Archive for December, 2007

The Natural History Of Religion

December 2, 2007

Amongst the various atheist texts attacking religion published recently, several have tried to undermine religion by attempting to provide a scientific, materialist account for its origin. Thus we have Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust and Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, along with similar works by Pascal Boyer amongst others. The other week in the online comments section of the British liberal newspaper, the Guardian, Sue Blackmore, a psychology lecturer at the University of the West of England, was declaring that once it was realised how religion had evolved, people would be able to break free of it. The assumption behind these works is that religion has somehow evolved to satisfy psychological and sociological needs within humans through entirely materialistic processes, without any type of intervention or contact with any gods or other transcendent or supernatural beings. The assumption here is that once people realise that religion and god is merely the product of such impersonal, materialistic evolutionary, sociological and psychological forces, they’ll be able to see that it’s all false and they’ll become atheist rationalists, like the books’ authors.

Similar atheistic, rationalist attacks on the transcendent basis of religion have been made for centuries, since before ancient Rome so there’s nothing particularly new about these arguments. All of them are open to criticism on historical, anthropological and philosophical grounds. The evolutionary accounts of the origin of religion are actually particularly vulnerable. Evolutionary psychology is by no means firmly established, and many psychologists and philosophers are extremely sceptical about attempts to trace the origin of consciousness from the minds of contemporary humans. Indeed, there are aspects of the human psychology, such as aesthetics, which actually resist reduction to evolutionary origins. A transcendent realm of beauty and value, which for theists will include God, does indeed exist. And even if religion can be shown to have evolved, this may merely be the actualisation of the human awareness of the Almighty, rather than a construction of a mental idol. Finally, evolutionary approaches to the origin of religion also present problems for the atheist. For a trait to have arisen, it must confer some benefit on the organism. Furthermore, until very recently all human societies were theist or religious. Thus rather than being the default position of humanity, atheism is the sociological and psychological anomaly that needs to be explained and which, if the conventional logic of evolution is followed, confers no benefit to the organism.

Atheist Explanations of Religion in Euhemerus and Philo of Byblos

One of the earliest rationalist attempts to explain the origins of religion was that of Euhemerus, writing c. 320 BC, who believed that the Greek myths were merely legendary accounts of the lives of real people. This view strongly influenced the ancient Phoenician writer, Philo of Byblos. In his Cosmogony, Primitive History and History of the Uranides Philo presented the Phoenician gods as a race of mortals, albeit with superhuman powers, who arose from natural forces to discover the great inventions of civilisations. In his Cosmogony, the first principle was a troubled and windy air or dark chaos, which lasted for many centuries. From this troubled and windy air came the first principle of creation, Desire, and Mot. Far from being the god of death and drought of Canaanite religion, according to Philo, ‘some say that this was slime and others a rotting of aquatic composition. From it came all the germs of all created things and it was the origin of everything’. 1 From this slime appeared plants, animals and eventually the humans who became worshipped in their turn as gods. These first people ‘deified the products of the earth, considered them to be gods and worshipped them, ‘for from the earth they drew their substance, they and those who followed them and all those who had been before them; and they made libations and ritual aspersions’’. 2 Philo’s History of the Uranides in particular ‘treats the gods as ordinary mortals who take part in a series of adventures from which result the creation of royalty, the foundation of the first town, the invention of the plough and the cultivation of wheat, the institution of votive sacrifices and of human sacrifices, the construction of temples, the transition from free love to polygamy and finally monogamy.’3 Philo was writing at the end of the 1st century AD, so 1,700 years before Darwin there was an attempt to provide a rationalist account of the origin of religion and humanity through something like naturalistic evolution.

Hume’s Natural History of Religion

With the rise of modern Scepticism in the 17th and 18th centuries, the attempt to present a rationalist account of the origin of religion was revived, and was given its most influential treatment in David Hume’s The Natural History of Religion. Attacking the Christian doctrine that humanity had originally known only the one God, before falling into sin and idolatry, Hume created the modern scheme of the evolution of religion whereby humanity had originally been polytheists, rather than monotheists, and had gradually progressed to monotheism. ‘As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists. Shall we assert, that, in more ancient times, before the knowledge of letters, or the discovery of any art or science, men entertained the principles of pure theism? That is, while they were ignorant and barbarous, they discovered truth: But fell into error, as soon as they acquired learning and politeness.’ 4

