16. Religion explained

 

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought is the title of a 2001 book of Pascal Boyer, a French-American anthropologist. Because of its actuality and its daring title it is a much discussed and translated book. Most of the reviews, however, are not very enthusiast, complaining of its dry and abstract philosophical and cognitive-psychological argumentation. Even more serious is the conclusion that the book does not really explain the phenomenon of religion. Boyer himself excuses this lack of satisfactory explanation with the statement that “religion is not a single entity resulting from a single cause.”[1]

But is he right? Couldn’t religion in essence be just that: a single entity resulting from a single cause? For the humanosopher, who explains consciousness as lingual consciousness, the obvious mission here is to unravel the real evolutionary origin of religious thought.

Our ancestors, now armed not only with stones and sticks but also with fire[2], spread from the tropics to the temperate zones in Africa and Eurasia. It was a slow migration: about 30 miles per generation. When a successful group became too numerous, tensions arose and then soon a little group of young women, children and men would decide to move to a new territory. I assume that this land may already have been known because adolescents had to make a long journey as part of their initiation in adult life – upon their safe return, they were able to recall for the remainder of their lives the faraway regions and people they had encountered on their journey.

The settlers of new territories were the first humans who gave the mountains, rivers, lakes, marshes, fruit trees and wild animals their names. For humans, lingual consciousness became more dominant than the instinctive consciousness of other animals: in that lingual part of our mind, things exist to the extent we have a name for it. For our ancestors, as lingual creatures, those first name-giving settlers were the creators of their tribal territory. People always had (and still have) the practice of defining a total group as one person (The American for all Americans, The Australian for all Australians) and in a similar way, our ancestors spoke of The Big Ancestor.

I dare not to speculate exactly when and where this process began. The first hard evidence (in my opinion) of how these humans expressed the experience of their world in danced singing, is Bilzingsleben: an archaeological site in Germany, a H. heidelbergensis campsite from

370.000 years ago (Reinsdorf interglacial). This is the first known place with evidence of a special dance place between 3 huts[3].

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reconstruction Bilzingsleben camp site of Early Humans, 370.000 years ago

These Early Humans were lingual creatures. But humans are part of the animal world. In their own mind, they were not lingual creatures but animals. Honestly spoken, not even in our mind, dear reader, we ourselves are lingual creatures. I mean: we are not continuously aware of it. Just like fishes are not aware of water. The Early Humans felt they were animals originating from a special kind of animal. Their way of thinking was totemistic.

We may compare the Early Humans’ step into new territories with a newborn baby’s entrance into a new world. Right after the sudden and painful experience of birth, felt as a cruel separation, newborn babies would like to be part of their mother again, just as they had been before. They feel strangely isolated. During the long time they sleep, this isolation is felt less acute, especially when the usual moves, shakes and sounds continue. But when awake, they need the unceasing and loving attention of their mother and others to give them the confidence of safety. Slowly and gradually, neurological programming can then do its work letting them grow up, step by step, to normal childhood and maturity.

The same step by step development characterizes the experience of the environment (world) of our ancestors. As lingual creatures they lived in a named world; a world full of named things. For these Early Humans it was an ever growing number of names for an ever growing number of things. This mass of names would grow into a chaos in their heads if it lacked any structure. The most obvious structure herein is, is the story: the linear a-to-z telling. This structuring function was accomplished by their creation story: the ritual story of how their world had begun and developed, inclusive humans, up to how it was now. (Their ‘world’ was the tribal territory, and ‘humans’ were the people of their tribe. People of other tribes, with strange languages, were not real human because “they couldn’t even talk”; but they could become human by adoption or marriage: by incorporation in the tribe, which for them was humanity.)

We today, being lingual creatures, are in this respect not really different from Early Humans: we still need to comprehend our world in a story. It strings loose facts and events together into a coherent whole that provides meaning. When a moving, stirring event befalls us, we feel a strong need to tell it to others: we feel sharing it is the best way to come to terms with it. For the humanosopher, the loss of the monotheistic creation story in the free world’s consumers society, without replacing it with a new and more suitable alternative, is the cause of the moral decline. Our conscience has no longer a common, universally shared basic story. In the Introduction I referred to Tony Judt and his tormenting concern. In Part Two I will present a potential solution.

