The Anthropological Origins of Religion
(There is some conjecture in this thesis or groups of theses. I can’t take credit for all these ideas. They’ve been garnered from many sources. I’m stringing them together which has probably been done by others before. I would especially like to cite The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade. He is opposed on one point by Richard Dawkins: group level selection. Wade believes that the ubiquity of religion points to group level selection. That is, group, clan, troupe, tribe being “naturally” selected as an evolution adaptation.)
For the sake of argument I’d like to transport you to the Aurignation culture, one of the early European cultures of Cro-Magnon man. The culture of that troupe or tribe was their way of knowing the world and who they were. The need for identity, for the self and the group is very strong. It is inextricably intertwined, this group identity, with the group’s origin and leadership. Natural questions about self and group put to the test the alpha male (leadership), the group, and the self. Such questions as: Is the leader’s authority legitimate? Is the group fair and just? Am I in the right group?”
Cro-Magnon is a term that has been largely dropped. Anatomically modern humans is the more correct term. Consider them synonymous.
Religion was that interlocking puzzle piece that meshed with so many of the unknowns, the unanswerable questions of life, into one little black box. Religion said ‘this is who we are because this is how we answer these questions.’ Another way to put it, religion was a tool of man’s among very few tools because his mind was way ahead of his culture. At the Cro-Magnon point, those individuals had the rough equivalent of our minds… but their culture was just budding, wholly inadequate to their fears and concerns.
Cro-Magnon’s mind demanded answers, but he was the only one around who cared about his questions. So he could only reason from what he could see–with his limited understanding. He saw things that had visible effects in his world, sun, water, weather, animals, and so he reasoned backward via an anthropocentric apotheosis of those effects to some personified cause that must have intended them. ‘The great spirit was angry with us and flooded our camp.”
Religion can go to the root man’s sociopolitical nature because it offers God or his nominee as an overarching ‘alpha male.’ For the human troupe this is the ultimate or extreme legitimate leader. Maybe this is one reason that religion offers so much, as it evidently does, around the world to its followers—it locks into eons old primate evolutionary realities. If you’re unable to visualize the hierarchy in, say, a chimpanzee troupe, consider the feudal system—it shares a variation of the organizational structure of a primate (subsuming human as well) troupe: serfs, their lords, then kings with their divine right—authority validated by God. Just ask them, eh?
Certainly, today every person is a social critic and may be ‘hardwired’ to be one. Every primate troupe has a leader who is potentially subject to continual challenge, in a real way this is an ongoing quest for an authority that is beyond question. In reality, society is typically flawed, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Religion offers something of a utopia, a society perfected. To the extent that societies are less than perfect, religion, typically with a deity, offers the answers to the mysteries of the world by a personal embodiment of those mysteries in a caring entity who’s involved in the world and its being.
Believers may have gone for this package deal. That is, rather than accepting the idea that ‘there is a god’ as a first premise, they simply wanted the entire operational frame work of belief, reverence for the sacred, the favor of the satiated god, avoiding the wrath of unplacated gods, etc. In reality the individual’s culture presupposed a god’s existence before the individual was on the scene. Thus there was a tradition, and as far as the culture was concerned: ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, i.e., if you are going to partake in the culture, you accept it in its entirety, religious beliefs and all. Early on, the culture projected a god or gods; this Great Spirit was the apotheosis of nature. It was the existential equivalent of the question, ‘All right! Who’s in charge here?’ that mankind seems to have the burning need to know. Religion, then, was yet another aspect of how the banding together of the social tribe met the needs of the individual as well as the group: the culture had religious answers for the unfathomable mysteries of the world.
Later in prehistory, as cultures met, the possibility of abandoning one god and accepting another became feasible—though still not easy. If people liked the god-ideas of another culture, they may have imagined a god-message something like this: ‘Since you know there must be a god you should believe in me for I am He.’
The original dialogue between man and god carried over from pre-history into historical times. There had to be some feedback from the divine or else questions would arise: Weren’t the priests any good or was the religion false? And, lo, the word of god was invented. The priests learned to write in order to take divine dictation. After all it was their caste who would receive THE WORD.
