The Evolution of Religion

From Religion Dispatches comes this article on the evolutionary origins of religion. It’s at least the third such article I’ve seen in the past couple of months, all making essentially the same claim: religion helped early humans to cooperate better with each other, giving religious families/tribes/nations an advantage over their non-religious competitors. Natural selection does its thing, the religious grow and prosper more than the non-religious, and before too long (on an evolutionary time scale) all of humanity is religious to one degree or another.

The logic makes sense, and there’s probably some truth to it. But it’s incomplete.

This hypothesis works if you see religion as a system of rules and a hierarchy of authority. If you take an “objective” (i.e. – non-participative) look at the major religions of the world (especially the dominant religions of the West), it’s easy to see how someone could come to that conclusion. The problem is that this approach ignores (or at least, greatly devalues) religious experience.

The earliest religious rites we are certain took place were funerals. Archeologists have found burials with grave goods dating back at least as far as humans have been in our current form – and there is indication our earlier ancestors did so as well. The presence of grave goods tells us this wasn’t just a utilitarian way to get rid of a body. It seems highly unlikely that the first funeral was a contrivance to build group unity. More likely, it was an expression of wonder and awe at the fact that someone who was alive was now dead – and others were still alive, knowing that some day, they too would die.

The earliest religious leaders weren’t priests, they were shamans: those unique members of the tribe who used altered states of consciousness to journey to other worlds to obtain healing and knowledge. Ordinary people had religious experiences just as ordinary people do today. Shamans had the super intense experiences that I believe led to the formation of religious beliefs (to interpret the experiences) and religious practices (to repeat the experiences or to implement their messages).

Many people (and, I would speculate, most of the writers of these articles) have never had a religious experience. And they live in a culture that devalues religious experience: conservative religions emphasize belief, while liberal religions emphasize practice. It has probably never occurred to these writers that they’re overlooking a major component of religion.

They’re overlooking the original component – experience.

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