February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
March 20, 2011
When did religion arise? Judging by burial practices, perhaps about 95,000 years ago. That is the age of the oldest known symbolic burial site, a grave in Qafzeh, Israel where a nine-year old is buried with their legs bent and a deer antler cradled in their arms (Elizabeth Culotta, “On the Origin of Religion,” Science, Nov. 6, 2009, 326:784-787). But numinous awe does not always leave durable traces; as psychologist Justin Barret so sensibly observes, “There can be lots of reasons to bury things; just look at kids in a sandbox.” We are, therefore, never going to know exactly when or where the first distinctly religious concepts and practices arose, because by their nature they probably left no trace. Prayers predate cathedrals.
Also interesting, and perhaps even answerable, is the question of why our ancestors first became religious. Elizabeth Culotta puts it succinctly: “In all cultures, humans pour resources into elaborate religious buildings and rituals, with no obvious boost to survival and reproduction. So how and when did religion arise?”
How indeed? (We must note in passing that not all cultures build “elaborate religious buildings,” but everybody is allowed a few bits of total nonsense when opining about religion.) In the world of scriptural literalism, it’s simple: people believed in God because God walked in the Garden. God gave orders, made promises, won battles, and worked wonders. Nobody was fool enough to sit around wondering if God existed. People did not “begin to be religious” for some reason that needs to be deciphered by a bunch of smartass scientists: they found themselves in a world bursting with God, Danger-High-Voltage with God. It’s all in Genesis.
In pop atheism, fundamentalism’s photo negative, the answer is also obvious: religion started as bad science. Early peoples didn’t understand lightning, so they made up Zeus and said that lightning was his spear. They made up Hera and said that the Milky Way had spilled from her breasts. The sun, the winds, the stars, you name it, gods can explain it, and we must have explanations, so we invented the gods and have been stuck with them ever since. This narrative is traditional, popular, and appealing. I recently saw Carl Sagan’s moving exposition of it on his 1980 TV series Cosmos:
Nature was a mystery. It was hard to understand the world. Our ancestors groped in darkness to make sense of their surroundings. Powerless before Nature, they invented rituals and myths: some desperate and cruel, some imaginative and benign.
Religion was, on this view, explanatory in origin. It scratched our inborn intellectual itch to understand. But having invented the gods in our own image, our ancestors inevitably began to fear them and to seek to influence them. The Just-So stories of religion, mutated into a panoply of capricious deities, soon accreted a “vast industry of priests” (in Sagan’s words) to avert disaster through flattery and sacrifice. The rest is history—in fact, just about all of history until the Enlightenment.
Sagan brings the light of reason into the darkness of religion in Episode 7 of Cosmos.
Science, then, does what people originally wanted religion to do: it explains stuff. Since its explanations are true instead of false, they should be more satisfying, and religion should, logically, wither away. A hundred years or so ago, it seemed that this was actually about to happen, and western Europe has indeed secularized rapidly. But other places haven’t, including the United States and just about everywhere else. Why is religion so tenacious?
A hardwired “God gene”? No chance. Whole societies that were once as religious as any—Scandinavia, for instance—have pretty much dropped God in a mere generation or three, too quick for widespread genetic change. Few scientists seriously studying the question of religion’s origin plump for a universal genetic program.
The two most popular schools or theories I call the Vitamin R theory and the Mind Virus theory. According to the Vitamin R theory, religion is good for you. Sure, it diverts our energies into prayer, self-flagellation, and other churchy pastimes, but the tribe that prays together stays together. Some recent studies have found that worldwide, religious believers breed faster than nonbelievers and may be happier and healthier to boot. The Hare Krishnas outperform Mensa (“The International High IQ Society”) big time on the Darwinian playing field. The social invention we call “religion” persists because even if it is a bunch of crap, it is a good for you bunch of crap. (Sue Blackmore is an example of an writer who recently has come around to this point of view.)
According to the Mind Virus theory, on the other hand, religion may be tolerated by natural selection—if it weren’t, we’d be either extinct or nonreligious by now—but arises as an accidental by-product of mental equipment evolved for other purposes. We are wired to recognize each other’s faces and to interact as social beings, so we see faces in the clouds and discern sociality in Nature itself: the gods. This weird side-effect of our big, social brains may be expensive in biological terms, like peacock feathers are for peacocks, but not so expensive that the species can’t support it. Or perhaps it’s neutral or even beneficial: the Vitamin R and Mind Virus theories can thus hybridize. It’s my amateur impression that the front runner is a hybrid theory in which religion arises as a byproduct of stuff in our social and intellectual toolkit, from facial recognition to symbol-making and empathy, then evolves in the social realm as group glue. The group-glue function can be performed by a very wide range of religious phenomena, so that’s what we’ve got.
There is too much to say about these ideas to fit in a single blog post or even a single book, so just two observations:
(1) The pop-atheism account is the only one that the anthropologists and cognitive scientists don’t even bother with. The idea that people invented gods primarily to explain Nature, as proto-science, isn’t even in the scientific running.
(2) Carl Sagan, like Arthur C. Clarke, substitutes for traditional religion a nontheistic myth based on a cosmic “destiny” in space. He speaks in Cosmos of Our voyage of self discovery, on our journey to the stars, and asserts that The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars. Elsewhere: Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars. And this: We embarked on our journey to the stars with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and, in each generation, asked anew in undiminished wonder: What are the stars? (All quotes from Cosmos, episode 7, “The Backbone of Night.”)
This is a hieratic, ritual, religious diction if there ever was one: self-discovery, the stars, the sky calls to us, the stars, our nature, the shores of the cosmic ocean, we are ready at last, the stars, our journey to the stars, the childhood of our species, undiminished wonder, the stars. The point is not to mock Sagan, whom I like very much, but to note that this class of utterances has nothing to do with science. It expresses a creed and a mood: a longing for transcendence and transformation, for a divinized, cosmic racial maturity among “the stars.” This is testimony, this is prophecy, this is religion.
It is, moreover, an achiever religion, an enlightenment path rather than a grace path, “otherworldly” in the literal, physical sense. Sagan was himself a gorgeous, compassionate man, but the tendency of his space religion is as narrow as that of any God-cult in the zoo. Those who do not receive a good scientific education, especially religious believers, are obviously pretty much out of the cosmic picture: they live out their little lives in the dark, working in factories or raising millet in Kenya or whatnot, numbed by religious fairy tales, deaf to the voice of “the stars calling to us,” throwbacks to the “childhood of our species.” And those of us who are satisfied with home places, educated or religious or not, are equally irrelevant, the dropouts of destiny (“we are wanderers still,” meaning humans, so if you’re not a wanderer, what are you?). The fool says in his heart, Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
Ironically, this particular religious myth seems to perform no explanatory function. What tribe, then, does it cement? What functions are performed by the substitutes for explicit religion that so often seem to evolve among people who view themselves as transcending religion?
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.