Various tools were employed to facilitate communing with the divine. Fasting was cheap. Drugs were somewhat effective. Dreams were a source, and dreams under the influence of fasting or drugs also yielded some results. Really, anything that would produce altered states or hallucinations was viable. Great suffering was a theme in Christianity that nominated the sufferer for worthiness to receive the divine communication.
So the Written Words accumulated in sacred scrolls and texts and this body of work became revered. It was necessary for the viability of a god and his religion that this was a knowledge that subsumed all knowledge, all culture, that was eternal and transcendent. With a religion’s tradition, rituals, and integral place in the culture, it’s a wonder a believer would ever stray. Though I suppose if one’s own god seemed ineffective, as I expect occasionally they must, the believer might well see greener grass in another tribe’s beliefs, ‘Yeah, there must be a god. This guy’s myth from his culture says that God is Their Grand-High Mucky-Muck. He’s got a tradition and a lot of followers. He must know who he is. Therefore, he is GOD.’ ”
I prefaced these thoughts with Richard Dawkin’s opposition to group level natural selection. He has also said that religion is a group activity so natural selection at the individual level would have no effect. In other words, religion isn’t an evolutionary adaptation at the individual level either.
Dawkins is an authority, of course, but in logical arguments, an appeal to authority is a fallacy. Dawkins lock on his position is his statement that groups don’t have genes only individuals do. Meaning tht the natural selection of nonexistent genes mean no natural selection at all.
We all to often consider evolution as a driving force. With all that has been accomplished in the world around us, it certainly seems so. But the mechanism of evolution is as much a deletion of genes that have the less successful “survival strategy.”
Religion confers benefit on individual and the group of which they are a part. Some of those benefits have implication for survival. Sincere caring for each other, ministering to mind and body, a social network, food and other emergency aid, support for the family. The holier thou art, the more likely thou art to find a bride and ‘be fruitful and multiply.’
Group membership vs. group ostracism meant life and death up into the 1900’s. Is there any doubt about how effective being cast our of the group would have been a hundred thousand years ago?
These are first individual benefits, though. Religion’s presence in every human culture speaks for itself. Is there any doubt how much more strength and resolve a human tribe would have when bolstered by religion–bring that identity, that solidarity, that resolve into battle against a tribe that didn’t and, all other things being equal, the outcome can be anticipated.
Victorious in battle leads to increasing population. Tribes split when they get too large. But who will be able to call for help when attacked. Those godless heathens on the attack or all the children of the Grand-High Mucky-Muck?
It is too easy to underestimate religion’s place in a lot of lives. True, that place has eroded some in modern society. The responsive cultures and social safety nets offer alternatives to being a member of a religion. The humanistic caring within a culture and even by one culture for another has been a source that has reached out to those in need.
Where will it go from here? The wish, the aspiration, the caring and the outreach of modern society is in flux. Humanity has made a tremenous upward climb. There have been some horrendous backslides, too. But the social and ethical progress of even that last few hundred years is impressive. Humankind is toying with the ability to direct its own future. The liberal believers and the nearly-believers and the humanists will be seen as a cooperative force for good. We should offer that level of cooperation openly. If we embrace it, it will embrace us. We can help believers keep the best their religions have to offer. We might all find happiness in that quasi-utopia.
Entry filed under: freethought. Tags: anatomically modern human, apotheosis of nature, aurignation culture, community of non-believers, creating a quasi utopia in the world, cro-magnon, drugs, early european cro-magnon man, feedback from divine, god as the leader of the first groups, grand high mucky muck, great spirit, great suffering, greener grass of religion, group level selection, group membership vs group ostracism, humanity's need for identity, in for the penny, in for the pound, nicholas wade, no natural group selection, origins of god-concepts, religion, religion doesn't have as big of a role in society anymore, religion is old primate evolutionary realities, religion is the overarching alpha male, religion offers something of a utopia, religion replaced by alternatives, richard dawkins, the faith instinct, word of god invented, written words necessary for a viabliity of god.