The Evolution of Beliefs in God, Spirit, and the Paranormal. I: Terror Management and Ritual Healing Theories/ Die Evolution Des Glaubens an Gott, Geist Und das Paranormale, I: Theorien der Angstbewaltigung Und Rituellen Heilung/ L'evolution Des Croyances En Dieu, L'esprit, et le Paranormal, I: Theories De la Gestion De la Terreur et De la Guerison Rituelle/

Article excerpt

Belief in God (or a spiritual dimension to existence) is extremely widespread and persistent throughout human history (Armstrong, 1995; Comings, 2007; Jordon, 2002; Zuckerman, 2005). Beliefs in the paranormal and anomalous experiences such as apparitions, extrasensory perception, psychokinesis, synchronicities, out-of-body experiences, and near death experiences are also universal (e.g., McClenon, 1994, 2002a). According to experiential source theory, anomalous experiences are the source of beliefs in spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities (e.g., McClenon, 1994, 2002a). With the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled agrarian society, shamanistic ritual and belief systems evolved into highly elaborated religious myth and ritual, including theistic beliefs. It has been suggested that God beliefs and beliefs in the paranormal evolved because such beliefs reduce death anxiety (e.g., Persinger, 1987, 2009). Persinger's evolutionary account of the ubiquity of beliefs in God, the paranormal, and spiritual phenomena hinges on the assumptions that death anxiety is inversely related to religiosity and belief in the paranormal, and that death anxiety compromises fecundity or reproductive success. While there is empirical support for the first of these assumptions, evidence concerning the second is lacking.

This article, the first in a series of three, will review the evidence concerning the terror management theory of religion, as well as an alternative evolutionary account, the ritual healing theory, which proposes that anomalous experiences occurring in the context of altered states of consciousness during shamanic rituals were the experiential source of beliefs in God, spirit, and the paranormal. Individuals high in hypnotizability were more susceptible to the beneficial health effects of shamanic healing rituals, resulting in selection for this heritable trait, facilitating the evolution of religious and paranormal experiences and beliefs. The second article in the series will review evidence that hypnotizability is one component of a superordinate trait dimension, transliminality, which is comprised of traits highly correlated with hypnotizability, including paranormal belief and experience, positive schizotypy, fantasy-proneness, and creativity. A revision of the ritual healing theory is proposed, replacing hypnotizability with transliminality as the mediating factor. The third article in the series reviews the genetic balanced polymorphism model, suggesting that the disadvantageous effects of psychosis on fertility are balanced by the advantageous effects of less extreme manifestations of the underlying trait dimension of schizotypy/transliminality. Paranormal beliefs are related to paranormal experiences as well as paranormal abilities, which, if veridical, would have direct adaptive advantage. Correlates of paranormal abilities overlap with component characteristics of transliminality. The direct benefits theory suggests that beliefs in spiritual and paranormal phenomena may have evolved simply because such beliefs are in some manner true, and the associated traits and abilities are highly adaptive.


Freud (1927/1961) suggested that religion serves as a coping mechanism against anxiety-related experiences (e.g., Pargament, 1990). Others have also suggested that religion addresses existential concerns inevitably arising from human awareness of mortality (Becker, 1973; Burkert, 1996). Terror management theory (reviews by Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) posits that one of the primary functions of religious belief is to alleviate the potentially overwhelming terror or anxiety that results from awareness of death. There is considerable empirical support for the basic tenets of terror management theory (reviews by Greenberg, Solomon, & Arndt, 2008; Vail et al. …


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