Subscribe
Home > Blogs & Communities > Origins > On the Origin of Religion  

Change in Regulatory DNA Responsible for Stickleback Evolution | Main | How Weblike Is the Tree of Life?

November 5, 2009

On the Origin of Religion

by Elizabeth Culotta

1106N_IntroArt Every human society has had its gods, whether worshiped from Gothic cathedrals or Mayan pyramids. In all cultures, humans pour resources into elaborate religious buildings and rituals. But religion offers no obvious boost to survival and reproduction. So how and why did it arise? In my Origins essay this month, I follow two very different disciplines—archaeology and cognitive psychology—as they attempt to understand this puzzle.

To Charles Darwin himself, the origin of belief in gods was no mystery. “As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would … have vaguely speculated on his own existence,” he wrote in The Descent of Man. In the past 15 years, a growing number of researchers have followed Darwin’s lead and explored the hypothesis that religion springs naturally from the normal workings of the human mind. This new field, the cognitive science of religion, draws on psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to understand the mental building blocks of religious thought. “There are functional properties of our cognitive systems that lean toward a belief in supernatural agents, to something like a god,” says experimental psychologist Justin Barrett of Oxford University.

Barrett and others see the roots of religion in our sophisticated social cognition. Humans, they say, have a tendency to see signs of “agents”—minds like our own—at work in the world. “We have a tremendous capacity to imbue even inanimate things with beliefs, desires, emotions, and consciousness, … and this is at the core of many religious beliefs,” says Yale psychologist Paul Bloom.

Meanwhile, archaeologists seeking signs of ancient religion focus on its inextricable link to another cognitive ability, symbolic behavior. They too stress religion’s social component. “Religion is a particular form of a larger, social symbolic behavior,” says archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge, U.K. So archaeologists explore early religion by excavating sites that reveal the beginnings of symbolic behavior and of complex society.

These fields are developing chiefly in parallel, and there remains a yawning gap between the material evidence of the archaeological record and the theoretical models of psychologists. Yet there have been some stirrings of interdisciplinary activity, and all agree that the field is experiencing a surge of interest and new evidence, with perhaps the best yet to come.

Illustration credit: Katharine Sutliff/Science

9 Comments

First off Iwant to point out that it's simply not true that every culture pours elaborate resources into ritual and buildings . Only recently have we gotten down to the last few hunter gatherer societies, but for most of human history hunter gathered have had portable cultures that don't build elaborate anything , or leave much in the way of artifacts.
I'm not sure why it's do easy to overlook the fact that for the vast majority of our species' existence religion/spirituality meant worship of the Goddess, mother of all . Religion means sy to reconnect, before all the elaborate rituals hierarchies , metaphysics, moral and other social control mechanisms,the purpose was to experience being connected with the All. The practices some of which were orgiastic, were intended to induce this experience of connection.Perhaps this is no more than the return to the oceanic connectedness of being in the womb,perhaps transpersonal experience is related to transcendent
truth. certainly the deep experience if connection to ones tribe played a crucial survival function,adolescent initiations largely serve to bind one to the tribe.
I would say that studying the organized religions is useful for understanding humans as political animals, bit not the way to understand the fundamental nature Iof the spiritual impulse
Mircea Eliades work on primitive religions is very useful.

One of the problems facing researchers into the origins of religion, regardless of field of specialization, is the lack of a consistent, widely accepted definition to work from. Every definition of religion that I have come across either is too generalized to be of much use, or overly specific and thus incapable of addressing many aspects of human behavior that we would deem to be religious. In my own exploration of the topic [earthfriendarts.com/evolve/religion.html], I have set aside the search for a comprehensive definition, and instead focused on the functions that religion serves in human life. All religions that I have come across serve six primary functions:

- providing answers (or paths to answers) for ultimate questions (e.g., the nature of death; the purpose of life)

- providing methods for interceding or connecting with the supernatural

- explaining features and phenomena of the natural world

- providing a context and rules for moral behavior

- supporting individual and group identity

- supporting community and social stability

Taken together, answers to Ultimate Questions, explanations of the natural world, and ways of interceding with the divine, result in beliefs. The three remaining functions relate to the social contract that exists between an individual and society. Thus, any study of the origins of religion which doesn't consider the sociological aspects can never be complete.

The functions provided by religion tend not to be stand-alone attributes, but are interrelated, often in complex ways. Each of these functions also can be provided by other societal institutions and functions. Philosophy, shorn of specific religious trappings and supernatural agents, addresses the Great Questions of human life. Various meditative practices outside of any formal religious context can provide the practitioner with a sense of connection to a higher plane of existence. Science has been shown to do a much better job than religious beliefs and traditions when it comes to understanding the natural world. Many human social systems and philosophies - such as nationalism, communism, rationalism, fascism - can mimic religion in promoting individual or community identity and stability, including the imposition of specific required behaviors. These “-isms”, however, fall short when it comes to answering Great Questions or providing methods for interceding/connecting with the divine. Thus, while religion is not necessary for a full and meaningful life, it is the only human institution which provides for all six functions in one set of practices.

