Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Evolution of Religion as Narrated from the Bible

Homo Sapiens 40,000 Years Ago

Ancient Civilizations 6000 years ago

The Evolution of Religion
as Narrated from the Bible

by R.E. Slater

Evolution never stops. Life adapts as-and-where it can. It's seen even in the bible. For example, where there were one humped camels then there were two! Hmmm... maybe I got it backwards? Ha, ha. No, really, evolution is in the bible but NOT the camel-biological kind. This was just a bit of humor. The evolution of the camel was a lot further back when man wasn't even on the evolutionary charts:

The earliest known camel, called Protylopus, lived in North America 40 to 50 million years ago (during the Eocene). It was about the size of a rabbit and lived in the open woodlands of what is now South Dakota. By 35 million years ago, the Poebrotherium was the size of a goat and had many more traits similar to camels and llamas. The hoofed Stenomylus, which walked on the tips of its toes, also existed around this time, and the long-necked Aepycamelus evolved in the Miocene.
An early relative of extant Old World camels, Paracamelus, existed in the upper Miocene to Middle Pleistocene. Around 3–5 million years ago, the North American Camelidae spread to South America as part of the Great American Interchange via the newly formed Isthmus of Panama, where they gave rise to guanacos and related animals, and to Asia via the Bering land bridge. Surprising finds of fossil Paracamelus on Ellesmere Island beginning in 2006 in the high Canadian Arctic suggest that the extant Old World camels may descend from a larger, boreal browser whose hump may have evolved as an adaptation in a cold climate. This creature is estimated to have stood around nine feet (2.7 metres) tall. The Bactrian camel diverged from the dromedary about 1 million years ago, according to the fossil record.

The last camel native to North America was Camelops hesternus, which vanished along with horses, short-faced bears, mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths, sabertooth cats, and many other megafauna, coinciding with the migration of humans from Asia.

Anthropologically, Homo Sapiens appeared around 300,000 years ago. In the bible, the earliest human civilization may have been that of Jericho at 11,000 BC, the Sumerians between 5500 to 4000 BC, and the Egyptian civilization around 3150 BC. After that came the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. All affecting one another from Ancient Europe to Asia Minor, from Africa to as far away as India. Each having nascent civilizations holding an admixture of "evolutionary" societal and religious values.

However, when speaking of "societal evolution" this is not the biological kind of evolution spoken of but used more broadly as a descriptor of the cultural kind of evolution occurring within human societal civilizations.

As genetic pools of humanity experimented back-and-forth across racial/ethical lines of interaction they discovered what made for healthy communities working together. Or what made for broken societies practicing unhealthy attitudes and acts upon one another. In either of these practices divisions of labor, class, race, and cultural values naturally arose. Hence, the study of human civilizations is known as the "anthropological evolution of civilizations" which can be read across the eras of ancient comparative literature such as found in the bible an other literary sources from the past to the present, in archaeological studies, socio-human contracts, trade, and industry, and so forth.

But mostly, what I see in the bible when reading it are ancient religious cultures growing and maturing in response to the socio-ecological and politico-economic information they acquired and utilized. From these societal cultures have come a variety of religious beliefs. Some helpful to societal growth and expansion while others were cruelly divisive and inhumane.

As a general observation, one might say (i) religion serves society when it aides its greatest survival. Others might say that (ii) because a society had succeeded it will continue to perpetuate the religion that brought it it's greatest success. Yet another may say (iii) pick the right religion and you will pick the resulting outcomes which will directly affect the greatest possible outcome for societal needs.

Historically, in the record of the evolution of religion, all forms of religion have been experimented with... sometimes unwittingly by societies during their course of societal "evolving" or "improvement". Nevertheless, most societies inherit the religion they have, modify it in some way, and live with the results unless those results disturb its survival rate as a society.

In the bible Israel started out with the belief in a faithful, loving God along with a list of religious commandments. Over the years Israel tested its religious beliefs, modified them where-and-when they should, and finally centered itself around a latter form of rabbinic laws and beliefs into the present era.

Conversely, other affected religions responded in kind to Israel's portrayal of its faith. In some instances what they saw was terrible when Israel acted no differently than their neighbors in unloving ways. In other instances they saw lip-service given by Israel to their God while actively ignoring its faith by living it out superficially.

Over the years Israel's culture was affected by its more powerful neighbors bringing into it non-Jewish ideas and practices. Under Roman rule (affected greatly by Greek ideas) Judaism eventually birthed Christianity. But unlike other nascent ancient faiths working out their beliefs similarly influenced by interior and exterior ideas and philosophies, Christianity revised itself around a noble figure full of self-sacrificial love and service. Jesus' model of living revealed yet another possibility of healthy cultural adaptation.

But not at first as the Christian model of love was distrusted and disruptive to the social economies of  non-Christian civilizations. But eventually, as Christianity came to be understood, and evolved, global societies reconsidered their impressions of it. Seeing that the Jesus model was driven by humane kindness, respectful consideration and service to others, other religious cultures adopted some of its practices but perhaps not its beliefs of a single God become incarnate to save the world.

Throughout the Church Era this kindly, compassionate Christian culture would either fail or succeed to the extent that it held to the idea that the God it worshipped is a God of love as shown by Jesus's example. As the Christian religion evolved it seemed at its greatest zenith when helping and aiding other civilizations to become healthier in their relations with one another. When Christianity failed, its beliefs were shown to be cruel and unloving to others.

As such, whether we read in the bible how societies got along within themselves and with their neighbors, or if we read of the same in magazines and the news today, the principal of survival seems greatest in the human species when exercising a measure of altruism to one another. Something E.O. Wilson described as "Eusociality."

When exercising this compassionate mindset measured in wellbeing, societal healing between individuals and local groups, within communities, all is driven forward when offering an extended hand of fellowship regardless of belief, race, gender, culture, or religion. Ideally, it has worked best in an expanding social democracy centered in equality and justice. Within autocracies - as well as virtual autocracies found within corporate and regional authorities - than eusocialism does not seem to function well at all.

Thus the idea that the capstone to religious evolution may be resident in the ideas of ecological civilizations driven by the best of each religion. Christianity isn't the only game in town - but a God of love driven by an ethic of love is. Because of its Judeo-Christian backgrounds many think Jesus provides the clearest picture of God as well as the most effective way for redemption to occur within and between societies by His example of atoning sacrifice.

For the Christian, it means even more than this. Not only as an example but as the inbreaking of God into hard, selfish hearts full of sadness, grievance, guilt, and such like. Regardless, societies choosing to survive must incorporate love, loving wisdom, and loving service within their modus operandi should today's global world be able to survive itself amid the ecological and bacterial/viral challenges to come forced on it by industrialization, pollution, resource famine, and climate change.

R.E. Slater
May 1, 2021

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Until about 12,000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers, generally in small nomadic groups known as bands, often in caves. The Neolithic Revolution (the invention of agriculture) took place beginning about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent and spread through large parts of the Old World over the following millennia, and also occurred independently in Mesoamerica (about 6,000 years ago), China,[ Papua New Guinea, and the Sahel and West Savanna regions of Africa. Access to food surplus led to the formation of permanent human settlements, the domestication of animals and the use of metal tools for the first time in history. Agriculture and sedentary lifestyle led to the emergence of early civilizations.

