Human Nature

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 323–359

Ritual, emotion, and sacred symbols

The evolution of religion as an adaptive complex

DOI: 10.1007/s12110-005-1014-3

Cite this article as:
Alcorta, C.S. & Sosis, R. Hum Nat (2005) 16: 323. doi:10.1007/s12110-005-1014-3


This paper considers religion in relation to four recurrent traits: belief systems incorporating supernatural agents and counterintuitive concepts, communal ritual, separation of the sacred and the profane, and adolescence as a preferred developmental period for religious transmission. These co-occurring traits are viewed as an adaptive complex that offers clues to the evolution of religion from its nonhuman ritual roots. We consider the critical element differentiating religious from non-human ritual to be the conditioned association of emotion and abstract symbols. We propose neurophysiological mechanisms underlying such associations and argue that the brain plasticity of human adolescence constitutes an “experience expectant” developmental period for ritual conditioning of sacred symbols. We suggest that such symbols evolved to solve an ecological problem by extending communication and coordination of social relations across time and space.

Key words

AdolescenceCostly signalsEmotionNeuropsychologyReligionRitualSymbolic thought

Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology U-2176University of ConnecticutStorrs