On the origins of enchantment: not such a puzzle

Paul Seabright


The fact that adherents of most religions subscribe sincerely to many counter-empirical beliefs has been argued to pose a challenge to evolutionary explanations of religion, since natural selection is considered to have developed sophisticated cognitive mechanisms to enable prehistoric foragers to survive in harsh environments. I argue here that most counter-empirical beliefs held by members of most religions are optional most of the time, and were optional all of the time in prehistory. Beliefs held by foragers and other individuals in situations where survival may depend on them are not very counter-empirical compared to locally available alternatives. More generally, human beings are cognitively extravagant—that is, they are capable of entertaining beliefs about a large number of things other than their immediate physical environment, but it is only in modern environments that their cognitive extravagance typically becomes costly enough to pose a problem for evolutionary explanation. In a nutshell, counter-empirical beliefs are a by-product rather than a precondition of religious membership and practice, and were unlikely to have been adaptively costly in environments that were evolutionarily relevant for human beings.


Paul Seabright, On the origins of enchantment: not such a puzzle, Religion, Brain & Behavior, n. 10, 2020, pp. 345–357.

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Religion, Brain & Behavior, n. 10, 2020, pp. 345–357