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RELS501 The Evolution of Religion

A survey of major theories and writings on the evolution of religion. Provides an introduction to the methods appropriate to the study of ancient texts.

Rituals and supernatural beliefs exist in nearly all known human societies, and across cultures religions are structurally quite similar. The universality and shared structure of religions beg evolutionary investigation. It is thus, perhaps, unsurprising that evolutionary approaches to the study of religion have flourished in recent years and continue to inspire considerable work. Efforts to apply Darwinian theory to the study of religion, however, do not represent a single unified endeavour or research program.

This paper serves as an introduction to the contemporary evolutionary study of religion. Students will read major works from each of the three main theoretical approaches to the evolutionary study of religion (byproduct theories, group selection theories, and adaptationist theories) and will gain familiarity with the key points of disagreement between proponents of each approach. Students will also gain exposure to new and exciting empirical work in this growing research area.

Paper title The Evolution of Religion
Paper code RELS501
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.25
Points 30 points
Teaching period(s) Semester 1 (Distance learning)
Semester 1 (On campus)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $2,162.75
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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Limited to

Dr Deane Galbraith:

Teaching staff

Lecturer: Dr Deane Galbraith

Paper Structure
Paper is divided into 9 modules:
  • Evolutionary Theory and Religion
  • Byproduct Theories
  • Group Selection Theories
  • Dual Inheritance Theories
  • Adaptationist Theories
  • Adaptationist Theories vs Byproduct Theories
  • Ecological Approaches
  • Phylogenetic Approaches
  • Religion and Reproduction
  • Essay One (4,000-5,000 words) 40%
  • Essay Two (4,000-5,000 words) 40%
  • Seminar Discussion 20%
Teaching Arrangements

The Distance Learning offering of this paper is taught remotely.

Campus and Distance: Weekly seminars

No textbook is required for this paper.
Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Cultural understanding, Ethics, Information literacy, Research.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes
On successful completion of this paper, learners will be able to:
  • Demonstrate an informed understanding of major theoretical approaches to the evolution of religion
  • Critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches
  • Exhibit a familiarity with the evidence used in support of different theories for the evolution of religion
  • Critically analyse recent works in the evolution of religion
  • Apply evolutionary theory to explain religious phenomenon across religious traditions

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Semester 1

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

Semester 1

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system