Religion at the very beginning

There’s an absolutely fascinating story by Charles C. Mann in National Geographic about Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), a temple in Turkey built about 11,600 years ago–the very oldest religious structure known to us.  In terms of sheer age it makes Stonehenge look modern.

Göbekli Tepe and other discoveries in recent decades are reshaping anthropologists’ understanding of the origins of civilization.  The old view was that it was all due to agriculture, the result of climate changes after the ice age.  The ability to farm brought people into closer contact, opened up new uses of time, and yielded shared stories and worship.  Religion, in such a theory, arose as a kind of social glue.  It fit what V. Gordon Childe, a Marxist British anthropologist who developed the idea of the Neolithic Revolution, thought of religion in general.  It suited a certain late 19th and early 20th century zeitgeist about religion, as developed by figures like James Frazer in his magisterial (though thoroughly biased) Golden Bough: all religions are based in fertility cults, Christianity included.  Joseph Campbell is the newer version of Frazer, but shares the same basic idea that all religions emerged from stories tied to the agricultural seasons.  (And he is popular among the spiritual but not religious types because he acknowledges something deep in human experience that might be called religious, but allows an escape from hard theological thinking that postmoderns have been taught is superfluous.)

Now, though, there is a different theory.

What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there [at Göbekli Tepe], is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.

Mann, the author of the NatGeo piece, suggests the following, citing Klaus Schmidt, the lead researcher at Göbekli Tepe:

The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm—a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants—and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.

This theory strikes me as much stronger than the Childe-Frazer-Campbell theory, which was in thrall to a Marxist/modernist distaste for religion.  Awe and wonder are present in every child who gazes at the night sky.  There is a natural hunger for transcendence, evidenced by our simple ability to ask questions.  In this sense the scientist, the philosopher, the artist, the priest share a basic dynamism that we awkwardly call “spiritual.”  The shared desire to reach out toward the transcendent (is it any wonder that it would be pillars reaching toward the sky?) gave human beings a shared goal, and shared goals give rise to shared practices around food, clothing, shelter, and eventually rules and governance.

A provocative takeaway: when religion loses its roots in shared desire and wonder, when it fails to capture people’s imagination, it begins to collapse.  People eventually lost interest in Göbekli Tepe around 8200 BC, perhaps because it became too big a project to maintain.  Maintenance of the institution crushed the dynamics of desire which gave rise to it.  Friedrich von Hugel suggested a similar idea: there must be a balance of the institutional with the mystical and communal aspects of religion.  Perhaps ours is the age of recovering the mystical element even as the institutional element is crumbling.

Tim Muldoon is a Catholic theologian and author of five books, and teaches at Boston College.

  • Agellius

    “Perhaps ours is the age of recovering the mystical element even as the institutional element is crumbling.”

    Oh, is the institutional element crumbling?? That’s news to me.

    But seriously, a very interesting post.

    • muldoont

      I was imprecise. I mean in the sense that Charles Taylor chronicles in his book A Secular Age. The basic point (I am paraphrasing from memory) is, in his estimation, the fact that 500 years ago one could not but believe in God, whereas today it’s one option among many. The Church’s authority as a culture-shaping force has been in decline since the Renaissance. Modernity has further marginalized the Church in the wake of discoveries in the physical and social sciences; postmodernity is characterized by a flattening of all claims to authority and objective truth. (von Hugel was writing in the modern period.) Bottom line: the institutional element is not what it once was.

  • brettsalkeld

    3,400 years is a long time!

  • Darwin

    I seriously enjoyed that Nat Geo article, and your take on it from a religious point of view is, it seems to me, a very important one.


  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Really good post, and I resonate with it, but maybe for different reasons than you do. The “fertility cult” explanation you mention connected back to Frazer, and in modern times represented by Campbell, was only one strand of thinking of this general sort originating in the 19th Century. Also,i was the most blowzy current of such thought. There were nastier currents than that one running along Social Darwinist lines. But there were also more compelling ones often found in very careful writings of vaguely Anglican theoreticians, many somewhat forgotten today. These avoided the heady explanation of “fertility cult” connection to agriculture, and went with a more generalized notion of “cultivation” per se as a rootedness in culture as a whole and its intellectual refinements. And the need to develop that culture for the sake of civilization, and for religion.