Humanity, according to Hume, had to come by its conception of God through a process by which primitive ideas of God were first gained from observation of the world around them, before being criticised and rejected as humanity moved on towards a more noble conception of the Lord. ‘It seems certain, that, according to the natural progress of human thought, the ignorant multitude must first entertain some grovelling and familiar notion of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect Being who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine, that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture; as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior: By abstracting from what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection: And slowly distinguishing the nobler parts of its own frame from the grower, it learns to transfer only the former, much elevated and refine, to its divinity. Nothing could disturb this natural process of thought, but some obvious and invicible argument, which might immediately lead the mind into the principles of theism, and make it overleap, at one bound, the vast interval which is interposed between the human and the divine nature. But though I allow, that the order and frame of the universe, when accurately examined, affords such an argument, yet I can never think, that this consideration could have an influence on mankind, when they formed their first rude notions of religion.’ 5

19th Century Views of the Evolution of Religion

This idea of an evolution in religious thought through which humanity progressed from the deification of natural forces to the idea of a universal God powerfully affected Enlightenment and 19th century philosophical and anthropological accounts of the origin of religion. The German philosopher Hegel, for example, considered that the original religion was a Naturreligion of magic and fetishism, in which no duality was perceived between nature and spirit. The dialectical process in human culture of thesis-antithesis-synthesis separated ‘spirit’ from the material world, and then made spirit a ‘subject’ – an independent, personal deity, who worship contrasted with the lack of recognition given to the finite, created world. This, however, had been replaced by the ultimate stage in which God and the material world had been reconciled. For Hegel, this was in the conception of a transcendent yet immanent God in Christian dogma. 6

Auguste Comte, the founder of Positivism, took this rationalist view even further. Totally rejecting the reality of God in favour of religion of humanity, Comte viewed religion as entirely the projection of human characteristics on to a supposedly supernatural being. Not having a suitable rational explanation for the world and its natural phenomena, primitive humanity had attempted to explain them with the imaginative invention of a variety of gods, demons and ghosts. Humanity had first been animists, believing that gods existed within various natural forces, before moving to polytheism and finally to monotheism. This monotheism would be superceded in its turn by science. 7 Herbert Spencer, on the other hand, in his evolutionary account of the origin of religion, considered that primitive humanity was ‘beyond rational conjecture’, and so turned to dreams to provide a rational explanation for the natural world. The self they experienced in their dreams convinced them of the immortality of the soul, and that a similar self inhabited animals, plants and material objects. Later, these ancestral ghosts became worshipped as gods. 8 Edward Burnett Tylor, who became Oxford’s first professor of anthropology in 1896, believed that the origin of belief in the soul, and other spiritual beings, was an attempt to explain life’s crises like death, dreams, illness and disease by primitive humanity. 9 Finally, James George Frazer, drew on Comte to produce his own tripartite scheme of human intellectual progress. For Frazer, the final stage of human intellectual development was science, which naturally superceded religion. However, the origin of religion was not animism, but magic. Magic was originally an attempt to manipulate nature without respect to any deity. However, when primitive humanity realised that it could not control the world through magic, it attempted to explain this lack of success through the belief that this was because there were beings like humans, but far stronger, who really controlled the universe, and which must be propitiated. This resulted in an animistic conception of the universe, which finally yielded to monotheism. Magic was a primitive attempt at science, and religion was opposed to both science and religion. 10

H.G. Wells’ Views on the Evolution of Religion

H.G. Wells also attempted to provide a rationalist account of the origin of religion. He viewed primitive humanity as child-like. ‘Primitive man probably thought very much as a child thinks, that is to say, in a series of imaginative pictures. He conjured up images or images presented themselves to his mind, and he acted in accordance with the emotions they aroused.’ 11 These child-like first people created religion from their dreams and the animist conception of the world seen in children. These inspired stories, which were then established as legends as they were recounted by women. ‘The dreams, imaginations and fears of a child are far more vivid and real than those of a modern adult, and primitive man was always something of a child. He was nearer to the animals also, and he could suppose them to have motives and reactions like his own. He could imagine animal helpers, animal enemies, animal gods. One needs to have been an imaginative child oneself to realise again how important, significant, portentous or friendly strangely shaped rocks, lumps of wood, exceptional trees or the like may have appeared to the men of the Old Stone Age, and how dream and fancy would create stories and legends about such things that would become credible as they were told. Some of these stories would be good enough to remember and tell again. The women would tell them to the children and so establish a tradition. To this day most imaginative children invent long stories in which some favourite doll or animal or some fantastic semi-human being figures as the hero, and primitive man probably did the same-with a much stronger disposition to believe his hero real.’ 12