An urban revolution took place in the 4th millennium BCE with the development of city-states, particularly Sumerian cities located in Mesopotamia. It was in these cities that the earliest known form of writing, cuneiform script, appeared around 3000 BCE. Other major civilizations to develop around this time were Ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley Civilization. They eventually traded with each other and invented technology such as wheels, plows and sails. Astronomy and mathematics was also developed and the Great Pyramid of Giza were built. There is evidence of a severe drought lasting about a hundred years that may have caused the decline of these civilizations, with new ones appearing in the aftermath. Babylonians came to dominate Mesopotamia while others, such as Poverty Point cultures, Minoans and the Shang dynasty, rose to prominence in new areas. The bronze age suddenly collapsed about 1200 BCE resulting in the disappearance of a number of civilizations and the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages. During this period iron started replacing bronze leading to the Iron Age.

In the 5th century BCE history started being recorded as a discipline, so providing a much clearer picture of life at the time. Between the 8th and 6th century BCE Europe entered the classical antiquity age, a period when the ancient Greece and ancient Rome societies flourished. Around this time other civilizations also came to prominence. The Maya civilization started to build cities and create complex calendars. In Africa the Kingdom of Aksum overtook the declining Kingdom of Kush and facilitated trade between India and the Mediterranean. In West Asia the Achaemenid Empire's system of centralized governance become the precursor to many later empires, while the Gupta Empire in India and the Han dynasty in China have been described as golden ages in their respective regions.

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire Europe entered the Middle Ages. In the middle east Islam became the prominent religion (a period known as the Islamic Golden Age) and expanded into North Africa. Christianity was likewise expanding in Europe, leading the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire to declare a series of holy wars to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslims. Elsewhere the Aztecs and Incas become the dominant empires in the Americas and the Mongol Empire would conquer much of Eurasia.

Through the early modern period the Ottomans rose to power in the middle east and Europe underwent the Renaissance. It saw the Age of Discovery with European nations exploring and colonizing new regions. This included the British Empire expanded to become the world's largest empire and the colonization of the Americas. The late modern period saw the Scientific Revolution, Technological Revolution and the Industrial Revolution bring such discoveries as imaging technology, major innovations in transport and energy development. With the advent of the Information Age, modern humans live in a world that has become increasingly globalized and interconnected.

Human population growth and industrialisation has led to environmental destruction and pollution significantly contributing to the ongoing mass extinction of other forms of life called the Holocene extinction, which may be further accelerated by global warming in the future.

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A Religious Studies Take on the
“Evolution of Religions Infographic”

by Andrew Henry
April 17, 2015

This infographic has been making its rounds on Facebook today. It portrays the “evolution of religions” as a sprawling family tree stemming out of a primordial religion dubbed “Animism.”

I must admit that I think the infographic is cool. It tries so hard to encompass every religious tradition, and it even gives a nod to some more obscure traditions (shout out to Mithraism!).

However, the religious studies scholar in me can’t help but point out all its inaccuracies and methodological errors.

1) First of all, the infographic makes some odd choices. Why is Mithraism stemming out of Canaanite religion instead of Persian Iranian religions? Why is Gnosticism its own religion with no connection to Christianity or Judaism? Why is quantum mechanics (of all things) labelled as a religion?? The culmination of mistakes makes the whole tree somewhat of a mess.

2) Animism as the primordial religion? Sounds a lot like early 20th century anthropologists. These guys were obsessed with discovering “the most primitive religion,” and they viewed animism as the closest example to that holy grail. Unfortunately, the whole endeavor was hopelessly intertwined with racist and imperialist motivations as anthropologists compared the “primitive” animism of West Africans and Australian aborigines to what they viewed as the moral perfection of Christianity. Scholars have largely abandoned these theories in favor of more fruitful (and less racist) lines of inquiry.

3) I also take issue with the term “evolution” when describing the development of religious traditions. The term works just fine for biologists. DNA makes categorizing animal species a somewhat more concrete endeavor than categorizing religions. Biologists can clearly differentiate between two separate species not simply because of superficial appearances but because of fundamental differences in their composition.

“Religion,” on the other hand, is a far more subjective category. Oftentimes, the differences between religions are borders enforced by scholars rather than real differences on the ground. Many Christians in the first few centuries, for example, happily attended synagogues, practiced Jewish dietary laws, and were circumcised. What do we call these people? Jewish Christians? Christian Jews? Their actions confound our tidy religious categories. Still others in Late Antiquity worshipped the Roman Emperor and regularly attended sacrifices at the Greek temples. Do we call these Christians “pseudo-pagans” or “half-converted Christians?”

When you claim that one religion evolved out of another, you are claiming that each religion has a perfect “essence” with which to compare to other religions. An essential Hinduism. An essential Islam. An essential Christianity. But “on the ground,” we seldom find people that fit these perfect archetypes, especially in antiquity before our modern obsession with codifying and categorizing existed.


Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

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SocioCultural Evolution, sociocultural evolutionism or cultural evolution are theories of sociobiology and cultural evolution that describe how societies and culture change over time. Whereas sociocultural development traces processes that tend to increase the complexity of a society or culture, sociocultural evolution also considers process that can lead to decreases in complexity (degeneration) or that can produce variation or proliferation without any seemingly significant changes in complexity (cladogenesis).[1] Sociocultural evolution is "the process by which structural reorganization is affected through time, eventually producing a form or structure which is qualitatively different from the ancestral form".[2]

Most of the 19th-century and some 20th-century approaches to socioculture aimed to provide models for the evolution of humankind as a whole, arguing that different societies have reached different stages of social development. The most comprehensive attempt to develop a general theory of social evolution centering on the development of sociocultural systems, the work of Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), operated on a scale which included a theory of world history. Another attempt, on a less systematic scale, originated from the 1970s with the world-systems approach of Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019) and his followers.

More recent approaches focus on changes of specific to individual societies and reject the idea that cultures differ primarily according to how far each one has moved along some presumed linear scale of social progress. Most[quantify] modern archaeologists and cultural anthropologists work within the frameworks of neoevolutionism, sociobiology, and modernization theory.

Many different societies have existed in the course of human history, with estimates as high as a total of over one million separate societies; however, as of 2013, the number of current, distinct societies had been estimated as only about two hundred.

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Factors influencing cultural evolution

Cultural Evolution is an evolutionary theory of social change. It follows from the definition of culture as "information capable of affecting individuals' behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation and other forms of social transmission".[1] Cultural evolution is the change of this information over time.[2]

Cultural evolution, historically also known as sociocultural evolution, was originally developed in the 19th century by anthropologists stemming from Charles Darwin's research on evolution. Today, cultural evolution has become the basis for a growing field of scientific research in the social sciences, including anthropology, economics, psychology and organizational studies. Previously, it was believed that social change resulted from biological adaptations, but anthropologists now commonly accept that social changes arise in consequence of a combination of social, evolutionary and biological influences.[3][4]

There have been a number of different approaches to the study of cultural evolution, including dual inheritance theory, sociocultural evolution, memetics, cultural evolutionism and other variants on cultural selection theory. The approaches differ not just in the history of their development and discipline of origin but in how they conceptualize the process of cultural evolution and the assumptions, theories and methods that they apply to its study. In recent years, there has been a convergence of the cluster of related theories towards seeing cultural evolution as a unified discipline in its own right.

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Sociobiology is a field of biology that aims to examine and explain social behavior in terms of evolution. It draws from disciplines including psychology, ethology, anthropology, evolution, zoology, archaeology, and population genetics. Within the study of human societies, sociobiology is closely allied to evolutionary anthropology, human behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology.

Sociobiology investigates social behaviors such as mating patterns, territorial fights, pack hunting, and the hive society of social insects. It argues that just as selection pressure led to animals evolving useful ways of interacting with the natural environment, so also it led to the genetic evolution of advantageous social behavior.

While the term "sociobiology" originated at least as early as the 1940s, the concept did not gain major recognition until the publication of E. O. Wilson's book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975. The new field quickly became the subject of controversy. Critics, led by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, argued that genes played a role in human behavior, but that traits such as aggressiveness could be explained by social environment rather than by biology. Sociobiologists responded by pointing to the complex relationship between nature and nurture.

