Why Did Religion Change?

In his new book How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures, Robin Dunbar reviews many details of the history and correlates of religion. He says that religion’s main function is to aid group cohesion, and that religion has been key to allowing humans to sustain larger groups. While I have doubts about how well he explains these details, his book gives me an excuse to return to this important topic.

To review his review, many animals travel in groups to protect against outside threats, via treating other group members either generically or via simple status ladders. But primates formed large groups via treating every other member differently, especially via hugs and grooming. Primates thus needed big brains to manage the politics of such groups.

Our especially big brains have allowed human groups to get even larger before fragmenting due to internal conflicts. To further support the social cohesion that can sustain larger groups, we evolved smiles, laughter, singing, dancing, communal eating, drugs, sacrifices, humor, emotional story telling, more rituals, and moralizing gods. And we felt closer to associates with whom we shared language, place of origin, child to adult path, hobbies, worldview, musical taste, and sense of humor.

We also evolved trance/mystic experiences, often with romance-like feelings, and often enhanced by drugs. And we evolved supernatural beliefs, with which we made sense of the world, felt power over it, and could accuse associates of witchcraft. Religion is built especially on these two foundations.

All of this makes sense to me. The puzzle I see is that we’ve seen big changes over time, in which the relative importance of these factors has changed. How can we explain such changes?

Language seems to have arisen about 500Kya. Our earliest spirituality apparently included altered mental states such as trances, and animism, wherein most everything around us had a spirit. Roughly 100Kya our ancestors started to put valuable goods into their graves, suggesting beliefs in an afterlife. Such beliefs seem to go together with ancestor worship, and with shamans who specialize in religion.

Starting roughly 10Kya, with the farming revolution, humans started to live more densely, and built special religious spaces. They also found more potent drugs, such as poppy seeds and beer. We then turned to ritual (often human) sacrifice to capricious gods. In larger communities, we soon after saw social stratification, including a separate classes of priests, especially when food storage was possible. In this kind of religion, rituals were a communal duty, to placate the gods, and individual beliefs were unimportant.

Then starting roughly 4Kya, near the “Axial Age”, we saw the rise of a new kind of religion associated with farming and herding in even larger communities, at the latitudes where such larger communities were possible. Most “traditional” religions of today arose during this ancient era. This type of religion was centered on individual beliefs in moralizing gods described in writings that told of stories and doctrines. Religion became a personal duty, often resulting from a personal choice, and love and forgiveness came to matter more, relative to the sheer power of gods.

Finally, we have recently seen a great and somewhat puzzling decline in religion, apparently in association with rising wealth, even though we still have great needs for group cohesion.

To explain these changes, it helps little to point to the timeless advantages of these many strategies. For example, both gods who punish moral violations and also capricious gods who demand ritual sacrifices seem useful for promoting social cohesion. So why did they arise at the particular times they did? Dunbar doesn’t say much on this.

It seems to me that we must focus on using changes to explain changes. For example, perhaps communal responsibility for ritual sacrifice became much more socially potent when aided by drugs in the new religious spaces built for new larger denser communities. And perhaps personal responsibility and beliefs toward moralizing loving gods became much more socially potent when aided by priests who consulted written stories and doctrines.

If “woke” is a new “religion,” then it seems a complement to drugs, it lacks sacred texts, and it often sacrifices humans to pay for a collective guilt, in front of big crowds in the special big public spaces of social media. And it seems to create a new class of priests, and perhaps also a new stratification of the population. That sure sounds a lot like the religious style of the first half of the farming era; is that style returning now?

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