Wells also seems to have been strongly influenced by Freud’s theory that religion was based upon the respect for the father in the ur-human community, elaborated by their appearance in dreams after their death. ‘Some speculative writers would have us believe that respect and fear of the Old Man and the emotional reaction of the primitive savage to older protective women, exaggerated in dreams and enriched by fanciful mental play, formed a large part in the beginnings of primitive religion and in the conception of gods and goddesses. Associated with this respect for powerful or helpful personalities was a dread and exaltation of such personages after their deaths, due to their reappearance in dreams. It was easy to believe they were not truly dead but only fantastically transferred to a remoteness of greater power.’ 13 Following Frazer, he also found the origin of religion in fetishism, in a confused account of cause and effect used by primitive humans to control their environment: ‘There is no sort of savage so low as not have a kind of science of cause and effect. But primitive man was not very critical in his associations of cause with effect; he very easily connected an effect with something quite alien to its cause. “You do so and so,” he said, “ and so and so happens.” You give a child a certain berry and it dies. You eat the heart of a valiant enemy and you become strong. There we have to bits of cause and effect association, one true, one false. We call the system of cause and effect in the mind of a savage, Fetich; but Fetich is simply savage science. It differs from modern science in that it is totally unsystematic and uncritical and so more frequently wrong.’ 14 The result of this was that, for Wells, magic and fetishism was the origin of religion, and the tribal magicians the origin of later priesthood. ‘The expert in Fetich, the Medicine man, was the first priest. He exhorted, he interpreted dreams, he warned, he performed the complicated hocus pocus that brought luck or averted calamity. Primitive religion was not so much what we now call religion as practice and observance, and the early priest dictated what was indeed an arbitrary primitive practical science.’ 15

Julian Jaynes and the Bicameral Mind

The development of neurology and the scepticism of some of those in the hard sciences for the theory and methodology of psychoanalysis resulted in attempts to provide a neurological, rather than psychological explanation for the rise of religion in the formation of modern human consciousness. In the 1980s the neurologist Julian Jaynes suggested in his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, that originally the two hemispheres of the human brain had not been fully integrated. Humanity experienced the promptings of the brain’s left hemisphere, which controlled intuition and creativity, as the voices of gods and ancestors. As the capacity to receive such sudden insights and mystical states became increasingly rare as humans integrated the two halves of their brains, those who were more easily able to achieve these states became venerated as shamans. Shamanism was the origin of later religion, whose priests mechanically followed the techniques and teachings of the ecstatic founders of their religion. Jaynes’ theory has been widely criticised and rejected by most, if not all, neurologists, though Daniel C. Dennett attempted to defend it in the essay ‘Julian Jaynes’s Software Archaeology’.16

Rationalist Critiques of Paganism in the Apocrypha

Now Judaism and Christianity have certainly not been opposed to finding rational explanations for certain types of religious phenomena. The ancient Hebrews believed that idolatry had arisen because humanity, separated from the true knowledge of God by the Fall, had mistaken natural phenomena for gods. The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha states this clearly ‘Surely vain are all men by nature, who are ignorant of God, and could not out of the good things that are seen know him that is: neither by considering the works did they acknowledge the workmaster; But deemed either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the violent water, or the lights of heaven, to the gods which govern the world.’ 17 Amongst deified natural phenomena, humans also created false gods from images made of their own leaders by subjects eager to please them and demonstrate their loyalty, and the grief-stricken fathers of dead children. ‘For a father afflicted with untimely mourning, when he hath made an image of his child soon taken away, now honoured him as a god, which was then a dead man, and delivered to those that were under him ceremonies and sacrifices. Thus in process of time an ungodly custom grown strong was kept as a law, and graven images were worshipped by the commandment of kings. Whom men could not honour in presence, because they dwelt far off, they took the counterfeit of his visage from far, and made an express image of a king whom they honoured, to the end that by this their forwardness they might flatter him that was absent, as if he were present. Also the singular diligence of the artificer did help to set forward the ignorant to more superstition. For he, peradventure willing to please one in authority, forced all his skill to make the resemblance of the best fashion. And the multitude, allured by the grace of the work, took him now for a god, which a little before was but honoured as a man. And this was an occasion to deceive the world; for men, serving either calamity or tyranny, did ascribe unto stones and stocks the incommunicable name.’ 18

