Supernatural as Natural: A Biocultural Approach to Religion, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Supernatural as Natural

A Biocultural Approach to Religion, 1st Edition

By Michael Winkelman, John R. Baker


384 pages

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This book provides a general introduction to the biological and evolutionary bases of religion and is suitable for introductory level courses in the anthropology and psychology of religion and comparative religion.

Why did human ancestors everywhere adopt religious beliefs and customs? The presence and persistence of many religious features across the globe and time suggests that it is natural for humans to believe in the supernatural. In this new text, the authors explore both the biological and cultural dimensions of religion and the evolutionary origins of religious features.

Table of Contents


Religion’s Family Resemblances

Religion, Spirituality, and Religiosity

Overview of Book

Chapter 1: Anthropology and the Study of Religion

Introduction to the Anthropological Study of Religion

Western Perspectives on Religion

The Development of Anthropological Approaches to Religion

The Four-Field Approach of Anthropology

Conclusion: The Biocultural Approach to the Study of Religiosity

Chapter 2: Our World and How We Know It


Science, Religion, and the Universe

Mysticism as Science

Conclusions: Comparing Science and Religion

Chapter 3: Consciousness and Spiritual Experiences

Opening vignette: Visionary Spiritual Experiences and the Origins of Major Religious Traditions


What is Consciousness?

The Biological Bases of Spiritual Consciousness: The Integrative Mode of Consciousness

Origins of Religious Experiences: Natural Induction of the Integrative Mode of Consciousness

Adaptive Aspects of the Integrative Mode of Consciousness

Conclusion: Religious Experience as Personal Experience of Biology

Appendix: Assessing Mystical Experiences/Hood’s Mysticism Scale

Chapter 4: Animal Rituals and the Roots of Religiosity

Introduction: Ritual in the Animal World

What are Rituals?

The Triune Brain and Ritual Behavior

Animal Rituals

The Evolution of Ritual Behaviors

Conclusions: The Animal Roots of Human Ritual Activity

Chapter 5: The Origins of Shamanism and the Flowering of Religiosity

Introduction: Evidence for the Emergence of New Forms of Ritual

What are Shamans?

The Evolutionary Origins of Spiritual Experiences

Psilocybin-Containing Mushrooms as Sources of Spiritual Experiences

The Middle/Upper Paleolithic Transition and Human Cultural Evolution

Human Cognitive Evolution: The Emergence of Specialized Intelligences

“Complex Hunter-Gatherer Type Religions”: The Rise of Ancestor Cults and Priests


Chapter 6: Origins and Functions of Religious Healing

Introduction: Religious Healing as a Cultural Universal

The Co-Evolution of Healing and Religiosity

Shamanism as a Foundation for Religious Healing Adaptations

Religious Adaptations in Healing Processes

Conclusions: Shamanic Healing and the Holistic Imperative

Chapter 7: Religion and Cognition: How Religion Shapes How We Think

Introduction: Religious Ideas and the Structure of the Universe

Animism: The Belief in Spirit Beings

Myth and the Universe

Substantive Beliefs

Conclusions: Spirit Concepts as Indigenous Psychologies

Chapter 8: Religion and Emotions


Bronislav Malinowski: The Emotional Adaptiveness of Magic and Religion

Sigmund Freud and the Roles of the Unconscious in Religion

Religion, Sex, and Gender

How Religion Shapes Our Development

Religion as an Evolutionary Byproduct? Attachment Theory and Religion

Religious Conversion as Learning a Second Culture


Chapter 9: Religion and Society: How Religion Shapes Our Relations with Others


The Evolutionary Origins of Human Social Organization and Religion

Durkheim and the Social Symbolic Approaches to Religion

Religion and Social Control

The Social Origins of Conceptualizations of Deity and the Sacred

Religion as a Biologically-Based Adaptive Social Mechanism

Conclusions: Durkheim’s Legacy in Understanding Religion as a Social and Symbolic Phenomenon

Chapter 10: Supernatural Evil

Introduction: Supernatural Evil as a Religious Universal

Anthropological Views of Sorcery and Witchcraft

The Sorcerer/Witch as a Social Universal of Religion

and Shamanism

Witchcraft and Heresy in Europe

Human Sacrifice


Chapter 11: Conclusions: Religion in Evolutionary Perspective


The Conceptual Frameworks of Evolution

Assessing the Evolutionary Status of Religious Features

Why Must we Learn to Disagree?

Conclusions: Universalist Perspectives



About the Authors

Michael Winkelman, Ph.D. (University of California-Irvine), M.P.H. (University of Arizona) is an Associate Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. He served as President of the Anthropology of Consciousness section of the American Anthropological Association, as was the founding President of its Anthropology of Religion Section. His principal publications on shamanism include Shamans, Priests and Witches (1992) and Shamanism (2000). He has also addressed the role of psychedelic medicines in shamanism in his co-edited Psychedelic Medicine.

John Baker, Dr. Phil. (Universität Hamburg, Germany) is a Professor of Anthropology at Moorpark College. He has authored several papers on the constructive use of altered states of consciousness and on the history and ritual uses of psychoactive substances. He is presently serving as the President of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness.

Subject Categories

    BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
    SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / Cultural