The Origins of Religion and Spiritual Sensibility

What form did religious beliefs take in prehistory? The disappointing, but important, answer is that we do not know. The anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard ridiculed a number of well-known attempts to get into the minds of early human beings and say how they invented religion in his classic book Theories of Primitive Religion (1965). The general technique he criticizes seems to have been to say, "If I had been an early human being living in a cave, I would probably have been a very fearful and superstitious individual; and so that is what they probably were."

The claims of some writers influenced by evolutionary biology are not much stronger. Scott Atran (2004, 6) writes that "religion is . . . a recurring cultural by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape. . . . [C]ore religious beliefs minimally violate ordinary human notions about how the world is . . . enabling people to imagine minimally impossible supernatural worlds that solve existential problems, including death and deception." His thesis is that religion is not adaptive as such, but the creation of imaginary worlds is a means of solving problems in the real world, at least psychologically.

How is Atran supposed to know this? He clearly has not observed early religion, since no one has. From the graves and statuettes and other artifacts we have, it is very hard to draw many positive conclusions. Atran seems to be imposing on the past what he feels to be true of the present, but in a more childish way.

I doubt if this can be considered serious science. Ironically, it is itself an imaginary story (he just made it up) that violates ordinary human notions about the existence of a Spiritual Reality (most people think there is such a reality), enabling the author to solve the problem of how religion could arise when there is no Spiritual Reality.

To say there is a Spiritual Reality is to say that, underlying the world of things perceived by the senses, there is a reality that is not bound by space and time and that has the nature of consciousness and value. That reality will be conceived in terms of the concepts available in specific societies—in that sense, it will be socially constructed—used in a metaphorical or symbolic way to evoke a sense of what cannot be straightforwardly described.

We know that many early societies worshipped many gods and that the gods were associated with natural phenomena, with significant historical events, and with human values and desirable or feared possibilities. But we do not know that the god of thunder, for example, was invented to explain why it thundered and so that he could be propitiated in order to control the weather. This is to see early religion as primitive (and useless) technology. An alternative account is that thunder might be perceived as a metaphor for the destructive power of God, rather than God being a quasiscientific inference from the occurrence of thunder.

Perhaps some evolutionary biologists simply lack a sense of poetry and metaphor and, therefore, cannot understand what it would be for thunder to be taken as a "sign" of God—not evidence for God but a sensory image of a reality that cannot be physically sensed but whose nature is expressed in some way in everything that is. Some symbols can be taken as especially appropriate and revelatory signs of that reality. For instance, the abode of the gods will be "above"—physical height is a natural sensory image for spiritual superiority. Thunder from the sky can be a sensory image for the fearful power of the source of all being.

On such an account, the "religious sense" would lie in a disposition to take finite things or events as signs, communications, or disclosures of an unseen deeper reality. It may be mistaken, but the mistake is not that of thinking the cause of thunder is an invisible man pushing the clouds together.

In early religions that we know about, there are often many gods, both good and bad. That reflects the sense that there are many aspects of Spiritual Reality, perhaps many consciousnesses and values and disvalues, both good and bad, and some of them may speak to particular individuals more than others. So we can choose our own God, our own symbol of Spirit. Or, more probably, our tribe may choose it for us, and we learn one set of symbols of Spirit as especially significant for our society. This may be for historical reasons, associated with major events in the past or for reasons of cultural custom, leading us to prefer some symbols of ultimate reality (say, kingship) to others (bananas, perhaps). Not many tribes think the Supreme Spirit is a banana—though some do. More tribes think there is a king of the gods. One of those tribes was an ancestor of the Abrahamic faiths.

Evolutionary psychologists are surely correct in thinking that religion must have originated in prerational rituals and beliefs that had some important function in their societies. They are correct in seeing that many early beliefs are clearly false, if taken literally, and are sometimes morally scary, involving human sacrifice and mutilation. But they often seem to imply that the only function of beliefs is survival value or at least some by-product of such a function.

Daniel Dennett says, "Mother Nature is a philistine accountant who cares only about the immediate payoff in terms of differential replication" (2006, 80). That may be so. But when human consciousness comes on the scene, other payoffs may become important. Whatever Mother Nature thinks, people (many people, anyway) care about beauty, truth, and goodness, about ideals that attract them because of their inherent value. They find intimations of beauty in their environment, and, in their dances, songs, and rituals, they create beautiful forms that mediate transcendent beauty. That transcendent beauty may be symbolized in many finite forms, and the "world of spirits" is an imaginative narrative that evokes such a sensibility.

Some writers have talked of "memes," which are supposed to be units of thought or belief that are successful replicators in human culture. It is difficult to think of any analogy that a thought has to the chemical structure of a gene—a piece of a DNA molecule—and equally difficult to think of a principle of natural selection that could select favored memes. For that reason, I regard "memetics" as a pseudoscience. It implies that beliefs get selected because they are easily replicated or psychologically memorable, rather than because they are thought to be true.

When a "memetic" account is given of why early humans believed that 2 + 2 = 4, the account is not that the sum is correct but that those who believed it survived better than those who thought that 2 + 2 = 22. But the reason they survived better is that 2 plus 2 really does equal 4. That is a piece of knowledge that is useful because it is true.

The same goes for religion. Some social anthropologists, beginning with Emile Durkheim, claim that religion has the function of promoting social solidarity. That may be one of its functions, though it is not likely to be the only one. But it will only have that function if people believe that some religious claims are true. Religion is truth-claiming, though the truth is particularly vague, polysemic, and hard to describe. It is because such a reality is believed to exist that belief in it promotes moral solidarity and enthusiasm among its devotees.

The reasons early humans gave for their beliefs may be, from our point of view, naive and often mistaken—just as alchemy was a naive and mistaken aim of early chemistry, in the sixteenth century. But it may have expressed a desire for truth and may well have been rooted in a discernment of truth, just as alchemy was, however partial and undeveloped.

Daniel Dennett locates the beginnings of religion in what the early anthropologist E. B. Tylor termed "animism"—"a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us" (2006, 123). This may be rather near the truth, though the way it is put is unduly dismissive. The formulation encourages us to think that religion is a childish attitude that sees little invisible men and women hiding in trees, sprinkling us with rain, and living in waterfalls. The implication is that there is little difference in kind between belief in fairies and belief in a Conscious Agency underlying the world of appearances that our senses present to us.

Perhaps belief in fairies is a degenerate and literalized form of belief in naturally beautiful objects as signs of Spiritual Presence. If so, we might look to the myths and rituals of early religion as poetic and dramatic means of expressing and evoking what Donald Hughes describes as "the mysterious interrelatedness of all that is" (quoted in Gottlieb 1996, 138). "Indians," he says, "regarded things in nature as spiritual beings, not because they were seeking some explanation for natural phenomena, but because human beings experience a spiritual resonance in nature" (quoted in Gottlieb 1996, 139). Evolutionary psychology must leave open the possibility that such a sense of spiritual resonance, the sense that humans participate in a spiritual universe and are not conscious, largely deluded freaks in an impersonal universe, is a natural human attitude that has survived primarily because it is believed to disclose truth.

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