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Anthropology of religion

Anthropology of religion is the study of religion in relation to other social institutions, and the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures.[1]


In the early 12th century Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī (973–1048), wrote detailed comparative studies on the anthropology of religions and cultures across the Mediterranean Basin (including the so-called "Middle East") and the Indian subcontinent.[2] He discussed the peoples, customs, and religions of the Indian subcontinent.

In the 19th century cultural anthropology was dominated by an interest in cultural evolution; most anthropologists assumed a simple distinction between "primitive" and "modern" religion and tried to provide accounts of how the former evolved into the latter.[citation needed] In the 20th century most anthropologists rejected this approach. Today the anthropology of religion reflects the influence of, or an engagement with, such theorists as Karl Marx (1818-1883), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), and Max Weber (1864-1920).[3] Anthropologists of religion are especially concerned with how religious beliefs and practices may reflect political or economic forces; or the social functions of religious beliefs and practices.[4][clarification needed]

In 1912 Émile Durkheim, building on the work of Feuerbach, considered religion "a projection of the social values of society", "a means of making symbolic statements about society", "a symbolic language that makes statements about the social order";[5] in short, "religion is society worshiping itself".[6][7][incomplete short citation]

Anthropologists circa 1940 assumed that religion was in complete continuity with magical thinking,[a][8][dubious ] and that it is a cultural product.[b][9] The complete continuity between magic and religion has been a postulate of modern anthropology at least since early 1930s.[c][11] The perspective of modern anthropology towards religion is the projection idea, a methodological approach which assumes that every religion is created by the human community that worships it, that "creative activity ascribed to God is projected from man".[12] In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach was the first to employ this concept as the basis for a systematic critique of religion.[13] A prominent precursor in the formulation of this projection principle was Giambattista Vico[14] (1668-1744), and an early formulation of it appears in the ancient Greek writer Xenophanes c. 570 – c. 475 BCE), who observed that "the gods of Ethiopians were inevitably black with flat noses while those of the Thracians were blond with blue eyes."[15]

Definition of religion

One major problem in the anthropology of religion is the definition of religion itself.[16] At one time[vague] anthropologists believed that certain religious practices and beliefs were more or less universal to all cultures at some point in their development, such as a belief in spirits or ghosts, the use of magic as a means of controlling the supernatural, the use of divination as a means of discovering occult knowledge, and the performance of rituals such as prayer and sacrifice as a means of influencing the outcome of various events through a supernatural agency, sometimes taking the form of shamanism or ancestor worship.[citation needed] According to Clifford Geertz, religion is

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."[17]

Today, religious anthropologists debate, and reject, the cross-cultural validity of these categories (often viewing them as examples of European primitivism).[citation needed] Anthropologists have considered various criteria for defining religion – such as a belief in the supernatural or the reliance on ritual – but few claim that these criteria are universally valid.[16]

Anthony F. C. Wallace proposes four categories of religion, each subsequent category subsuming the previous. These are, however, synthetic categories and do not necessarily encompass all religions.[18]

  1. Individualistic: most basic; simplest. Example: vision quest.
  2. Shamanistic: part-time religious practitioner, uses religion to heal, to divine, usually on the behalf of a client. The Tillamook have four categories of shaman. Examples of shamans: spiritualists, faith healers, palm readers. Religious authority acquired through one's own means.
  3. Communal: elaborate set of beliefs and practices; group of people arranged in clans by lineage, age group, or some religious societies; people take on roles based on knowledge, and ancestral worship.
  4. Ecclesiastical: dominant in agricultural societies and states; are centrally organized and hierarchical in structure, paralleling the organization of states. Typically deprecates competing individualistic and shamanistic cults.

Specific religious practices and beliefs

See also


  1. ^ In 1944, Ernst Cassirer wrote:

    It seems to be one of the postulates of modern anthropology that there is complete continuity between magic and religion. [note 35: See, for instance, RR Marett, Faith, Hope, and Charity in Primitive Religion, the Gifford Lectures (Macmillan, 1932), Lecture II, pp. 21 ff.] ... We have no empirical evidence at all that there ever was an age of magic that has been followed and superseded by an age of religion.[8]

  2. ^ T. M. Manickam wrote:

    Religious anthropology suggests that every religion is a product of the cultural evolution, more or less coherent, of one race or people; and this cultural product is further enriched by its interaction and cross-fertilization with other peoples and their cultures, in whose vicinity the former originated and evolved.[9]

  3. ^ R. R. Marett wrote:

    In conclusion, a word must be said on a rather trite subject. Many leading anthropologists, including the author of The Golden Bough, would wholly or in the main refuse the title of religion to these almost inarticulate ceremonies of very humble folk. I am afraid, however, that I cannot follow them. Nay, I would not leave out a whole continent from a survey of the religions of mankind in order to humour the most distinguished of my friends. Now clearly if these observances are not to be regarded as religious, like a wedding in church, so neither can they be classed as civil, like its drab equivalent at a registry office. They are mysteries, and are therefore at least generically akin to religion. Moreover, they are held in the highest public esteem as of infinite worth whether in themselves or for their effects. To label them, then, with the opprobrious name of magic as if they were on a par with the mummeries that enable certain knaves to batten on the nerves of fools is quite unscientific; for it mixes up two things which the student of human culture must keep rigidly apart, namely, a normal development of the social life and one of its morbid by-products. Hence for me they belong to religion, but of course to rudimentary religion—to an early phase of the same world-wide institution that we know by that name among ourselves. I am bound to postulate the strictest continuity between these stages of what I have here undertaken to interpret as a natural growth.[10]



  1. ^ Adams 2017Eller 2007, p. 2.
  2. ^ Walbridge 1998.
  3. ^ Eller 2007, p. 22; Weber 2002.
  4. ^ Eller 2007, p. 4.
  5. ^ Durkheim 1912Bowie 1999, pp. 15, 143.
  6. ^ Nelson 1990.
  7. ^ Durkheim, p.266 in the 1963 edition
  8. Jump up to:a b Cassirer 2006, pp. 122–123.
  9. Jump up to:a b Manickam 1977, p. 6.
  10. ^ Marett 1932.
  11. ^ Cassirer 2006, pp. 122–123; Marett 1932.
  12. ^ Guthrie 2000, pp. 225–226; Harvey 1996, p. 67; Pandian 1997.
  13. ^ Feuerbach 1841Harvey 1995, p. 4; Mackey 2000Nelson 1990.
  14. ^ Cotrupi 2000, p. 21; Harvey 1995, p. 4.
  15. ^ Harvey 1995, p. 4.
  16. Jump up to:a b Eller 2007, p. 7.
  17. ^ Geertz 1966, p. 4.
  18. ^ Rathman, Jessica. "Anthony Francis Clarke Wallace". Archived from the original on 27 November 2003. Retrieved 22 November2017.


External links

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Evolutionary origin of religions
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The evolutionary origin of religions and religious behavior is a field of study related to evolutionary psychology, the origin of language and mythology, and cross-cultural comparison of the anthropology of religion. Some subjects of interest include Neolithic religion, evidence for spirituality or cultic behavior in the Upper Paleolithic, and similarities in great ape behavior.