The Wisdom of Solomon’s description of paternal mourning as the origin of one form of idolatry could be an attempt to account for the cult of the dead found in ancient Syria and Palestine. The Ras Shamra texts refer to ‘offerings at the aperture of the divine ancestor’, which may refer to apertures such as the pipes leading into bottomless jars so that libations could be poured into them. The dead were venerated in ancient Syria as bestowers of fertility who communicated supernatural revelations to their descendents. An inscription of King Tabnith of Sidon, dating from the 5th century BC, possibly refers to them as ‘divine’. Canaanite kings were particularly concerned to have their subjects continue to venerate their spirits after death so that they could enjoy companionship with their gods in the afterlife. In an inscription dated to c. 750 BC, the Aramaean king Panammu requests his descendents to invoke him when sacrificing to Baal, so that ‘his soul may eat and drink with Baal’. It has been suggested that the ban on offering a portion of the sacrifice to the dead in Deuteronomy 26:14 was a prohibition on giving these offerings to the dead.19 If that is the case, then the account of the rise of idolatry from mistaken grief given by the Wisdom of Solomon was a further attack on the custom by providing a rational account of its origin in addition to the ban imposed by Scripture.

Similarly, the statements in the Wisdom of Solomon that the images of kings were also responsible for their promotion into gods may also be a critique of the claims to divinity made by some of the kings in the ancient Near East. The Egyptian pharaoh, for example, was considered to be the son of Ra, the Sun god. 20 These kings partly enforced their authority through the production of images. When the Roman Empire later arose, the emperor was similarly considered a god. There was an official cult of the emperor’s numen, his spiritual principle, served by priests who made sacrifices before his image. It has been suggested that this identification of the ruler with his image is behind the Biblical statement in Genesis that men and women are formed in the image of God. Rulers expressed their authority through their graven image. However, God’s authority is shown in his image, men and women, who in their position, nature and functions are images and deputies of the Almighty on Earth. 21 If this is the case, then Genesis represents a radical attack on the institution of divine kingship and a democratisation of the notion of a divine element in humanity. In ancient Egypt the king, as a god, was kept rigorously separate from ordinary mortals. Yet by being made in the image of God, the Bible sees ordinary men and women as participating in the divine. The statement by the Wisdom of Solomon that the construction of idols had its origin in the worship of kings by their subjects provides a further, rational attack on the institution of pagan divine monarchy, supplementing the implications in Genesis.

This, however, is the difference between the attempt by the writers of the Apocrypha to provide a rationalist critique of pagan religion, and the attempts of the atheists to explain it away. The Wisdom of Solomon does not seek to undermine religion, or deny the existence of God. Rather it attempts to provide a rational explanation for wrongful religion, the creation of idols and false gods by humanity as a substitute for the true religion of the one God. Atheism took this critique of idolatry, and applied it to all religion. Every god, including the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, incarnated in Jesus Christ, was declared to be a human invention.

Criticisms of Theories of the Evolution of Religion

This attempt to explain away and dismiss religion as a whole is radically flawed. It depends deeply on prior materialist assumptions and from the projection into the past of behaviour observed in the present. And frequently, as in the description of the mind of ancient man as being child-like, was based on explicitly racist assumptions, which have been rejected by modern scholars. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, specifically attacked the Freudian assumption that children’s minds somehow recapitulated that of ancient man, and criticised those who sought to defend Freud by saying that exiled sons had not really killed their father in the remote, ur-human past. 22 Freud’s theory that religion had its roots in neurotic and obsessive behaviour generated by the trauma of violent events in the history of early humanity has now been discredited. It seems to me that the rise of recent books attempting to explain religion away are partly a response to the failure of one particularly influential atheist critique of religion. One atheist explanation of religion has been found false, so more must be promoted in case the atheist critique of religion as a whole be shown to be wrong.