    So though it is true that some of the culturally positivistic explanations might have appealed to Marxists, I want to profoundly underscore that there has remained a strong current of those who see religion as a general part of cultivation, not connected with that ilk.. This emphasis on cultivation does not therefore rule out the temporal anteriority of the human desire for worship. It is easy to see this desire as what allowed cooperation in itself. Yet if the Marxist extreme is wrong, then surely the reactionary right-wing extreme is equally faulty when they want to assert that culture itself is all about “worship” or “cult” ultimately or should be. This is a form of nostalgia for what never existed, which has some of the nastiest pedigree in the 20th Century. If history’s complex processes teach anything, it is how interdependent its elements are. Religion is always there in culture, and attempts to eradicate it seem to always produce worse consequences. And the inverse is true too. The attempt to make all of life something subsumed into “worship” produces fanaticism and fundamentalism, which destroys the beauty of religion, and simply makes human beings crazy and destructive. These are views that have, by the way, a strong pedigree in Catholic belief by way of Erasmus. Or one should say “had”, because the Council of Trent went out of its way to disempower that Erastian current in the sphere of the Church’s influence as much as it could by Conciliar fiat.

    • muldoont

      Thanks for your thoughts, Peter–I find your comments compelling. But I’m a little vague on what you mean when you write “The attempt to make all of life something subsumed into ‘worship’ produces fanaticism and fundamentalism, which destroys the beauty of religion, and simply makes human beings crazy and destructive.” Care to elaborate?

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Let me quote Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady: True prayer should be like “I’ve grown accustomed to your face, like breathing out and breathing in.” Or as Jung said famously when asked if he believed in God, “I have don’t have to believe, I know.”

    Big subject, does that help?? (Now where is my favorite Dominican, I smell a disquisition on Gnosticism coming on.)

    • Dominic Holtz, O.P.

      If I am that favorite Dominican, then I have to disappoint you. Eliza and Karl are both correct here, if only a tad premature! That is, we do not yet see God face to face and he is not yet, to us, all in all. Likewise, here and now we walk by faith and not by sight, so we do indeed pace Jung believe rather than know. All the same, true worship, worship in spirit and in truth, will be precisely this direct and continuous attentiveness to the divine Face, to the beatific vision, which we try even now to approach. It is this longing for a way to have “ceaseless prayer” so wonderfully presented in the Russian spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Dear Dominican,

        Wow! Everyone is as bad at show tune trivia as I am, for I had it pointed out to me that it was Henry Higgins who said (sang) those words, and no one caught it here. But no matter, we have more important matters to pursue, like the Beatific Vision. I have no problem with what you say essentially : “That is, we do not yet see God face to face and he is not yet, to us, all in all. Likewise, here and now we walk by faith and not by sight, so we do indeed pace Jung believe rather than know.” But I only wish that folks like you would stick to the implications of this. That is, we see through a glass darkly. Emphasis on dark, darkness, not knowing, and having the humility to accept it. Whereas it seems your confrere Ambrose DiNoia has recently struck out on a newly positivistically fundamentalist limb by saying the problem is “too much light”. I would add a big pu-lease to that suggestion. This in fact goes again to the West-Eastern dichotomy, and the East’s emphasis on comparatively obscure “mystery”. Where others emphasize a certain level of mysterious obscurity, which I think teaches humility, the Roman Church seems determined to be sunburnt. To me, it is puerile. Even with all the “revelation” humanity has been given or given to itself, we still understand little: Denn alles Fleish, es ist wie grass, und alle herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des grasses blumen. Cue chorus.

  • samrocha

    I find this a very neat application to Taylor’s point. I do wonder, however, the deeper implications this might have for how we (re)conceive modernity, moving forward in the (late?) Secular Age.