Nonhuman Religious Behavior

Humanity's closest living relatives are common chimpanzees and bonobos.[1][2] These primates share a common ancestor with humans who lived between six and eight million years ago. It is for this reason that chimpanzees and bonobos are viewed as the best available surrogate for this common ancestor. Barbara King argues that while non-human primates are not religious, they do exhibit some traits that would have been necessary for the evolution of religion. These traits include high intelligence, a capacity for symbolic communication, a sense of social norms, realization of "self" of continuity.[3][4] There is inconclusive evidence that Homo neanderthalensis may have buried their dead which is evidence of the use of ritual. The use of burial rituals is thought to be evidence of religious activity, and there is no other evidence that religion existed in human culture before humans reached behavioral modernity.[5] Other evidences have revealed that Homo neanderthalensis made cave art, which would be a manner of symbolic thinking comparable to the manner required for religious thought.[6]

Elephants demonstrate rituals around their deceased, which include long periods of silence and mourning at the point of death and a process of returning to grave sites and caressing the remains.[7][8] Some evidence suggests that many species grieve death and loss.[9]

Among birds, mute swans have evolved a ritualistic practice of morning group flight that is well-coordinated, disciplined, and solemn. The entire process, from initial preflight assembly, procession, to takeoff, flight and alighting, could last for more than an hour. It is proposed that mute swans have evolved religion and the mindset of wing worship.[10]

Relevant prerequisites for human religion

Increased brain size

In this set of theories, the religious mind is one consequence of a brain that is large enough to formulate religious and philosophical ideas.[11] During human evolution, the hominid brain tripled in size, peaking 500,000 years ago. Much of the brain's expansion took place in the neocortex. The cerebral neocortex is presumed to be responsible for the neural computations underlying complex phenomena such as perception, thought, language, attention, episodic memory and voluntary movement.[12] According to Dunbar's theory, the relative neocortex size of any species correlates with the level of social complexity of the particular species.[13] The neocortex size correlates with a number of social variables that include social group size and complexity of mating behaviors.[14] In chimpanzees the neocortex occupies 50% of the brain, whereas in modern humans it occupies 80% of the brain.[15]

Robin Dunbar argues that the critical event in the evolution of the neocortex took place at the speciation of archaic Homo sapiens about 500,000 years ago. His study indicates that only after the speciation event is the neocortex large enough to process complex social phenomena such as language and religion. The study is based on a regression analysis of neocortex size plotted against a number of social behaviors of living and extinct hominids.[16]

Stephen Jay Gould suggests that religion may have grown out of evolutionary changes which favored larger brains as a means of cementing group coherence among savannah hunters, after that larger brain enabled reflection on the inevitability of personal mortality.[17]

Tool use

Lewis Wolpert argues that causal beliefs that emerged from tool use played a major role in the evolution of belief. The manufacture of complex tools requires creating a mental image of an object which does not exist naturally before actually making the artifact. Furthermore, one must understand how the tool would be used, that requires an understanding of causality.[18] Accordingly, the level of sophistication of stone tools is a useful indicator of causal beliefs.[19] Wolpert contends use of tools composed of more than one component, such as hand axes, represents an ability to understand cause and effect. However, recent studies of other primates indicate that causality may not be a uniquely human trait. For example, chimpanzees have been known to escape from pens closed with multiple latches, which was previously thought could only have been figured out by humans who understood causality. Chimpanzees are also known to mourn the dead, and notice things that have only aesthetic value, like sunsets, both of which may be considered to be components of religion or spirituality.[20] The difference between the comprehension of causality by humans and chimpanzees is one of degree. The degree of comprehension in an animal depends upon the size of the prefrontal cortex: the greater the size of the prefrontal cortex the deeper the comprehension.[21]

Development of language

Religion requires a system of symbolic communication, such as language, to be transmitted from one individual to another. Philip Lieberman states "human religious thought and moral sense clearly rest on a cognitive-linguistic base".[22] From this premise science writer Nicholas Wade states:

"Like most behaviors that are found in societies throughout the world, religion must have been present in the ancestral human population before the dispersal from Africa 50,000 years ago. Although religious rituals usually involve dance and music, they are also very verbal, since the sacred truths have to be stated. If so, religion, at least in its modern form, cannot pre-date the emergence of language. It has been argued earlier that language attained its modern state shortly before the exodus from Africa. If religion had to await the evolution of modern, articulate language, then it too would have emerged shortly before 50,000 years ago."[23]

Another view distinguishes individual religious belief from collective religious belief. While the former does not require prior development of language, the latter does. The individual human brain has to explain a phenomenon in order to comprehend and relate to it. This activity predates by far the emergence of language and may have caused it. The theory is, belief in the supernatural emerges from hypotheses arbitrarily assumed by individuals to explain natural phenomena that cannot be explained otherwise. The resulting need to share individual hypotheses with others leads eventually to collective religious belief. A socially accepted hypothesis becomes dogmatic backed by social sanction.

Morality and group living

Frans de Waal and Barbara King both view human morality as having grown out of primate sociality. Although morality awareness may be a unique human trait, many social animals, such as primates, dolphins and whales, have been known to exhibit pre-moral sentiments. According to Michael Shermer, the following characteristics are shared by humans and other social animals, particularly the great apes:

attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group.[24]

De Waal contends that all social animals have had to restrain or alter their behavior for group living to be worthwhile. Pre-moral sentiments evolved in primate societies as a method of restraining individual selfishness and building more cooperative groups. For any social species, the benefits of being part of an altruistic group should outweigh the benefits of individualism. For example, a lack of group cohesion could make individuals more vulnerable to attack from outsiders. Being part of a group may also improve the chances of finding food. This is evident among animals that hunt in packs to take down large or dangerous prey.

All social animals have hierarchical societies in which each member knows its own place. Social order is maintained by certain rules of expected behavior and dominant group members enforce order through punishment. However, higher order primates also have a sense of fairness. In a 2008 study, de Waal and colleagues put two capuchin monkeys side by side and gave them a simple task to complete: Giving a rock to the experimenter. They were given cucumbers as a reward for executing the task, and the monkeys obliged. But if one of the monkeys was given grapes, something interesting happened: After receiving the first piece of cucumber, the capuchin monkey gave the experimenter a rock as expected. But upon seeing that the other monkey got grapes, the capuchin monkey threw away the next piece of cucumber that was given to him.[25]

Chimpanzees live in fission-fusion groups that average 50 individuals. It is likely that early ancestors of humans lived in groups of similar size. Based on the size of extant hunter-gatherer societies, recent Paleolithic hominids lived in bands of a few hundred individuals. As community size increased over the course of human evolution, greater enforcement to achieve group cohesion would have been required. Morality may have evolved in these bands of 100 to 200 people as a means of social control, conflict resolution and group solidarity. According to Dr. de Waal, human morality has two extra levels of sophistication that are not found in primate societies. Humans enforce their society's moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. Humans also apply a degree of judgment and reason not otherwise seen in the animal kingdom.

Psychologist Matt J. Rossano argues that religion emerged after morality and built upon morality by expanding the social scrutiny of individual behavior to include supernatural agents. By including ever-watchful ancestors, spirits and gods in the social realm, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups.[26] The adaptive value of religion would have enhanced group survival.[27][28] Rossano is referring here to collective religious belief and the social sanction that institutionalized morality. According to Rossano's teaching, individual religious belief is thus initially epistemological, not ethical, in nature.

