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The evolutionary origins of religion

The evolutionary origins of religion

Where did religion first come from, and how can we explain why humans seem so drawn to religious ideas? In this guest blog Mark Vernon explores an emerging theory of the origin of religion, the trance hypothesis. 19/08/2019

Understanding the human propensity to be religious is a central task. Living with gods and forging lives around elaborate rituals and practices is widespread, and until recently universal. If it’s not universal now that raises questions of what’s changed and what might be lost.

However, it will come as no surprise to learn that the matter of the origin of religion is contested. The conflict and debate often focuses on evolutionary accounts. In fact, there are now dozens of Darwinian proposals that purport to explain the religious mind and behaviour of human beings in scientific terms. Until recently, most have fallen into one of two camps.

‘Big Gods’ theories

The first camp is often given the label, ‘Big Gods’. These theories propose that as the social life of very early humans developed, it became necessary to find new ways of holding these inevitably argumentative, growing communities together.

Our primate cousins, the apes, use grooming to do so because picking nits off your fellows and combing fur eases stress between individuals. However, it has limited efficacy because grooming takes time and time is limited.

Early humans, though, developed extra cognitive capacities. They perhaps not only felt empathy, as apes do, but also feelings of guilt and dreams of revenge. And this was put to good use by Darwinian selection. It meant that the humans who tended to survive were those driven by guilt rather than revenge, because the latter would fight and die. From that, another evolutionary step led to a sense of divine entities keen to mete out punishment. These were the Big Gods. They were delusions but they supported prosocial behaviour. Communities with them could grow, so they lasted too.

It sounds initially plausible, but it is flawed by two pieces of evidence. The first is the fact that Big Gods are not a feature of all religions. The second is that large human communities existed for many millennia before the emergence of Big Gods, which are a relatively recent phenomenon. So, whatever mechanisms our ancestors used to resolve their difficulties, fear of divine punishment does not seem to have been one of them.

‘False Agency’ hypotheses

The second set of proposals for the origins of religion rest on theories that link a sense of deities with a cognitive mistake. They are, therefore, known as ‘false agency’ hypotheses. At their simplest, they propose that our ancestors needed to be pretty jumpy to survive being preyed upon. Evolution, therefore, selected for those early humans who were the most superstitious: these misguided individuals were wrong about the evil spirit they falsely imagined to be approaching through the treetops, say, but they were right to run because, on occasion, the branches were swaying due to the weight of a hungry panther.

It sounds simplistic and the evidence suggests it is. For example, observations of modern hunter–gatherers reveals that they are immensely sensitive to their environments. They easily discern the cause of all kinds of movement around them. There is no reason to suggest that this alertness needs to be neurotic.

There are more sophisticated versions of the theory. One looks at the development of infants who have a natural tendency to attribute agency to toys and inanimate objects. “Teddy says, it’s time for tea,” and so on. The implication is that our ancestors were childlike too and lived in fantasy worlds full of gods. However, children naturally grow out of this phase and so it seems implausible to suggest our ancestors didn’t.

Another variant stems from the idea that human cognition exists in modular form. There is not just one cognitive system but several – one for visual information, another for social information, another for safety information, etc. These separate modules can also overlap and merge, perhaps because there is an adaptive advantage in linking safety information with visual information. But this also means that there is the possibility of confusion and ‘false positives’. Attributing false agency and seeing gods is the result.

However, once more, this version of the hypothesis falls foul of other evidence. For example, it’s widely accepted that human cognition operates in two modes. The difference is captured in the title of the bestseller by Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow. The slow mode is propositional and specific; the fast mode is intuitive and integrative. Both are immensely valuable and can work together, with the implication that the false agency attribution made by one would be highlighted by the other. It’s hard to see, therefore, how belief in gods arising from cognitive mistakes would have proven so long–lasting and widespread. Our ancestors would have seen through their delusions.

In summary, ‘Big Gods’ and ‘false agency’ proposals have been tested and found wanting. Now, though, a new theory is coming forward that, to my mind, looks much more plausible.

Trance’ hypothesis: a way forward?

The ‘Trance’ hypothesis was discussed at a recent meeting of the International Society for Science and Religion. It’s being researched by a team of academics which includes cognitive scientists, evolutionary psychologists, sociologists, theologians and philosophers. The interdisciplinary nature of the work is a strength: there seems to be little point deriving a theory for the origin of religion that sociologists and theologians can’t agree on. Credibility is also leant by the figure who is leading the work, Robin Dunbar, the Oxford professor of anthropology and experimental psychology.

The idea is that ancient religiosity arose when our archaic ancestors, perhaps in the middle Paleolithic period, realised that they could induce ecstatic experiences. They started dancing, drumming, imbibing, chanting, feasting and fasting.

This capability was a step on from simply experiencing awe and wonder, which primates and other animals probably do too, because it meant that altered states of consciousness could be explored. A full range of animistic rituals and shamanistic skills developed. These peoples must have been drawn by the intrinsic worth that the trance states revealed. The world became multidimensional and porous to spirits, ancestors and transcendence. But there was something else.