    • muldoont

      Peter, thanks for the clarification. I’m responding here to both you and Sam, because from my perspective the two comments come together in what I perceive to be the postmodern response. It’s this: religion not primarily as superstructure but as common confession rooted in authentic response to God. I’m following figures like Deleuze and Guattari in their distinction between “arboreal” and “rhizomatic” models of knowledge, the former being the older, pre-modern model of learning doctrine and aligning oneself with a tradition. The latter, rhizomatic, arises from the ground up. Think about the Egyptian uprising as an example: people coming to common belief and that common belief making a real difference.

      To me, religion had to start in a rhizomatic way–this is the powerful lesson I take from Göbekli Tepe. But it became ossified and unsustainable over time. So did Greek myth. So did Roman political religion. So did Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Sumerian, and so on. When religion loses its roots (rhizomes) in the basic encounter with God, it is already tending toward obsolescence.

      The good news, for me, is that our superstructures of doctrine and theology have always been rooted in a very long and deep tradition of spirituality. And we are recovering them. Rahner: the Christian of the future will be a mystic, or won’t exist at all. I vote for the former.

  • brettsalkeld

    This also made me think of Rahner. Somewhere he says something to the effect that it is impossible for humanity to stop being religious because if it did, it would also cease to be humanity. That takes an even more striking meaning if the thesis here is correct, namely that religion is a substructure rather than a superstructure vis-a-vis human culture.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Wow! What a response. And I am used to getting a ruler-slap from some reactionary schoolmarm on all these blogs. What a —-in relief! I completely agree with you. As Charlie Curran loved to say in class all the time, great minds think alike, and virtue an I are in the middle.

    When I was in the seminary at CUA I used to say that if you had read a lot of Heidegger you didn’t need to study for any of the exams on any aspect of Catholic theology at that point. For it was all Rahner, And that meant Heidegger essentially. That was a good thing for me, sort of , at that point for I had zero motivation to study for anything in class at that point. Though ironically I was a voracious and assiduous reader on topics that interested me , and still do, like the history of ideas. And you know, Tim, I sailed through all exams just riffing on Heidegger no matter what the topic. Even down to Rahnerian minutiae that I had not bothered to read. Well, that’s not quite true, because I had already read Horer des Wortes and Geist im Welt in college seminary! By the way when are they going to get around to condemning Rahner’s philosophy as pernicious “modernism” . It can’t be far off.

    I became friends with a great devotee of Heideggarian thought, Masao Abe the great ecumenical Buddhist thinker who appreciated Christianity very much. When he came to DC for the Philosophical Association’s conference at the Washington Hilton he invited me out to dinner and then to his lecture. At the lecture was the truly great J.N. Mohanty the great Husserlian at Temple University I think, whose many articles in the Analecta Husserliana I read in college seminary was also on the panel. Anyways, Mohanty had some criticisms of the view you and I seem to share, and Abe definitely did, which were good. One was that the idea that everything is essentially mystical or apophatic (in the Christian tradition) runs into the commonsense (and Husserlian) rejoinder that eventually there must be a thisness to all the not-this and not that. And the thisness might be construed in religious language as “doctrine” per se. A good point, I think. But it does not take away from the basic point that “either the Christina of the future will be a mystic , or won’t exist at all.” Except that I would offer a more surgical analysis of you statement. Jesus said, in a to me quite amazing statement. “Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” I take that to mean that you can be filled with “Christian” fulminations till the cows come home, but if in the deepest recesses of your heart is still cruelty and malice, fugeaboutit! I realize my personal view, which I don’t force on others, casts a lot of religious to-ing and fro-ing in a sort of skeptical light. But there it is. That’s what I think after nearly a half century on the planet, trying to follow the Beatitudes.