Evolutionary psychology of religion

Cognitive scientists underlined that religions may be explained as a result of the brain architecture that developed early in the genus Homo, through the history of life. However, there is disagreement on the exact mechanisms that drove the evolution of the religious mind. The two main schools of thought hold that either religion evolved due to natural selection and has selective advantage, or that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other mental adaptations.[29] Stephen Jay Gould, for example, believed that religion was an exaptation or a spandrel, in other words that religion evolved as byproduct of psychological mechanisms that evolved for other reasons.[30][31][32]

Such mechanisms may include the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm (agent detection), the ability to come up with causal narratives for natural events (etiology), and the ability to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions (theory of mind). These three adaptations (among others) allow human beings to imagine purposeful agents behind many observations that could not readily be explained otherwise, e.g. thunder, lightning, movement of planets, complexity of life.[33] The emergence of collective religious belief identified the agents as deities that standardized the explanation.[34]

Some scholars have suggested that religion is genetically "hardwired" into the human condition. One controversial proposal, the God gene hypothesis, states that some variants of a specific gene, the VMAT2 gene, predispose to spirituality.[35]

Another view is based on the concept of the triune brain: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex, proposed by Paul D. MacLean. Collective religious belief draws upon the emotions of love, fear, and gregariousness and is deeply embedded in the limbic system through socio-biological conditioning and social sanction. Individual religious belief utilizes reason based in the neocortex and often varies from collective religion. The limbic system is much older in evolutionary terms than the neocortex and is, therefore, stronger than it much in the same way as the reptilian is stronger than both the limbic system and the neocortex.

Yet another view is that the behavior of people who participate in a religion makes them feel better and this improves their fitness, so that there is a genetic selection in favor of people who are willing to believe in religion. Specifically, rituals, beliefs, and the social contact typical of religious groups may serve to calm the mind (for example by reducing ambiguity and the uncertainty due to complexity) and allow it to function better when under stress.[36] This would allow religion to be used as a powerful survival mechanism, particularly in facilitating the evolution of hierarchies of warriors, which if true, may be why many modern religions tend to promote fertility and kinship.

Still another view, proposed by F.H. Previc, is that human religion was a product of an increase in dopaminergic functions in the human brain and a general intellectual expansion beginning around 80 thousand years ago (kya).[37][38][39] Dopamine promotes an emphasis on distant space and time, which is critical for the establishment of religious experience.[40] While the earliest shamanic cave paintings date back around 40 kya, the use of ochre for rock art predates this and there is clear evidence for abstract thinking along the coast of South Africa 80 kya.

Prehistoric evidence of religion

The exact time when humans first became religious remains unknown, however research in evolutionary archaeology shows credible evidence of religious-cum-ritualistic behaviour from around the Middle Paleolithic era (45-200 thousand years ago).[41]

Paleolithic burials

The earliest evidence of religious thought is based on the ritual treatment of the dead. Most animals display only a casual interest in the dead of their own species.[42] Ritual burial thus represents a significant change in human behavior. Ritual burials represent an awareness of life and death and a possible belief in the afterlifePhilip Lieberman states "burials with grave goods clearly signify religious practices and concern for the dead that transcends daily life."[22]

The earliest evidence for treatment of the dead comes from Atapuerca in Spain. At this location the bones of 30 individuals believed to be Homo heidelbergensis have been found in a pit.[43] Neanderthals are also contenders for the first hominids to intentionally bury the dead. They may have placed corpses into shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones. The presence of these grave goods may indicate an emotional connection with the deceased and possibly a belief in the afterlife. Neanderthal burial sites include Shanidar in Iraq and Krapina in Croatia and Kebara Cave in Israel.[44][45][46]

The earliest known burial of modern humans is from a cave in Israel located at Qafzeh. Human remains have been dated to 100,000 years ago. Human skeletons were found stained with red ochre. A variety of grave goods were found at the burial site. The mandible of a wild boar was found placed in the arms of one of the skeletons.[47] Philip Lieberman states:

Burial rituals incorporating grave goods may have been invented by the anatomically modern hominids who emigrated from Africa to the Middle East roughly 100,000 years ago

Matt Rossano suggests that the period between 80,000–60,000 years before present, following the retreat of humans from the Levant to Africa, was a crucial period in the evolution of religion.[48]

Use of symbolism

The use of symbolism in religion is a universal established phenomenon. Archeologist Steven Mithen contends that it is common for religious practices to involve the creation of images and symbols to represent supernatural beings and ideas. Because supernatural beings violate the principles of the natural world, there will always be difficulty in communicating and sharing supernatural concepts with others. This problem can be overcome by anchoring these supernatural beings in material form through representational art. When translated into material form, supernatural concepts become easier to communicate and understand.[49] Due to the association of art and religion, evidence of symbolism in the fossil record is indicative of a mind capable of religious thoughts. Art and symbolism demonstrates a capacity for abstract thought and imagination necessary to construct religious ideas. Wentzel van Huyssteen states that the translation of the non-visible through symbolism enabled early human ancestors to hold beliefs in abstract terms.[50]

Some of the earliest evidence of symbolic behavior is associated with Middle Stone Age sites in Africa. From at least 100,000 years ago, there is evidence of the use of pigments such as red ochre. Pigments are of little practical use to hunter gatherers, thus evidence of their use is interpreted as symbolic or for ritual purposes. Among extant hunter gatherer populations around the world, red ochre is still used extensively for ritual purposes. It has been argued that it is universal among human cultures for the color red to represent blood, sex, life and death.[51]

The use of red ochre as a proxy for symbolism is often criticized as being too indirect. Some scientists, such as Richard Klein and Steven Mithen, only recognize unambiguous forms of art as representative of abstract ideas. Upper paleolithic cave art provides some of the most unambiguous evidence of religious thought from the paleolithic. Cave paintings at Chauvet depict creatures that are half human and half animal.

Origins of organized religion

Social evolution of humans[24][52]
Period years agoSociety typeNumber of individuals

Organised religion traces its roots to the neolithic revolution that began 11,000 years ago in the Near East but may have occurred independently in several other locations around the world. The invention of agriculture transformed many human societies from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary lifestyle. The consequences of the neolithic revolution included a population explosion and an acceleration in the pace of technological development. The transition from foraging bands to states and empires precipitated more specialized and developed forms of religion that reflected the new social and political environment. While bands and small tribes possess supernatural beliefs, these beliefs do not serve to justify a central authority, justify transfer of wealth or maintain peace between unrelated individuals. Organized religion emerged as a means of providing social and economic stability through the following ways:

  • Justifying the central authority, which in turn possessed the right to collect taxes in return for providing social and security services.
  • Bands and tribes consist of small number of related individuals. However, states and nations are composed of many thousands of unrelated individuals. Jared Diamond argues that organized religion served to provide a bond between unrelated individuals who would otherwise be more prone to enmity. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel he argues that the leading cause of death among hunter-gatherer societies is murder.[52]
  • Religions that revolved around moralizing gods may have facilitated the rise of large, cooperative groups of unrelated individuals.[53]

The states born out of the Neolithic revolution, such as those of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, were theocracies with chiefs, kings and emperors playing dual roles of political and spiritual leaders.[24] Anthropologists have found that virtually all state societies and chiefdoms from around the world have been found to justify political power through divine authority. This suggests that political authority co-opts collective religious belief to bolster itself.[24]

Invention of writing

Following the neolithic revolution, the pace of technological development (cultural evolution) intensified due to the invention of writing 5,000 years ago. Symbols that became words later on made effective communication of ideas possible. Printing invented only over a thousand years ago increased the speed of communication exponentially and became the main spring of cultural evolution. Writing is thought to have been first invented in either Sumeria or Ancient Egypt and was initially used for accounting. Soon after, writing was used to record myth. The first religious texts mark the beginning of religious history. The Pyramid Texts from ancient Egypt are one of the oldest known religious texts in the world, dating to between 2400–2300 BCE.[54][55][56] Writing played a major role in sustaining and spreading organized religion. In pre-literate societies, religious ideas were based on an oral tradition, the contents of which were articulated by shamans and remained limited to the collective memories of the society's inhabitants. With the advent of writing, information that was not easy to remember could easily be stored in sacred texts that were maintained by a select group (clergy). Humans could store and process large amounts of information with writing that otherwise would have been forgotten. Writing therefore enabled religions to develop coherent and comprehensive doctrinal systems that remained independent of time and place.[57] Writing also brought a measure of objectivity to human knowledge. Formulation of thoughts in words and the requirement for validation made mutual exchange of ideas and the sifting of generally acceptable from not acceptable ideas possible. The generally acceptable ideas became objective knowledge reflecting the continuously evolving framework of human awareness of reality that Karl Popper calls 'verisimilitude' – a stage on the human journey to truth.[58]

See also


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  58. ^ Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, 1972, Rev. ed., 1979, ISBN 0-19-875024-2


  • Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books 2001.