Neurological accounts of the origin of religion, like Julian Jaynes, are similarly problematic. No physical tissue from early humans has so far survived, and discussions of the consciousness of early humanity depend strongly on the analysis of their material culture – the artefacts they left behind – and their comparison with similar behaviour by hunter-gatherer cultures today. Thus Palaeolithic rock art is considered by many archaeologists to be the product of shamanic religious experiences through analogy with similar rock art produced by similar cultures, like the San people of South Africa, which have been recorded by anthropologists. While the archaeologists and anthropologists who have suggested this have presented a convincing case, nevertheless the neurology that produced and produces such artwork is that of modern humans. Human cognitive evolution therefore remains very much a contested area. Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind has been severely criticised and rejected because of its highly conjectural nature, and of the severe mental disabilities a society composed of people who possessed such a consciousness would suffer. A friend of mine, a psychiatric nurse, pointed out to me that the people Jaynes suggests in his book had such a sharply differentiated mind would have been acute schizophrenics. In his opinion such people would have found it extremely difficult to cope with normal life, let alone produce the glories of art found in the Palaeolithic past.

Similarly, attempts to trace a linear development from some earlier stage of religion – fetishism, animism, Shamanism or magic have also been found to be extremely problematic because of the existence of these forms of religion amongst much higher conceptions of God. Frazer’s view of magic has been thoroughly rejected by anthropologists. The Anglo-Polish anthropologist, Boleslaw Malinowski, who was an admirer of Frazer, stated that Frazer’s theory of magic was untenable. Primitive humanity was well aware of the scientific laws of natural process. They knew the laws of cause and effect, and were aware of the difference between their subjective associations and external, objective reality. Frazer, on the other hand, had assumed that they did not. 23 Thus Frazer’s account of the origin of religion from magic is inaccurate, and rejected.

Tylor’s views on the origin of religion have also been rejected. Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, commenting on Tylor’s belief that religion arose from wrong ideas about natural phenomena and dreams and trances, asked why it was that belief in the soul should have lasted for millennia and continued to be held by millions of civilised people today. 24 Tylor’s own disciple, Andrew Lang, noted that alongside their animistic and totemistic beliefs, primitive people often had a far higher conception of God than many races far more advanced in civilisation. In his The Making of Religion of 1898, Lang stated ‘that the savage theory of the soul may be based, at least in part, on experiences which cannot, at present, be made to fit into any purely materialistic system of the universe.’ There was also ‘evidence tending to prove that the idea of God, in its earliest shape, need not logically be deduced from the idea of spirit, however that idea itself may have been attained or evolved. The conception of God, then, need not be evolved out of reflections on dreams and ‘ghosts’.’ 25 This statement that the conception of God could not have evolved from ghosts or spirits influenced a number of Christian scholars, including the missionary, Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt, who found evidence of monotheism amongst the peoples considered most archaic, Aboriginal Tasmanians and Andaman Islanders. 26 Scholars of traditional Siberian religion, such as Dr. Ronald Hutton, have also pointed out the ambiguous nature of the evidence for Palaeolithic Shamanism. The dancing figures with animal heads found in cave paintings in southern France, sometimes considered to be pictures of shamans, could also represent gods, spirits or hunters disguised in animal skins to confuse their prey. They are never shown in trance or dancing before an audience. 27 Furthermore, even if these are shamans, this does not mean that shamanism itself is a survival from the Palaeolithic. ‘The problem is that nobody has any way of determining whether these are cases of survival from a common Palaeolithic heritage or of parallel evolution of customs by peoples with roughly similar social organisations in roughly similar environments.’ 28 If that is the case, then Shamanism could be a form of religion into which people could descend, rather than from which they progress, following the general Positivist evolutionary schema.

The Existence of Monotheist Elements in Polytheism

Supporters of the idea of an original monotheism, from which early humanity descended in polytheism, such as Fr. Schmidt, pointed to the fact that many polytheistic religions nevertheless had a conception of a supreme god close to the Judaeo-Christian conception of God. The conception of the god Kwoth in Nuer religion, considered as a benevolent father, who is particularly associated with the sky, but not identical with it, immaterial and omnipresent, is similar in many ways to the God of the Bible. 29 The Indians of the American Great Plains similarly believed in an all-powerful and invisible supreme being, the Great Spirit, Master of Life, our Father the Sky or the Great Mystery, who was not represented as possessing a definite form, but through symbols, such as that for dawn. 30 Similarly the Pericu Indians of California also believed in a supreme deity, Niparaya, who created heaven and earth and gives food to all creatures. Although he possesses a wife, by whom he had children, Niparaya was a spirit, invisible and without a body. 31 Thus in the religions and mythologies of peoples across the world there was an element of monotheism, even if this was not fully realised. This makes the idea of a straightforward evolution from polytheism to monotheism problematic.