When we move away from trying to define religion to looking at the functions it serves, new avenues of investigation are opened up for the world of science to explore.

For what purports to be an academic paper, the failure to examine the literature displayed in the third sentence of the first paragraph [short version]/ second paragraph [long version] is breath taking. One person has already responded to this outright prejudice - to call this an hypothesis is to offer politeness where it seems undeserved. The studies of religious belief and practice in poor city neighborhoods done by John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago are easy to find. Puzzling at the very least; dare one say shameful.

Second, it is astonishing that the issue of religion continues to be addressed in this way. Maybe this is because when looking to the distant past, people think that they have no alternative but to look for artifacts of religious practice, otherwise they have nothing as evidence of “religion”. How terribly unfortunate and useless. This is putting the cart before the horse, the chicken before the egg, the tail wagging the dog, etc, et al.

As Emmanuel Levinas has argued, the place to start when thinking about religion is ethics, not metaphysics. The first thing the first humans, and all of us from the moment of our birth ever since, have had to deal with is other people, for Levians “the other”.

I will quote from a short paper by Robert Ehman, “Emmanuel Levinas: the Phenomenon of the Other”, Man and the World, v.8, no.2/ May, 1975.
http://www.springerlink.com/content/n7360g881q7567n1/
http://www.springerlink.com/content/n7360g881q7567n1/fulltext.pdf?page=1

"The original encounter with the other does not therefore motivate a struggle, but rather an "apology," a justification for our freedom. The appearance of the other is a genuine ethical experience, and at the same time an interpellation, an act of speaking. The face of the other "speaks"; and by this Levinas means that it calls upon us for an answer, a justification of our own being. "This infinity [i.e., this infinite, never ending demand on one, on me ], stronger than murder already resists us in his face, is his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word : 'Thou shalt not commit murder'" (199). The other cannot be treated as a mere instrument or opposed as a mere obstacle. "The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation" (201). " [ Ehman is quoting Levinas, Totality and Infinity, Duquesne U. Press, 1969 ]

Religion does not start with ritual practices and worries about purpose. It starts with worries about responsibility for others - first, that we not kill them, and then from there how we deal with them. Ethics and morality hit us over the head first. Then we might get around to metaphysics, religion, and God. In short, our every day dealings with people are the phenomena that hit us first, force us to ask bigger and deeper questions - love, for one, which leads to the institutions of marriage and child rearing. These may lead to religion, and may be not.

It is clear from historical documents that Judaism and Christianity did not form fully blown in the minds of human beings thousands of years ago. However, it is also clear from the archaeological record that the people who lived and thrived over thousands of years were people who learned at the very least that murder was a foolish practice.

The question for people investigating the origins of religion is not religion. Rather the task is a bunch of preliminary questions - How much more than a rule against murder was a group able to learn - how many of the virtues of ethics and morality were they able to find - how much of a religious sensibility were they able to develop - how many of the institutions of morality did they establish - then far down the line, how much of religion and God were they able to discover. One must look first for evidence to answer the preliminary questions, before the evidence for “religion” can be considered.

Terence Monteiro wrote: "So it is but unnatural to hold Atheism on par with Theism and have it taught as such to children. We can't do that unless we claim all these people were wrong."
I am surprised at this comment: the flat earth theory was wrong so was the miasma theory of disease, intelligent design and the earth-centred theory of the solar system. All wrong but greatly subscribed to - though possibly, like astrology, on an intuitively level, attractive. Atheism should be taught to children even if it is counter-intuitive and "unnatural"; critical thinking leads us to better theories about these things and away from the superstitious. Just because something is time-hallowed and traditional does not make it right, valuable or good. Slavery, anyone?

One of the best way for a society to develop is to give girls an education (I can't think of society being developed and it not educate girls); the whole socio-economic "floor" rises. However there are consequences to modernity: people with an education tend to think for themselves and the adherence to religion, the child-bearing role and patriarchy weaken.

The article makes two statements that are quite interesting. First, "There are functional properties of our cognitive systems that lean toward a belief in supernatural agents, to something like a god." Second, "humans have a tendency to see signs of 'agents'--minds like our own--at work in the world."

As a theist, both are exactly what I would expect. If God exists, of course there would be functional properties of our cognitive systems that are predisposed to recognize this. Of course we would have a tendency to believe that minds like our own are at work in the world.

But to the author, these facts are a "puzzle"--presumably because they are way out of synch with her fundamental assumptions about the world: that random chance and unthinking natural law has created an entire race of creatures who possess the characteristics she describes.

