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The Faith Instinct

Many Pagans like to call our religion “the Old Ways.” Even though we understand modern Paganism is a product of the modern world, it clearly has roots in the pre-Christian religions of Europe and other lands. People worshipped Zeus, Cernunnos, and Shiva long before the appearance of Moses, Jesus or Buddha.

But the worship of Zeus, Cernunnos, and Shiva were not the first religions. What was religion like before it was organized into temples and groves? We don’t know. Clearly religion existed before the invention of writing – it may have existed before the evolution of speech.

In The Faith Instinct, New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade looks at the evidence and makes some logical inferences. As with his previous book on the evolution of humans Before the Dawn, Wade presents a mixture of mainstream science, unproven hypotheses and his own speculation. This approach won’t win him tenure at a major university, but that’s not why he’s writing.

Wade defines religion as “a system of emotionally binding beliefs and practices in which a society implicitly negotiates through prayer and sacrifice with supernatural agents, securing from them commands that compel members, through fear of divine punishment, to subordinate their interests to the common good.” For Wade, religion is a communal practice, not an individual’s beliefs. This is how most people have seen religion for most of history, and why the idea of religious freedom isn’t all that widely accepted even in the West today.

The few remaining hunter-gatherer societies in existence today (as well as those documented over the past 150 years or so) provide a look into what religion was probably like before agriculture and civilization. Far from being peaceful Goddess worshippers, most of these societies are violent – their death rates from intertribal warfare far exceed medieval and modern humans with our technologically advanced killing machines. For people living in such an environment, anything that would cause individuals to put the interests of the group ahead of their own would give that society an evolutionary advantage.

Enter religion. Wade quotes behavior dynamics professor Samuel Bowles: “The group-oriented behaviors that make cooperation for mutual benefit possible among humans also make large-scale lethal warfare possible. And frequent warfare … may have been an essential contributor to the evolution of precisely the altruistic traits that facilitate war making.”

Wade lists several characteristics of what he calls “primitive religions.”

  • they have no priests or ecclesiastical hierarchy – everyone in the tribe is a participant (though men and women almost always have different roles)
  • they are characterized by rhythmic physical activity – most frequently drumming and dancing
  • the tribe’s sacred narratives are integrated with the rituals and ceremonies
  • there is little concern with matters of theology – they focus on practical issues, like hunting and warfare

When agriculture was developed, the hunter-gatherer trance dances gradually evolved into seasonal festivals, some of which have been re-created or reimagined in modern Paganism. But, according to Wade, it was the development of writing that changed religion into the forms we know today. The new religions developed so as to match the needs of hierarchically organized societies.

Wade gives a fairly standard, fairly high level look at the history of the three Western monotheistic religions, while all but ignoring the Eastern religions. And he presents an alternative explanation for the origins of Islam that proposes Muhammad never existed. There are far better books on the beginnings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam than this one, including Karen Armstrong’s A History of God.

Whether religion evolved as Wade proposes or not, clearly it evolved from a part of early human society into what it is today. And just as clearly, religion continues to evolve.

People today are the descendants not of those who lost out in these unremitting struggles but of the victors. We have inherited the capacities for extreme hostility, cruelty, even genocide, toward those who threaten us, along with the capacities for loyalty, love and trust toward members of our own community…

Maybe religion needs to undergo a second transformation … religion would retain all its old powers of binding people together for a common purpose … it would touch all the senses and lift the mind. It would transcend self. And it would find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason, to our need to belong to one another and to what has been learned of the human condition through rational inquiry.

Wade’s evidence is clear and his speculations are reasonable… if you are a strict rationalist. Nowhere is any consideration given to the possibility that God or Goddess or gods and goddesses exist. Nowhere is any consideration given to the possibility that trances and shamanic visions are anything other than an exciting change in brain chemistry. Even the clearly naturalistic experiences of wonder and awe are minimized in favor of creating group cohesion.

If you’re interested in the origins of religion, The Faith Instinct is worth reading. Just understand there’s no faith anywhere in it.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.