External links

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How and why did religion evolve?

By Brandon Ambrosino18th April 2019

Can the roots of spiritual behaviours and feelings be found in other animals? In the first of a two-part special, Brandon Ambrosino examines the evolutionary origins of religion.

“This is my body.”

These words, recorded in the Gospels as being spoken by Jesus during the Last Supper, are said daily at Church services around the world before the communion meal is eaten. When Christians hear these words spoken in the present, we’re reminded of the past, which is always with us, which never goes away.

Just how much past are Christians reminded of? Certainly the last two millennia, which, in addition to devout celebrations of the Eucharist, are rife with doctrinal disputes, church splits, episodes of violence, excommunications, papal pronouncements, and various metaphysical debates, all revolving around the communion meal.

But we can rewind further back, to the development of the oral traditions that got fixed into texts that were incorporated into the canonical New Testament. We can also wonder about the historical meal on which the various Last Supper texts are based.

We can travel further back still, long before even the emergence of Christianity. After all, Jesus was a Jew, and so his act of breaking bread with the disciples reminds us of the entire history of the Jewish people, including their harrowing escape from Egyptian slavery and their receiving of the Torah at Sinai.

But we can go back even further. Any religious meal is, before it is anything else, a meal. It is an act of 

able-sharing, certainly an important ritual in the ancient Near East. Seder, and later communion, were “taken up” theologically and liturgically, but the positive feelings around table-sharing were already in place. They’d already been in place since the emergence of modern humans, about 200,000 years ago.

The sharing of food is common in many world religions -
it may reflect some prehistoric preoccupations (Credit: Getty)

And yet – Homo sapiens wasn’t the only species to discover the benefits of food-sharing. Neanderthals certainly pooled their resources, as did the several other Homo species dating back two million years.

“Think of uber pro-social hunter-gatherers having a meal,” one of my theology professors told me when I wondered about the deep evolutionary history behind the Eucharist. “The hunters feel proud to have done well and shared with their family; those who prepared the food are recognised and appreciated; everyone’s belly is getting filled and feeling good; and so many positive social interactions are taking place. No wonder so much mythological content is built up around the meal.”

But food-sharing even predates our Homo ancestors, and is currently observed in chimpanzees and bonobos. In fact, one recent paper even documented research of bonobos sharing food with bonobos outside of their own social group. Barbara Fruth, one of the study’s authors, told the digital magazine Sapiens that meal-sharing “must have its roots in our last common ancestor”. Based on the molecular clock, the last common ancestor, or LCA, of humans and Great Apes lived about 19 million years ago.

When I hear the words “This is my Body,” then, my mind immediately launches into a race to the evolutionary starting line, if you will.

Deep religion

I begin with a discussion of the Eucharist because my particular religious tradition is Christian. But the point I’m making – that religious experiences emerge from very specific, very long histories – could be made with most religious phenomena. That’s because, in the words of the late sociologist Robert Bellah, “Nothing is ever lost.” History goes all the way back, and who and how and where we are now is the result of its winding forward. Any human phenomenon that exists is a human phenomenon that became what it is. This is no less true of religion.

If we’re going to think about the deep history of religion, then we need to be clear about what religion is. In his book The Bonobo and the Atheist, the primatologist Frans de Waal shares a funny story about participating in a panel hosted by the American Academy of Religion. When one participant suggested they start with defining religion, someone was quick to note that last time they tried to do that, “half the audience had angrily stomped out of the room”. Quipped de Waal: “And this in an academy named after the topic!”

Still, we need to start somewhere, so de Waal suggests this definition: religion is “the shared reverence for the supernatural, sacred, or spiritual as well as the symbols, rituals, and worship that are associated with it”. De Waal’s definition echoes one given by sociologist Émile Durkheim, who also emphasised the importance of shared experiences that “unite into one single moral community”.

The importance of shared experience can’t be overstated since, in the story we’re telling, the evolution of human religion is inseparable from the ever-increasing sociality of the hominin line. As Bellah points out, religion is as a way of being. We might also view it as a way of feeling, as a way of feeling together.

Followers of the Nazareth Baptist Church climb the Nhlangakazi Holy Mountain.
Religious beliefs and rituals help to unite groups of individuals (Credit: Getty)

While much of the scientific study of religion is on theology-based doctrinal religions, the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar thinks this is a narrow way of studying the phenomenon because it “completely ignores the fact that for most of human history religions have had a very different shamanic-like form that lacks gods and moral codes”. (By shamanic, Dunbar means religions of experience that commonly involve trance and travel in spirit worlds.) While the theology-based forms are only a few thousand years old and characteristic of post-agricultural societies, Dunbar argues that the shamanic forms date back 500,000 years. These, he claims, are characteristic of hunter-gatherers.

If we want to understand how and why religion evolved, Dunbar says we need to start out by examining religions “with the cultural accretions stripped away”. We need to focus less on questions about Big Gods and creeds, and more on questions about the capacities that emerged in our ancient ancestors that allowed them to achieve a religious way of being together.

Adaptation or by-product?

All societies, after all, seem to have religions of some sort. “There are no exceptions to this,” de Waal told me over the phone.

If all societies have religion, it must have a social purpose – Frans de Waal

There are two major perspectives on why this might be. One is called functionalism or adaptationism: the idea that religion brings positive evolutionary benefits, which are most often framed in terms of its contribution to group living. As de Waal puts it: “If all societies have [religion], it must have a social purpose.” 

Others take the view that religion is a spandrel, or by-product of evolutionary processes. The word spandrel refers to an architectural shape that emerges as a by-product between arches and ceiling. Religion, on this interpretation, is akin to a vestigial organ. Perhaps it was adaptive in the environments it originally evolved in, but in this environment it’s maladaptive. Or perhaps religious beliefs are the result of psychological mechanisms that evolved to solve ecological problems unrelated to religion. Either way, evolution didn’t “aim” at religion; religion just emerged as evolution “aimed” at other things.

While folks on both sides of this debate have their reasons, it seems unhelpful to frame the evolution of religion in such either/or terms. Something that was merely a by-product of a blind evolutionary process could well be taken up by human beings to perform a specific function or solve a specific problem. (Read about what the future of religion could be like.)

Muslim worshippers perform the evening (Isha) prayers at the Kaaba. Emotions such
as awe, loyalty, and love are central to many religious celebrations (Credit: Getty)

This can be true for many behaviours – including music – but religion presents a particular puzzle, since it often involves extremely costly behaviours, such as altruism and, at times, even self-sacrifice.

For this reason, some theorists such as Dunbar argue that we should also look beyond the individual to the survival of the group.

This is known as multilevel selection, which “recognises that fitness benefits can sometimes accrue to individuals through group-level effects, rather than always being the direct product of the individual’s own actions”, as Dunbar defines it.

An example is cooperative hunting, which enables groups to catch bigger prey than any members could catch as individuals. Bigger prey means more for me, even if I have to share the meat (since the animal being shared is already larger than anything I could catch alone). Such group-level processes “require the individual to be sensitive to the needs of other members of the group”, says Dunbar.

