This blog is a project for our Human Origins class during the spring semester of 2011. Our assigned topic is “Religion from an Evolutionary Perspective.” We will use this page to publish posts on that and related topics. We will use Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett. It will be used in the development of our blog and will guide its organization and direction. We will also use other sources.
Header Image: www.evolution-of-religion.com

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Concluding Thoughts

Over the course of the past semester, we have attempted to define religion and identify its origins. As humans tried to find purpose and meaning in the world they turned to the ethereal.

In our last post, we discussed animism and naturism, primitive forms of religion that early humans developed and that are still practiced today in some parts of the world. This idea that animals, as well as inanimate objects, have spirits transformed into the idea that humans also have spirits. In the beginning this human spirit was not much more super natural than you or I. Only later did this spirit develop omniscience and omnipotence. These qualities were simply outside of the “limits of imagination” according to Robert Wright (“The Evolution God: How Human Nature Gave Birth to Religion”). “They thought of God as occupying a single point in space and being unable to do two things at once...” (Wright). As the human mind developed and the first defined religions came into being, a more complicated notion of “God” began to develop.

The earliest form of “modern” religion took the form of Hinduism around 5,000 years ago. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam emerged later. Each of these religions offers different versions of a superior being or God.

After reflecting on our work, we have determined that religion is inevitable. Whether religion is monotheistic, polytheistic or even atheistic, a belief system is a fundamental part of human nature. The five major religions of the world resulted from religion’s status as a fundamental part of human nature.  

Despite world religious beliefs, one thing remains certain: humans must live in cooperation with one another. Evolutionary biology has provided evidence for cooperative efforts throughout our evolutionary histories. Whether religion spawns from evolution or is more culturally influenced, modern humans evolved as autonomous beings with each other and not against each other. Wright explains, “Thanks to reciprocal altruism, people are ‘designed’ to settle into mutually beneficial relationships with other people, people whom they can count on for things ranging from food to valuable gossip to social support, and who in turn can count on them.”


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Birth of Primitive Religion

Having identified the functions of religion in our last blog post, we are now going to focus on the origins of primitive religions.  As hominids continued to advance, so did their brain size and cognitive capacity.  With the introduction and transmission of cultural capital from one generation to the next, early humans sought to explain the world around them. They were no longer willing to settle with the acceptance of natural phenomena occurring.  Humans were awe struck by their world and determined to unearth explanations.  Through prominent primitive forms of religion such as animism and naturism, early hominids were able to acquire peace and a greater understanding of their surroundings.

According to his findings in Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett claims that Animism is the practice of attributing intentions to non-human objects, or “literally giving a soul to the mover” (Dennett 116).  The world is made up of spiritual beings that control our everyday lives. Early humans (as well as soon people today) who practiced animism focused on appeasing these spirits in order to achieve specific goals such as finding food or protection.  Animism became less popular however as people developed new forms of technology as well as more advanced forms of language (Dennett 114). They then began to develop somewhat more advanced forms of religion such as naturism, which emerged from animism.

Naturism is the reverence for the forces of nature, which are believed to have supernatural power (Sociology Guide). Man identified many of the forces of nature but could not explain them. Instead, he attributed these forces with power and began worshiping nature. Out of reverence and ignorance, humans glorified the most illustrious endowments of nature: the sun, the moon, air, and water (Sociology Guide). Naturism is contingent upon the personification of natural forces. By personifying nature, early humans were reassured by the familiarity of their surroundings, leading to a greater sense of security.

As early humans conquered the concept of nature, they turned to the ethereal. Hominids’ surroundings provided a limited amount of knowledge that could no longer be used as the only source of earthly answers. Only later did the modern concept of “God” enter the picture.  




Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Is Religion Inevitable?

Since little conclusive evidence exists to support the claims of a “God Gene” as being biological, we must ask why cultures around the world have independently developed forms of religion. Does religion serve a purpose?  If so, what is it and why do we need it? Is religion inevitable? These are the questions we hope to explore in our post, which will deepen our understanding of religion, evolution and the connections between the two.

To answer these questions, we look to Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell.  In his novel, he asks the questions “Is religion good for you? Should it be the basis for morality?...Where does our devotion to God come from? What was the psychological and cultural soil in which religion first took root?...Is it the product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice?  Do those who believe in God have good reason for doing so?”  The answers to these questions paint a picture of the inevitability of religion as well as the purpose religion has served in the daily lives of humans, past, present, and future.  So, what is the purpose of religion?

Daniel Dennett proposes three purposes for religion: to comfort us in our suffering and allay our fear of death; to explain things we can’t otherwise explain; and to encourage group cooperation in the face of trials and enemies (102). Religion provides us with answers to our questions about our existence and purpose, reveals our true nature, gives us a way to navigate the world, and creates large human networks.

Pascal Boyer,  lists more than half a dozen distinct cognitive systems that feed effects into our recipe for religion – “an agent detector, memory manager, cheater detector, moral-intuition-generator, sweet tooth for stories and story telling, various alarm systems.” To this list Dennett adds intentional stance, “when an animal treats something as an agent, with beliefs and desires (with knowledge and goals)”. Dennet claims that, any mind with this particular set of thinking tools and biases is bound to harbor something like a religion sooner or later (110).

Religion is inevitable.  As humans evolved we developed an urge to understand and explain the world and its processes. “The belief in unseen or spiritual agencies seems to be almost universal... as soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would have naturally craved to understand what was passing around him, and have vaguely speculated on his own existence.” (Darwin 1886, p. 65) (p124).

Little more than a social construction, religion continues to exist for a variety of reasons. Many groups and cultures find reassurance with the answers religion provides. Unable to explain death using worldly reasoning, individuals look to religion to better understand their own purpose in life. Additionally, systems of belief have established moral foundations that provide a level of consensus between groups of people. Inevitably, religion will always prevail as it continues to maintain a sense of community and understanding.  Religion is inevitable because it is crucial in our acceptance of our world.