance theory. This will provide a generalisable understanding of cultural evolution and its importance in human cognition and behaviour.

Paper title The Cultural Evolution of Religious Systems
Paper code RELS240
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.1500
Points 18 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2023 (Distance learning)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $955.05
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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36 points
RELS 340
Schedule C
Arts and Music, Theology

Open to all students that have completed at least two papers at any level (36 points).


Joseph Watts

Teaching staff

Joseph Watts

Paper Structure

The paper is divided into three modules:

  1. Cross-cultural comparative perspectives on religion
  2. Theories of cultural evolution
  3. The cultural evolution of religion in action

Culture surveys (20%)
Essay (30%)
Peer feedback (10%)
Final exam (40%)

Teaching Arrangements

Campus: There is one 2-hour lecture per week, as well as optional weekly tutorials online.
Distance: Students will have access to recorded lectures as well as online interactive tutorials.


Textbooks are not required for this paper.

Course outline

View the latest course outline here

Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Critical thinking, Cultural understanding.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes

On completing RELS 240 students are expected to:

  1. Identify major schools of thought on the processes and patterns of cultural evolution in human culture
  2. Recognise the cross-cultural diversity of religious systems in historical and contemporary societies
  3. Identify systematic patterns in religious systems across cultures
  4. Understand how to locate and critically evaluate historic ethnographic source materials
  5. Understand how individual-level processes can scale up to produce population-level patterns of cultural change
  6. Evaluate assumptions about the role and importance of culture in human cognition
  7. Generate and accommodate constructive feedback from peers
  8. Produce clear, sound and original writing based on evidence-based arguments

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Not offered in 2023

Teaching method
This paper is taught through Distance Learning
Learning management system