Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Evolution of God: The Early Years

The title of this post comes from Robert Wright’s recent book: The Evolution of God. Wright attempts to recreate the evolution of man’s conception of God based on what is known from history and science about humanity’s social and technological development. He describes this as a “materialistic” view, presumably meaning it is fact-based rather than faith-based. Although a professed “non-believer,” he approaches the subject in a sympathetic and factual manner that should allow this book to be appreciated by anyone. Polemical stridency and vitriol will not be found here.

Actually, I am extrapolating a bit since I have not finished the book yet. There is much too much there to cover it all in this format. Plus, I was so delighted by the book’s very first chapter that couldn’t contain myself and jumped the gun. This is a long journey that is best begun at the beginning.

Mankind spent most of its evolution living in small bands of hunter-gatherers. The logical conclusion then is if you want to learn about the early origins of religion, you should learn what you can from this type of culture. Fortunately, this social and economic structure still exists, and was fairly common in previous eras when it could be studied before significant perturbation by “civilization.” Wright summarizes what can be learned from this class of people.

The author uses the word religion to describe a people’s mode of interacting with the deities, but they do not actually have what we would call a religion in the modern sense.
“....hunter-gatherer religions have at least two features that are found, in one sense or another, in all the world’s great religions: they try to explain why bad things happen, and they thus offer a way to make things better....good and bad outcomes are under the control of a supernatural being, and the being is subject to influence.”
From the viewpoint of a hunter-gatherer, his life is subject to random occurrences of famine, pestilence, drought and other things over which he has little control. It is in his self-interest to seek some understanding of why things happen. Given little knowledge of the world, a natural first step is to imbue the components of nature with a “spirit” that can control the components behavior. A next step would be to try to figure out ways to convince this spirit to behave itself. This “spirit” is the beginning of the concept of a god, and the process of dealing with it is the beginnings of a religion. The next step would be for someone to step forward and claim the ability to understand and/or control the behavior of these gods. The shaman is born, soon to be followed by the priest.

Associating “spirits” with animate and inanimate objects was just a step away from assigning a spirit or “soul” to oneself. The author points out that this would be helpful in explaining things like dreaming and death.

Given this as a starting point, one arrives at a concept of “religion” that is quite different than what we are familiar with today. First of all, since the interaction with god arises, by definition, from unpleasant events, gods are not considered objects of reverence.
“....hunter-gatherers don’t generally ‘worship’ their gods. Indeed, they often treat their gods just like you would treat a mere human—kindly on some days, less kindly on others.”
Another distinct characteristic of these early religions is that there was no moral component.
“Hunter-gatherers lived—as everyone lived 12,000 years ago—in intimate, essentially transparent groups. A village may consist of thirty, forty, fifty people, so many kinds of wrongdoing are hard to conceal.....The fact that you live with these people for the rest of your life is by itself a pretty strong incentive to treat them decently....Social order can be preserved without deploying the power of religion.... a hunter-gatherer village is the environment we are built for, the environment natural selection ‘designed’ the human mind for....the product of an evolutionary dynamic known as kin selection, leads us to sacrifice for close relatives. Another, reciprocal altruism, leads us to be considerate of friends—non-kin with whom we have enduringly cooperative relationships....The ethic does not extend to strangers; they are simply enemies, not even people.”
The concept of using religion for moral coercion will arise when society organizes itself into larger structures where these two types of bond no longer suffice to control behavior. People will also discover that religion, and a threat from the gods, can be a powerful motivator in all aspects of society.

Religion will then evolve under the dual motivations of self-interest and societal needs.
“Religion almost always forms a link between self-interest and some of these other interests, but which ones it links to, and how, change over time. And over time there has been—on balance, taking the long view—a pattern in the change. Religion has gotten closer to moral and spiritual truth, and for that matter more compatible with scientific truth. Religion hasn’t just evolved; it has matured.”

“Religion needs to mature more if the world is going to survive in good shape—and for that matter if religion is to hold the respect of intellectually critical people. But before we take up these questions, we’ll address the question of how it has matured to date: how we got from the hunter-gatherer religions that were the norm 12,000 years ago to the monotheism that is the foundation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Then we’ll be in a position to ponder the future of religion and to talk about how true it is or can be.”
As the above quote suggests, there is more to come.

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