Achieving ecstasy has an adaptive byproduct. Synchronized activity in groups leads to releases of endorphins. These opioid hormones ease tension, like aspirin eases pain, and so they amplify prosocial behaviour by dissolving squabbles. They are chemicals that groom. In short, the birth of religiosity allowed human groups to grow.

The expansion led to a second phase of development. After some time, perhaps as knowledge gained from transcendent worlds grew, more formal kinds of religiosity emerged. Our ancestors started painting sacred places and erecting idols, then building temples and ‘employing’ religious specialists like shamans and priests. Dunbar calls this the ‘doctrinal phase’ by which he means that the earlier immersive experiences became systematised.

This has a number of advantages. It means that not everyone has to have the ecstatic experience and the benefits of the experience can spread more widely. Religion became a universal feature of human life because it was integral to the wellbeing of human individuals and society.

Evidence for the trance hypothesis

The evidence for the trance hypothesis is gathering at a number of levels. At the most reductive, research is being done on the effects of endorphins in religious settings. For example, a team headed by the experimental psychologist, Miguel Farias, has studied the impact of synchronized rituals in various types of congregation. They suggest that endorphins rise with even modest levels of collective behaviour, such as standing to sing hymns and kneeling to say prayers. People feel friendlier as a result too.

Alternatively, studies of indigenous hunter–gatherers, such as the San Bushmen of southern Africa, show that rituals are explicitly linked both to sustaining transcendent experiences and reducing social conflict. They are keen not to let the sun set on their anger.

Material evidence for the new account is also found in the archeological record. It’s complicated to interpret, of course, but burial practices and cave art, brain size and artefacts all suggest that ‘trance states and how to enter them are probably very ancient,’ as Dunbar summarises in his book, Human Evolution.

Then, there’s sociological support of various types. For instance, focusing on rituals as a universal feature of religion holds up to scrutiny, unlike Big Gods and false agency. These practices and activities are a bit like a glue that holds together other religious elements, which are present to varying degrees.

Finally, what’s also useful about the proposal is that it is theologically agnostic. It suggests that trance states have intrinsic value without having to decide just what the altered states of consciousness reveal. This is an advance on the automatic denigration of religious meaning that the Big Gods and false agency hypotheses imply. Further, religious people would say that they don’t need to gain anything from their beliefs. They are responding to what they perceive as objective truths. The new account can accommodate that intuition.

The last point might read like a sop to modern believers. But it has deeper significance than that, as has been pointed out by the anthropologist, Agustin Fuentes. In Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being, he argues that early human practices must have had intrinsic value if they were to deliver instrumental gains. This is because a practice typically has to be embraced before an adaptive advantage emerges.

An analogy is illuminating. Ask yourself what it would have taken for our ancestors to advance beyond lifting a stone to crack a nut, which other animals do, to carving a stone and producing an ornamental hand axe. Immense imagination is required; seeing what’s not yet there. This takes insight, awareness and patience, perhaps over many generations. The implication is that our ancestors must have been motivated by the intrinsic value they found in discovering the world around them, be that by means of contemplation or trance. With that meaning, unanticipated practical benefits could follow.

The trance approach is liked by theologians for other reasons, too. Léon Turner of the University of Cambridge, for example, pointed out that as well as the theological failings of the earlier proposals, they were also objectionable because of what they imply about human beings. Turner calls this ‘abstract individualism’, the assumption that we are social atoms that must somehow be enticed to act together. But such reductionism is not required by the trance hypothesis. It is, rather, relational to the core: why else would you engage in collective rituals altogether?

The psychologist of religion, Fraser Watts, added to such gains by reflecting on how human understanding is intimately linked to embodied experiences – everything from having emotions to having a body. It’s called embodied cognition. To take one simple example: people naturally wave their hands when explaining things and if they are told not to, their ability to speak immediately drops. Alternatively, it’s why beliefs are always associated with practices, from kneeling in prayer to going on pilgrimage. Thought is a whole–body affair. A focus on rituals embraces that in ways that the Big Gods and false agency hypotheses do not.

There is a final reason that seeing trance as the origin of religion appeals. It has to do with connection and wonder. Put it like this.

The next time you glimpse sight of the transcendent, be that in a sunset or in a song, recall that you are experiencing something akin to what our ancestors felt hundreds of thousands of years ago. Alternatively, the next time you contemplate the image of a religious figure, be that a stone saint or person on a cross, remember you’re doing something that in various ways has been found helpful for tens of thousands of years.

Seeing that religion is a natural part of human evolution in this way means that belief can be valued for its own sake as well as its social benefits. To put it another way, the trance hypothesis understands that science and religion are not in conflict. In fact, the evidence is growing that understanding the world and engaging in ritual practices have worked hand in hand as far back as we can see.

Mark Vernon’s new book is a big story that reaches back about 3000 years. It’s entitled, A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the Evolution of Consciousness (John Hunt Publishing). 

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 Image: joppo/

Mark Vernon

Mark Vernon

Mark is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness is published by Christian Alternative Books (30 August 2019). He lives in London. For more see or following him on twitter @platospodcasts

Watch, listen to or read more from Mark Vernon

Posted 19 August 2019

Belief, Evolution, Faith, History


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