    • muldoont

      I’m hearing you, Peter! I’ve read both Hörer and Geist too, front to back. But here’s my take: I think folks see only the Heidegger but not the Ignatius of Loyola. Rahner is an Ignatian stem to stern: “God deals directly with the creature.” People bypass God and go right to religious language and symbols, but Rahner wants us to get right to God. This is big time stuff: and his theology of the symbol is spot-on with the meeting point of religion and actual communication with God. Brett’s right: the mystical encounter is the bedrock upon which the superstructure of religion is built.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        I see you are professionally involved with Ignatian spirituality, so I am going to defer from commenting too specifically. I am not a fan personally, and see in it the beginning of “instant” spirituality. What are the Spiritual Exercises but a fast-forwarded mystical ladder?? But then again, it is tangentially responsible for the whole Baroque era, so I can’t complain too much. I would rather concentrate on the fact that Rahnerism was Transcendental Thomism. Apropos your comments on mysticism, there is relatedly this long-term conundrum for the Roman Church: To wit, it officially has a goal of eventual union with the Eastern Orthodox churches. These churches obviously have a very highly developed mystical tradition, and I suspect their view is more akin to the view of Catholics like you than that of many reactionary right-wingers. But there is a big problem in that their entire conception is quite antithetical to the Thomistic tradition, and Rahnerian Heideggarian quasi-mystical theology is not going to bridge the huge divide there. Even if one adds a big dollop of Jesuitical Confucian multiculturalism. And since it is a strange fact of fairly recent Catholic religious history that a philosophy has become a de facto requirement of belief (Thomism as recommended by Leo XIII’s encyclical) it seems the unprecedented requirement of a philosophy has taken center stage as it never has in religious history generally. (It would like all Buddhists being require to believe in the complex philosophy of Nagarjuna! –ridiculous! )

        The fact is that the very emphasis on “mystery” in the East is a not so subtle rebuke to the (perceived) hubris of Thomistic hyper-rationalism. And that hyper-rationalism is so apparent even in Rahner as to make it more of an hindrance that a help. So if the “mystical” future you extoll for Christianity has a real-world valence world -wide , it would need to be confirmed conceptually by the tendencies of a very august and orthodox (!) tendency already existent. And existent for a long time. The Thomistic and later Ignatian viewpoints are a poor fit with all this. So, much as I like your viewpoint generally it does not sound terrible realistic as to the facts of religious history. That is what has always attracted me to the History of Ideas, because it tells the real tale more than professionally entrenched positions.

        But please understand that I still find your viewpoint vastly more palatable and healthful than what is obtaining in a lot of Catholic circles. The great irony of those right-wing circles is that they could not be more like blowzy New Agers if they tried. They want to be as blissed out on ahistorical religiosity as much as they can be. And the fact that a belief makes no sense with the Church actually did routinely in the past is not impediment to their drug-like desire to trip on the “splendor of truth”. I find it very disturbing as a (now) non-Catholic. They have taken a great religious tradition and turned it into a right-wing Star Trek.

      • Dominic Holtz, O.P.

        The Orthodox criticism of Thomism in this regard is unjustified, of course. Nor does it especially help to single out “right-wing” Catholicism for criticism. After all, few would doubt the “right-wing” street cred of Garrigou-Lagrange, and yet it was precisely his Thomist perspective which led him to assert the mystical life as the vocation of every and all Christians. On his view, and what he held to be the view of both Thomism and the great Carmelites (Ss John and the Cross and Theresa of Avila), being Christian just is about the indwelling of the Holy Trinity and our being made conformed to the Son of God, and in that conformity, being drawn ever deeper into the inner, intimate life of the Trinity.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Almost Angelic Doctor,

        I have to agree with you, in a very specific sense, that the Orthodox criticism of Thomistic philosophy is “unjustified”. That is, they do not seem to be interested in meeting Thomistic philosophy on its own terms of careful argument. This relates to a definite predilection in the East generally. I do not see it as a negation of their authenticity, though. But there it is, as a broad fact of religious history. And an institutional history which is, I assume you would agree, is just as committed to Catholic orthodoxy as the Church in the West.