There is no history of the religion of an individual creature. Our story is about us.

Feeling first

If we are to understand religion, then, we first need to look back into your deep history to understand how human ancestors evolved to live in groups in the first place.

We are, after all, descended from a long line of ancestral hominoids with “weak social ties and no permanent group structures”, says Jonathan Turner, author of The Emergence and Evolution of Religion. That leads Turner to what he considers the million-dollar question: “How did Darwinian selection work on the neuroanatomy of hominins to make them more social so they could generate cohesive social bonds to form primary groups?” he asked me on the phone. “That’s not a natural thing for apes.”

Our ape line evolved from our last common ancestor around 19 million years ago. Orangutans broke away about 13-16 million years ago, while the gorilla line branched away about 8-9 million years ago. The hominin line then branched into two about 5-7 million years ago, with one line leading to the chimpanzees and bonobos, and the other leading to us. We modern humans share 99% of our genes with living chimpanzees – which means we’re the two most closely related apes in the whole line.

Human religion emerges out of our increased capacity for sociality

The similarities between humans and chimps are well known, but one important difference has to do with group size. Chimpanzees, on average, can maintain a group size of about 45, says Dunbar. “This appears to be the largest group size that can be maintained through grooming alone,” he says. In contrast, the average human group is about 150, known as Dunbar’s Number. The reason for this, says Dunbar, is that humans have the capacity to reach three times as many social contacts as chimps for a given amount of social effort. Human religion emerges out of this increased capacity for sociality.

How come? As our ape ancestors moved from receding forest habitats to more open environments, like the savannahs of eastern and southern Africa, Darwinian pressures acted on them to make them more social for increased protection from predators and better access to food; it also made it easier to find a mate. Without the ability to maintain new structures – like small groups of five or six so-called nuclear families, says Turner – these apes wouldn’t have been able to survive.

So how did nature achieve this socialisation process? Turner says the key isn’t with what we typically think of as intelligence, but rather with the emotions, which was accompanied by some important changes to our brain structure. Although the neocortex figures prominently in many theories of the evolution of religion, Turner says the more important alterations concerned the subcortical parts of the brain, which gave hominins the capacity to experience a broader range of emotions. These enhanced emotions promoted bonding, a crucial achievement for the development of religion.

Complex religious feelings are often the combination of many emotions.
Awe, for instance, is a heady mix of fear and happiness (Credit: Getty)

The process of subcortical enhancement Turner refers to dates to about 4.5 million years ago, when the first Australopithecine emerged. Initially, says Turner, selection increased the size of their brains about 100 cubic centimetres (cc) beyond that of chimpanzees, to about 450 cc (in Australopithecus afarensis). For the sake of comparison, this is smaller than later hominins – Homo habilis had a cranial capacity of 775 cc, while Homo erectus was slightly larger at 800-850. Modern humans, in contrast, boast a brain size much bigger than any of these, with a cranial capacity of up to 1,400 cc.

It is in the story of how these [subcortical] mechanisms evolved that, ultimately,
the origins of religion are to be discovered – Jonathan Turner

But the comparably smaller brain size doesn’t mean that nothing was happening to the hominin brain. Brain size is measured by an endocast, but Turner says these do not reflect the subcortical enhancement that was occurring between the emergence of Australopiths (around 4 million years ago) and Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago). “It is in the story of how these [subcortical] mechanisms evolved that, ultimately, the origins of religion are to be discovered.”

Although the neocortex of humans is three times the size of apes’, the subcortex is only twice as big – which leads Turner to believe that the enhancement of hominin emotion was well underway before the neocortex began to grow to its current human size.

Here’s how nature pulled it off. You’ve probably heard talk of the so-called four primary emotions: aggression, fear, sadness, and happiness. Notice anything about that list? Three of the emotions are negative. But the promotion of solidarity requires positive emotions – so natural selection had to find a way to mute the negative emotions and enhance the positive ones, Turner says. The emotional capacities of great apes (particularly chimpanzees) were already more elaborate than many other mammals, so selection had something to work with.

At this point in his argument, Turner introduces the concept of first- and second-order elaborations, which are emotions that are the result of a combinations of two or more primary emotions. So, for example, the combination of happiness and anger generates vengeance, while jealousy is the result of combining anger and fear. Awe, which figures majorly in religion, is the combination of fear and happiness. Second-order elaborations are even more complex, and occurred in the evolution from Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago) to Homo sapiens (about 200,000 years ago). Guilt and shame, for example, two crucial emotions for the development of religion, are the combination of sadness, fear, and anger.

Kashmiri Muslims celebrate Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi,
the anniversary of the Prophet's birth (Credit: Getty)

It’s difficult to imagine religion without the capacity to experience these emotional elaborations for the same reason it’s difficult to imagine close social groups without them: such an emotional palette binds us to one another at a visceral level. “Human solidarities are only possible by emotional arousal revolving around positive emotions – love, happiness, satisfaction, caring, loyalty – and the mitigation of the power of negative emotions, or at least some negative emotions,” says Turner. “And once these new valences of positive emotions are neurologically possible, they can become entwined with rituals and other emotion-arousing behaviours to enhance solidarities and, eventually, produce notions of power gods and supernatural forces.”

Not to jump ahead too far, but it’s important to understand how pivotal feeling is in the evolution of religion. As far as Darwin was convinced, there wasn’t any difference between religious feeling and any other feeling. “It is an argument for materialism,” he wrote in a journal entry, “that cold water brings on suddenly in head, a frame of mind, analogous to those feelings, which may be considered as truly spiritual.” If this is true, then that means the causes of religious feelings can be pinpointed and studied just like any other feeling.


As selection worked on existing brain structures, enhancing emotional and interpersonal capacities, certain behavioural propensities of apes began to evolve. Some of the propensities that Turner lists as already present in apes include: the ability to read eyes and faces and to imitate facial gestures; various capacities for empathy; the ability to become emotionally aroused in social settings; the capacity to perform rituals; a sense of reciprocity and justice; and the ability to see the self as an object in an environment. An increase in the emotional palette available to apes would, according to Turner, result in an increase in all of these behavioural capacities.

Though many if not all of these behaviours have been documented in apes, I want to concentrate on two of them – ritual and empathy – without which religion would be unthinkable.

In archival footage, primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall describes the well-known waterfall dance which has been widely observed in chimpanzees. Her comments are worth quoting at length:

When the chimpanzees approach, they hear this roaring sound, and you see their hair stands a little on end and then they move a bit quicker. When they get here, they’ll rhythmically sway, often upright, picking up big rocks and throwing them for maybe 10 minutes. Sometimes climbing up the vines at the side and swinging out into the spray, and they’re right down in the water which normally they avoid. Afterwards you’ll see them sitting on a rock, actually in the stream, looking up, watching the water with their eyes as it falls down, and then watching it going away. I can’t help feeling that this waterfall display or dance is perhaps triggered by feelings awe, wonder that we feel.

The chimpanzee’s brain is so like ours: they have emotions that are clearly similar to or the same as those that we call happiness, sad, fear, despair, and so forth – the incredible intellectual abilities that we used to think unique to us. So why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality, which is really being amazed at things outside yourself?

Goodall has observed a similar phenomenon happen during a heavy rain. These observations have led her to conclude that chimpanzees are as spiritual as we are. “They can’t analyse it, they don’t talk about it, they can’t describe what they feel. But you get the feeling that it’s all locked up inside them and the only way they can express it is through this fantastic rhythmic dance.” In addition to the displays that Goodall describes, others have observed various carnivalesque displays, drumming sessions, and various hooting rituals.

