1.13 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 linguistic 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. Why so slow?

Groups that had become too small due to any catastrophe joined a more successful group. When after a catastrophe too many groups joinned,  such a successful group became too numerous. Then soon  tensions arose: people could not yet live harmonious in a too large group.  Then soon a little group of young women, children and men would decided to move to a new territory. Not too far away (maybe some ten days trip) because they needed each other for surviving. We may assume that such a region had already 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 far away regions and people they had encountered on their journey. Whatever, we fantasize a little here.

Sure is: 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, things exist to the extent we have a name for it.
For our ancestors, as linguistic 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, their offspring spoke of The Big Ancestor.

We have already mentioned dancing / singing as a result of the performances to fill the night-time hours before bedtime around the campfire that kept the predators away. The performances had taken such an important place in their daily routine that they lived their days to it and that they made it beautiful – especially the women – with flowers and feathers. Feierabend.
Of course this is speculation. We can at most refer to the Yanomamö of Napoleon Chagnon, in whom, despite their permanent threat of war, this was still the daily practice evening after evening.

Reconstruction Bilzingsleben camp site of Early Humans, 370.000 years ago

We dare not to speculate exactly when and where this process began. The first hard evidence (in our 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].

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 not a man, nor a woman, nor some kind of animal: it was something all of this.

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). The last patriarchal God has been constructed only a few thousand years ago.

Where our atheists claim that God did not create man but that man created God, we may refer to our cultural evolution at this moment of the first people who entered a new tribal area. 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 their descendants, the ancestral settler group was personified in ‘epic concentration’, The Big Ancestor.
So God 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 may have been the central and deepest mystery of the Mystery Cults and of the Gnosis movement: that God is ourselves. Mystery: in those times it was dangerous knowledge. So dangerous that none of the initiates ever dared to reveal the secret.

Let us take a closer look at Her/Him/It, 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 (never a man or a woman, it was even half-human half animal mythical being) 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[5].

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 even believed their world would come to an end when they no longer sung/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/singing it.

In the dawn of humanity there never was a tribe without a sung/danced Creation Story.
Over thousands of generations of singing/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/danced representation of the world and togetherness.
When a baby cries, it will be quiet or even begin to smile when mama sings/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. For instance in beauty emotion. It is this ancestral practice of dancing-and-singing the world that makes us “incurably religious” as theologian Dorothee Sölle defined it[6], 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. It tends to bring us in a sort of trance.
Singing (music) is the merger of our cortical ratio (human) and limbic use of voice (animal).
Singing (music) is a return to primitive stage of being human, when we could easily find ourselves in a trance.

In the book Kalahari Hunter / Gatherers by Lee and Devore (1976) we read that the !Kung San attach great value to the trance, but that in order to get into a trance, the women have to dance/sing.
Matthäus Passion and the chants in football stadiums have to do with the desire for trance. Desire to go crazy.

All these common, instinctive reactions to singing and music led me to presume that the sung/danced creation stories by our ancestors played an important role in the group cohesion, which is why this social song/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. 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 linguisticness, 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 linguistic creatures with their existential incertitude as ‘worrying apes’.
  5. In Australia of the 50’s a whole territory had to be emptied for a nuclear experiment, so emptied from Aboriginal tribes, who were transported with trucks to a new place (it was noticeable that the babies were so well-fed, despite the harshness of their residential area). A later researcher noted that a woman sang for her child, drawing in the sand the Creation route of the Great Ancestor, and it ended with a hole in the ground.
  6. Dorothee Sölle (1929 – 2003) was a German liberation theologian and writer who coined the term Christofascism.

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Used abbreviations

GHs: gatherers/hunters (the phase from 2 million years ago to 10.000 years ago)

AGRs: agriculturers (the phase from 10.000 years ago till now)

NT(s)Neanderthal people

MSA(s): Middle Stone Age people (African NTs)

AMH(s): Anatomical Modern Humans (H sapiens people), like we are

(m)ya: (million) years ago

ANBOs: Ancestor Bonobos (ape-men), our earliest human ancestors

Paleos: all scientists that are important for our story.