        As to the larger of Thomistic philosophy in relation to congruence in position between two great institutional actors, the question becomes a lot harder for your “side”. The fact is the Council of Florence seemed quite uninterested in making Thomistic philosophical demands a bone of contention at all. That is very telling. But then that was before Trent, but only shortly, and before the Summa had been laid on the altar next to Sacred Scripture.

        Let me reiterate what I said previously, in slightly different words. The Catholic Church in the West seems to be alone in religious history in its de facto requirement that religious belief be made in some way consistent with a philosophical position. No one reasonably can mistake the impressiveness of the intellectual edifice. But opinions seem to vary strikingly, even amongst “orthodox with small o”, and with large O, about the desirability of the philosophy. I know a Thomist would chafe at the assertion of a religious De Gustibus, but that is what it appears to be. And part of that De Gustibus may be that some throughout history have chosen, as a principled stand, not to be involved with the edifice of Thomism either for critical reasons, or for mere predilection.

        Whatever the case, it seems that if there ever is a union between Rome and the Orthodox it would by necessity come at the expense of Thomism. Something would have to give. But I wouldn’t bet on it in any case, for all the reasons given previously. Not matter what nice intentions have been expressed. If it did happen I can well imagine there might be another round of Sede Vacantism but this time mostly amongst friars in white.

        (btw, of Thomists my favorite was also Ambrose McNicholl, of whom I actually had some pre-made cassette tapes at one time!)

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  • brettsalkeld

    This also got me thinking of Louis Bouyer, who says that the human idea that we consecrate the profane to make it sacred is an illusion. In fact, we desecrate the sacred until virtually everything is profane and then we imagine profanity to be the default setting into which a little sacred can be introduced.

    I suspect this is one way of talking about the fall.

    • Dominic Holtz, O.P.

      All the same, with respect to Bouyer, there is a distinction in via between doing something as motivated and energized by faith, hope, and charity for the honor of God which nonetheless has a legitimate telos apart from honoring God and setting something apart from any other use but for the worship and honor of God. The latter is how the Church has understood and still understands what it means to consecrate, and so also apparently does God, if we grant that the Old Law was indeed from God.

      I wonder, then, whether it be the case that only the Fall introduces the good that comes from setting something or someone apart for the express and exclusive purpose of divine worship. Might not even Adam and Eve, and their hypothetical children apart from the Fall, been bound by their very human nature and the grace dwelling within them to set somethings apart for divine worship? Even if not, can we, in via do without such consecrations?

  • muldoont

    Peter, lots to digest in your last comment, so just one parting thought. Try Bonaventure rather than Thomas–he’s more steeped in the mystical tradition than Thomas. (I suggest the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, the Soul’s Journey Into God, reminiscent of Pseudo-Dionysius.)

    I think you’re giving Ignatius short shrift. He’s basically re-purposing spiritual exercises that had been around since the Patristic period (with roots even earlier, e.g. the Stoics), but organizing them into a retreat. Perhaps it’s a “fast-forwarded mystical ladder” (your term), then, only in the sense that it invites lay people to the spiritual life in ways unheard of before the movement of Devotio Moderna in the 14th c. Low Countries. Yes, Jesuits moved out of monasteries–that’s the real revolution, but even that had its roots in the itinerant, mendicant orders (Dominican, Franciscan) of a few centuries earlier. Yes, it’s possible to water down the spiritual life, but I’d certainly never pin that on Ignatius himself.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs

      You’re good. That’s what I call a good response! Thanks. (B.T.W. to me good responses always make the matter more historically complex, rather than less. But clarify, also, the essentially non-rational — for all of us — starting point of our views. As I like to say. I don’t think anyone in history has ever been convinced of anything that they didn’t have another more basic reason to agree with anyways. And it almost goes without saying that religious conviction counts as a paramount “another reason.” I hereby bestow on you the “Apostate Fuchs Best Catholic Blogger Award for Coherence”. Though I won’t be offended if you decline to accept!)

      …I smell a disquisition on Fideism coming on, from an angelic source.

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