Questions:
1. At what point do such disconfirming puzzles rise to the level that they trigger a re-evaluation of one's presuppositions?
2. Why do all such papers seem unwilling to even consider the parsimonious resolution to the author's bewilderment: why not even consider the possibility that our humanity--which naturalism cannot explain--is a signpost that points us back to God?

@ Terence Monteiro

Thank you, I agree! Coming from the empirical (especially) demographic side, most of my colleagues working the field do have the impression that Western people have blind spots on the matter. As nearly no one would doubt the biocultural (and adaptive) evolution of i.e. speech and musicality, it seems to be hard for devout religious and devout atheists alike just to explore religiosity with the same perspectives and open mindset. Therefore, I so appreciate this blog post and your comment.

@ OregonMJW

Thanks for your comment. I am glad that I have some good news regarding your concerns. Although it is true that those religious communities tend to have the highest birth rates who are espousing religious observance, there seems to be no necessary link regarding hierarchies, intolerance or violence. For example, I did some studies about the high fertility of the Amish (an article has passed the review and is out in some months), who are strictly decentralized (with only lay preachers and no formal Church hierarchy), do not proselytize and never got involved in power politics and violence (in fact, they were driven out of Europe for their refusal to wield arms, among other things). These days, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks did a lecture in UK about the subject from a non-violent Jewish perspective, which prompted intensive debates in Europe.

Thanks & best wishes!

Thanks on the article.

"Every human society has had its gods, whether worshipped from Gothic cathedrals or Mayan pyramids ..

To Charles Darwin himself, the origin of belief in gods was no mystery. “As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would … have vaguely speculated on his own existence"

Theism is clearly a historic reality, accepted widely and across markedly different civilizations. If we include these past civilizations and cultures and people's, the democracy of the dead and alive taken together believed and believe positively in a God or gods.

So it is but unnatural to hold Atheism on par with Theism and have it taught as such to children. We can't do that unless we claim all these people were wrong.

To quote OregonMJW,

"I'm glad Dr. Blume spoke up about the heightened incidence of procreation amongst some religious groups.

Unfortunately such results tend to arise from those belief systems which are extremely hierarchal in nature. Generally, fundamentalist "interpreters" whose beliefs are based largely on a rather unique interpretation of a portion of Judeo-Christian scripture, with tendencies toward isolationism, misogyny, sexism, irrationality and an almost freakish addiction to the dogmatic principles they've chosen - even in the face of manifest proof of the falsity or misdirection of their beliefs. Not exactly the type of people the world needs more of."

A plethora of labels - "fundamentalist, tendencies toward isolationism, misogyny, sexism, irrationality, almost freakish addiction to dogmatic principles". Such name calling and antagonism is unnecessary to say the least.

Congrats on the article and to those researching the fossilized evidence and archaeological records trying to throw more light on the brilliant and fascination human mind, something we cannot stop being amazed about.

Fascinating article and fascinating fields of study. I'm glad Dr. Blume spoke up about the heightened incidence of procreation amongst some religious groups.

Unfortunately such results tend to arise from those belief systems which are extremely hierarchal in nature. Generally, fundamentalist "interpreters" whose beliefs are based largely on a rather unique interpretation of a portion of Judeo-Christian scripture, with tendencies toward isolationism, misogyny, sexism, irrationality and an almost freakish addiction to the dogmatic principles they've chosen - even in the face of manifest proof of the falsity or misdirection of their beliefs. Not exactly the type of people the world needs more of.

The minute humans acquired true self-awareness - and you can watch this happen today in babies - and had the cognitive power to pose a question, one of their first questions was "who am I" quickly followed by "why am I." It's the second question that gave rise to religious thought, and it was based on nothing more complicated than the observance of what was most powerful in the environment.

As humans changed and grew to understood more and more about their environment and how to manipulate it, and protect themselves from it, the more symbolic religious belief became, and the more easily manipulated by some. Some of the very first "job" descriptions were Hunter, Gatherer and Seer.

We brought this on ourselves; it's up to us to evolve to the point that it no longer necessary to point skyward and expect any result that we cannot predict or have not caused ourselves.

Thanks for the insightful post, whose objective and tone I share.

But there is a single point I would like to address differently from the perspective of my field (religious studies): "But religion offers no obvious boost to survival and reproduction."

As it happens, this is a hypothesis - and it is falsified. We are having "lots" of studies showing that religious people tend to have far more children on average as their secular neighbours. Then, there are the cases of religious communities as i.e. the Amish, Hutterites, Mormons or orthodox Jews, whose high birth rates cannot be explained excluding religious factors. In contrast, we didn't find a single secular community with comparable reproductive performances for just two or three generations! The hypothesis about succesful religions bestowing a "reproductive advantage" has been formulated by nobel laureate Friedrich August von Hayek in 1992 - and it seems that he got it right. (See i.e. the new "The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior", Springer Heidelberg/New York 2009)

Best wishes to you and your wonderful work!

Leave a comment

Thanks for your feedback. Please keep it polite and to the point.