Exclusive media partner: The New York Times


Receive regular updates about forthcoming events and other news from Intelligence Squared


You have been added to our mailing list and will now be among the first to hear about events.


Robin Dunbar on How Religion Evolved

An exploration of the psychological basis for the quintessentially human impulse – to believe

Robin Dunbar has been hailed as one of the most insightful and creative evolutionary thinkers of our time, famed for his work on human networks and communities (he came up with the Dunbar number, the idea that humans can have no more than 150 meaningful relationships). Now he turns his attention to religion and in July 2022 he came to Intelligence Squared to answer some of the most fundamental questions about human existence: Why is religion a fact of every human culture? When did humans develop spiritual thought? What is religion’s evolutionary purpose? And in our increasingly secular world, why has it endured?

Drawing on the themes of his new book How Religion Evolved, Dunbar tracked the origins of religion back to what he terms the ‘mystical stance’ – an aspect of human psychology that predisposes us to believe in a transcendent world. And he argued that our instinct for religion is not a peculiar quirk or aberration on our otherwise efficient evolutionary journey. Instead he showed how religion confers an advantage: not just to the individual in terms of health and wellbeing, but, more importantly, to society in general, fostering social bonding at a large scale. 

Dunbar took us on a tour of religious expression from Neolithic times up to today, exploring mysterious sects and lost faiths across multiple cultures, to discover the deep psychological basis for the quintessentially human impulse – to believe.

Praise for Robin Dunbar’s How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures 

‘Stimulating and hugely ambitious … A compelling intellectual workout. Dunbar offers a powerful central argument, an excellent survey of alternative theories and a wide range of vivid and illuminating examples … The story he tells is important to us all.’ ― The Observer

Dunbar’s intellectual interests are far-ranging, and he is as sure-footed talking about human cognition as congregation sizes … How Religion Evolved is learned, readable and sweeping (in the best sense of that word)’ ― The Financial Times



Robin Dunbar

Acclaimed evolutionary psychologist and author of How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures

Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and an elected Foreign Member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. He has been awarded the Osman Hill Medal and the Huxley Medal. His popular science books include How Many Friends Does One Person Need? and Human Evolution, and have been translated into a dozen languages. His latest book is How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures. 

Stuart Ritchie

Psychologist at King's College London and author of Science Fictions

Psychologist and lecturer at the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience at King's College London. His recent book, Science Fictions, and his Substack newsletter of the same name, cover all the ways that science can go wrong – and what we can do to fix it.