The roots of ritual are in what Bellah calls “serious play” – activities done for their own sake, which may not serve an immediate survival capacity, but which have “a very large potentiality of developing more capacities”. This view fits with various theories in developmental science, showing that playful activities are often crucial for developing important abilities like theory of mind and counterfactual thinking.

Play, in this evolutionary sense, has many unique characteristics: it must be performed “in a relaxed field” – when the animal is fed and healthy and stress-free (which is why it is most common in species with extended parental care). Play also occurs in bouts: it has a clear beginning and ending. In dogs, for example, play is initiated with a “bow”. Play involves a sense of justice, or at least equanimity: big animals need to self-handicap in order to not hurt smaller animals. And it might go without saying, but play is embodied.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men take part in the Tashlich ritual, during
which  sins are cast into the water to the fish (Credit: Getty)

Now compare that to ritual, which is enacted, which is embodied. Rituals begin and end. They require both shared intention and shared attention. There are norms involved. They take place in a time within time – beyond the time of the everyday. (Think, for example, of a football game in which balls can be caught “out of bounds” and time can be paused. We regularly participate in modes of reality in which we willingly bracket out “the real world”. Play allows us to do this.) Most important of all, says Bellah, play is a practice in itself, and “not something with an external end”.

Bellah calls ritual “the primordial form of serious play in human evolutionary history”, which means that ritual is an enhancement of the capacities that make play first possible in the mammalian line. There is a continuity between the two. And while Turner acknowledges it might be pushing it to refer to a chimpanzee waterfall dance or carnival as Ritual with a capital R, it is possible to affirm that “these ritual-like behavioural propensities suggest that some of what is needed for religious behaviour is part of the genome of chimpanzees, and hence, hominins”.


The second trait we must consider is empathy. Empathy is not primarily in the head. It’s in the body – at least that’s how it started. It began, writes de Waal, “with the synchronisation of bodies, running when others run, laughing when others laugh, crying when others cry, or yawning when others yawn”.

Buddhist monks launch a sky lantern during the Yee Peng Festival in Chiang Mai.
The ritual symbolises the release of kindness and goodwill (Credit: Getty)

Empathy is absolutely central to what we call morality, says de Waal. “Without empathy, you can’t get human morality. It makes us interested in others. It makes us have an emotional stake in them.” If religion, according to our definition, is a way of being together, then morality, which instructs us as to the best ways to be together, is an inextricable part of that.

De Waal has been criticised over the years for offering a rose-coloured interpretation of animal behaviour. Rather than view animal behaviour as altruistic, and therefore springing from a sense of empathy, we should, these wise scientists tell us, see this behaviour for what it is: selfishness. Animals want to survive. Period. Any action they take needs to be interpreted within that matrix.

But this is a misguided way of talking about altruism, de Waal says.

“We see animals want to share food even though it costs them. We do experiments on them and the general conclusion is that many animals’ first tendency is to be altruistic and cooperative. Altruistic tendencies come very naturally to many mammals.”

But isn’t this just self-preservation? Aren’t the animals just acting in their own best interests? If they behave in a way that appears altruistic, aren’t they just preparing (so to speak) for a time when they will need help? “To call that selfish,” says an incredulous de Waal, “because in the end of course these pro-social tendencies have benefits?” To do that, he says, is to define words into meaninglessness.

Yes, of course there are pleasurable sensations associated with the action of giving to others. But evolution has produced pleasurable sensations for behaviours we need to perform, like sex and eating and female-nursing. The same is true for altruism, says de Waal. That does not fundamentally alter what the behaviour is.

Such a hard and fast line between altruism and selfishness, then, is naive at best and deceptive at worst. And we can see the same with discussions of social norms. Philosophers such as David Hume have made the distinction between what a behaviour “is” and what it “ought” to be, which is a staple of ethical deliberation. An animal may perform the behaviour X, but does it do so because it feels it should do so – thanks to an appreciation of a norm?

Women prepare food for the homeless during a charity Christmas dinner (Credit: Getty)

This distinction is one that de Waal has run into from philosophers who say that any of his observations of empathy or morality in animals can’t possibly tell him about whether or not they have norms. De Waal disagrees, pointing out that animals do recognise norms:

The simplest example is a spider web or nest. If you disturb it, the animal’s going to repair that right away because they have a norm for how it should look and function. They either abandon it, or start over and repair it. Animals are capable of having goals and striving towards them. In the social world, if they have a fight, they come together and try to repair damage. They try to get back to an ought state. They have norm of how this distribution should be. The idea that normativity is [restricted to] humans is not correct.

In the Bonobo and the Atheist, de Waal argues that animals seem to possess a mechanism for social repair. “About 30 different primate species reconcile after fights, and that reconciliation is not limited to the primates. There is evidence for this mechanism in hyenas, dolphins, wolves, domestic goats.”

He also finds evidence that animals “actively try to preserve harmony within their social network … by reconciling after conflict, protesting against unequal divisions, and breaking up fights among others. They behave normatively in the sense of correcting, or trying to correct, deviations from an ideal state. They also show emotional self-control and anticipatory conflict resolution in order to prevent such deviations. This makes moving from primate behaviour to human moral norms less of a leap than commonly thought.”

There’s obviously a gap between primate social repair and the institutionalisation of moral codes that lie at the heart of modern human societies. Still, says de Waal, all of these “human moral systems make use of primate tendencies”.

How far back to these tendencies go? Probably, like those capacities that allowed for play (and ultimately ritual), to the advent of parental care. “During 200 million years of mammalian evolution, females sensitive to their offspring out-reproduced those who were cold and distant,” says de Waal. Of course, nurturing is arguably seen in species of fish, crocodiles, and snakes, but the nurturing capabilities of mammals is really a giant leap forward in the evolutionary story.

The early dawn of religion

Our religious services of today may seem worlds away from the mammalian play and empathy that emerged in our deep past, and indeed institutionalised religion is much more advanced than a so-called waterfall dance. But evolution teaches us that complex, advanced phenomena develop from simple beginnings. As Bellah reminds us, we don’t come from nowhere. “We are embedded in a deep biological and cosmological history.”

Our religious services of today seem worlds away from their ancient origins, but like
all human behaviours, they are deeply embedded in evolutionary history (Credit: Getty)

As the ape line evolved from our last common ancestor in more open environments, it was necessary to pressure apes, who prefer to go it alone, to form more lasting social structures. Natural selection was able to accomplish this astonishing feat by enhancing the emotional palettes available that had long been available to our ancestors. With a broader set of emotions, the hominin brain was then able to enhance some of its capabilities, some of which quite naturally lent themselves a religious way of being. As these capacities got more acutely enhanced with the growth of the Homo brain and the development of the neocortex, behaviours such as play and ritual entered a new phase in hominin development, becoming the raw materials out of which cultural evolution would begin to institutionalise religion.

And though this history doesn’t determine us – for with each new phase in life’s story comes greater power of agency – this bio-cosmological history influences everything we do and are. Even the most seemingly autonomous human decision is made from within history. That’s the big picture here. That’s what we’ve been keeping in mind as we made our way back in time to the evolutionary seeds that would eventually – and quite slowly – blossom into human religion.

Though I often think theologically about the words “This is my body,” I shouldn’t overlook the basic fact that communion is about bodies – mine, yours, ours. Religion is an embodied phenomenon because the human religious way of being has evolved for millions of years as the bodies of our ancestors interacted with the other bodies around them. Whether or not one takes communion or even feels religious, we are at all times navigating our social worlds with our evolved capacities to play, to empathise, and to celebrate rituals with each other.


Brandon Ambrosino has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Politico, Economist, and other publications. He lives in Delaware. This is the first of a two-part special examining the evolutionary roots of religion.