The forager vs farmer hypothesis explains religion

A few years back I was researching neurodiversity (ASD, ADHD and giftedness) and hit upon the idea that neurodiverse people are evolutionary hunter-gatherer (forager) types who struggle living in an evolutionary farmer type world. There is a third evolutionary tribe, pastoralists, but for the sake of simplicity it suffices to suppose two antagonistic forces to explain the evolution of religions. In modern political terms, these two forces could simply be described as conservative (farmer) and liberal (forager).

Agriculture and food production brought along some evolutionary adaptations in people that hadn’t been in place before. While hunter-gatherers had been egalitarian, the egalitarianism made place for preference for closer kin and in-group members (nepotism) in early farmers.

Once we understand the differences between forager and farmer types, explaining religion becomes an exercise in assigning weight to one of the two sides. Alternatively, you can see it like a football match with each side scoring goals.

Early farming required strict rules and high levels of conformism and was based on non-egalitarian nepotism. Religion ensured a peaceful, relatively non-violent coexistence within each group and at the same time provided a demarcation for the out-group: other farmers or herders who were potentially threatening for the community (e.g. raiding).

Forager types who were later incorporated into agricultural societies (often as slaves or low-status labourers) had no such instincts and found living in a non-egalitarian community difficult. Therefore, almost all reformations to farmer religions were led by forager types like Jesus or the Buddha and can simply be regarded as “foragerizing” farmer religions, i.e. making them more egalitarian (e.g. the role of women), less clannish, etc.

As farmer types are more common than forager types, most religions tend to become farmerized over time. That happened to egalitarian (or communist) early Christianity during the Middle Ages. The farmerization of religion also includes politics, i.e. religion becomes a tool for power and political change as well as a pretext for wars. The foragerization of religion includes its depoliticization, which can be seen in the separation of state and church movements as well as in secularisation in general.

Even atheism can be understood as the logical consequence as a part of this game. The history of atheism has been mostly a history of fighting illiberalism rather than religious doctrine itself. For Marx, it was “opium for the people”, a tool for keeping poor people in their place. Bakunin saw religion as a form of enslavement. And Richard Dawkins started to become a militant atheist when anti-scientist conservatives kept attacking his ideas.

If you find these ideas interesting check out my book Foragers, Farmers and Pastoralists : How three tribes have been shaping civilization since the Neolithic

Originally published at on June 19, 2021.