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RELS340 The Cultural Evolution of Religious Systems

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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 RELS340
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.1500
Points 18 points
Teaching period(s) Second Semester, Second Semester
Domestic Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for 2021 have not yet been set
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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18 200-level ANTH, PHIL, PSYC or RELS points
RELS 240
Schedule C
Arts and Music, Theology

Students are required to have undertaken at least one 200 level paper in RELS, ANTH, PSYC or PHIL (18 points at level 200).


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 (40%)
Peer feedback (10%)
Final exam (30%)

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.



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, sounds, and original writing based on evidence-based argument.

In addition, RELS 340 students are expected to:

  1. Present an argument for one theory over another based on their explanatory scope, empirical support and soundness.
  2. Relate literature on the cultural evolution of religion to other approaches to religious studies, human history, and human cognition.

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Second Semester

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

Second Semester

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system


Stream Days Times Weeks
A1 Tuesday 10:00-11:50 28-34, 36-41


Stream Days Times Weeks
A1 Tuesday 14:00-14:50 28-34, 36-41