The little group of young women, children and men who were the first to settle new territories, were the first ones to give the things in that territory their names. For lingual creatures, this is what defines the existence of things. For their descendants, the ancestral settler group was personified in ‘epic concentration’, The Big Ancestor.

We need to emphasize here that this tribal Big Ancestor is in no way synonymous with the figure of God as worshipped in today’s main monotheist religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). That modern God was constructed 400,000 years later: only a few thousand years ago. We will discuss the recent origins of this monotheistic God concept later. The tribal “Big Ancestor” we are talking about here – who was not regarded as a specific person but rather as a reference to the mythical ancestral group – was a very different concept. This was not a man, nor a woman, nor some kind of animal: it was something in between.

The early Big Ancestor is in essence ourselves – it personified the first little settlers group – and even later thinkers and shamans have always remained aware of this. In the classic Greek-Roman culture of the first century BC, this still was the central and deepest mystery of the Mystery Cults and of the Gnosis movement: that God is ourselves. Let us take a closer look at him, in the form he still figures as a central force in the creation stories of present-day ‘primitive’ populations such as the Australian Aboriginals.

The creation story of such tribes still tells how in a long-ago Dreamtime[4], the Big Ancestor entered the tribe land on a special place and began to journey all through the known world. Everywhere on his journey She/He/It deposited mountains, lakes and trees and all the special features of the land. She/He/It also left, in a special place, the little souls who could fly into the wombs of women who passed by that place, the same place to where the souls return after death. The Big Ancestor could travel through the sky or under the ground. Once finished with his creation effort, She/He/It departed from the land through a special hole in the ground: the land now was ready for the tribe.

Special creations (mountains, trees, animals etc.) were also important Figures in the Story, with special tasks or abilities. This Story of the creation of their world was so important to them, that they believed their world would come to an end when they no longer sung-and-danced their world. And that makes sense: it was a named world for them. And it still is for us – but we are familiar with the fact that the world goes on even when we are never dancing-and-singing it.

In the dawn of humanity there never was a tribe without a sung-and-danced Creation Story. Over thousands of generations of singing-and-dancing the essence of our world and our community, this practice has become so-to-speak a part of our genome. It lives on within each of us as our religious feeling. We are born with the expectation of experiencing a sung-and-danced representation of the world and togetherness. When a baby cries, it will be quiet or even begin to smile when mama sings-and-dances with the baby in her arms. This is the base of the religious feeling that remains with us even when we are convinced secularists or atheists. It is this ancestral practice of dancing-and-singing the world that makes us “incurably religious” as theologian Dorothee Sölle defined it[5], even though she herself did not see the link.

This instinctive reaction does not just apply to babies. Many grown-ups will feel an urge to dance when hearing dance music. In a similar way, many people will experience deeply rooted feelings when hearing religious music such as the Matthäus Passion or In Paradisum. And in fact, the chants by the public in football stadiums do also have the same effect.

All these common, instinctive reactions to singing and music led me to presume that the sung-and-danced creation stories by our ancestors played an important role in the group cohesion, which is why this social song-and-dance mechanism is basically still working even in the nature of western people today.

The creation story as described above evolved over thousands of generations, along with the evolution of the prehistoric economy. In the creation stories of a few present-day tribes (such as Australian Aborigines) we can still recognize its original form.


[1] “Religion Explained’ reminds me of “Consciousness Explained” by Daniel Dennett: this book didn’t explain consciousness either

[2] this position seems seriously questioned in the recent PNAS article of Roebroeks and Villa (March 2011) “On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe”. However, they emphasize that their research concerned (a) the European fire use and (b) the producing of fire: they didn’t question the use of fire by keeping smoldering charcoal obtained from a natural fire

[3] I was glad to read that Steven Mithen in his book Singing Neanderthals (2006) describes this same excavation, with the “demarcated space for performance (!) … to sing and dance, to tell stories through mime, to entertain and enthrall …” [‘mime’: Mithen has no idea of linguality, and even speculates that Neanderthals had not yet language!]

[4] an important concept of the Aboriginals, but one that is found with ‘primitive’ populations all over the world: it indicates the time of the beginning of being human, when the ancestors felt themselves still being animals, a part of the animal world, not yet lingual creatures with their existential incertitude as ‘worrying apes’

[5] Dorothee Sölle (1929 – 2003) was a German liberation theologian and writer who coined the term Christofascism

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