Criticism of Hume’s Assumptions about the Evolution of Religion

In fact Hume’s argument for the evolution of religion from polytheism to monotheism is based on primarily on his belief that monotheism itself is such a lofty doctrine that no people who heard it and were convinced of it could fall away into polytheism. However, this is to ignore the witness of the Bible. Even after the establishment of the Mosaic Law and covenant with the Lord, Israel and its kings repeatedly fell into apostasy and the worship of the Canaanite gods. Hume even contradicts himself on this point. In the Natural History of Religion he states that simple observation of the universe presented convincing evidence that there was only one God. However, part of the argument against natural theology in his Dialogues is that the unity and order of the universe is not necessarily evidence that it was created by only one God. He also devotes part of the Natural History of Religion to arguing that ancient paganism was more tolerant than monotheists. ‘The intolerance of almost all religions, which have maintained the unity of God, is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists. The implacable narrow spirit of the Jews is well known. Mahometanism set out with still more bloody principles; and even to this day, deals out damnation, though not fire and faggot, to all other sects. And if, among Christians, the English and Dutch have embraced the principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots.’ 32 This argument, that paganism is naturally more tolerant than monotheism, has been one of the major motives in the contemporary pagan revival. Thus while Hume was an agnostic, rather than pagan or atheist, he himself provides arguments against monotheism as a doctrine which is so intellectually convincing, that no rejection of it is possible once it has been established.

Religion as Encounter with a Transcendent ‘Thou’

Hume, Tylor and Frazer were also mistaken about the essential nature of religion. They felt it was to provide some kind of explanation for the existence of world and its phenomena, or else to provide solutions to the problems from which humanity suffers, like death, disease, famine and so on. This is undoubtedly part of the function of religion, but it is not the whole or the central, definitive feature of religious experience. For those scholars who follow the view of the great German Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, the essential feature of religion is a relationship between ‘I’ and ‘Thou’. The world as experienced by the ‘I’ of the religious believer isn’t an object, but a ‘Thou’ – a living personality to which they must respond. This ‘Thou’ can be experienced in separate phenomena, and so be conceptualised in different, even contradictory forms. As simple explanations, these competing forms clearly contradict each other, but as expressions of a controlling ‘Thou’ behind them, they may find an equal place in the pantheon. ‘We see, again, that the ancients’ conception of phenomenon differed according to their approach to it. Modern scholars have reproached the Egyptians for their apparent inconsistencies and have doubted their ability to think clearly. Such an attitude is sheer presumption. Once one recognizes the processes of ancient thought, their justification is apparent. After all, religious values are not reducible to rationalistic formulas. Natural phenomena, whether or not they were personified and became gods, confronted ancient man with a living presence, a significant ‘Thou’, which, again, exceeded the scope of conceptual definition. In such cases our flexible thought and language clearly modify certain concepts so thoroughly as to make them suitable to carry our burdens of expression and significance. The mythopoeic mind, tending toward the concrete, expressed the irrational, not in our manner, but by admitting the validity of several avenues of approach at one and the same time. The Babylonians, for instance, worshipped the generative force in nature in several forms: its manifestation in the beneficial rains and thunderstorms was visualised as a lion-headed bird. Seen in the fertility of the earth, it became a snake. Yet in statues, prayers, and cult acts it was represented as a god in human shape…We should not doubt that mythopoeic thought fully recognizes the unity of each phenomenon which it conceives under so many different guises; the many-sidedness of its images serves to do justice to the complexity of the phenomenon.’ 33

Materialism Assumed but not Proved by Atheist Critiques of Religion

A more profound failing of these attempts to explain away religion is their basis in materialism. Hume assumes that humans must have moved from polytheism to monotheism based on rational analysis of the phenomenon around them, and not by revelation. He does not, however, provide any arguments against revelation. He just assumes it does not exist. Yet if revelation does exist, and God clearly spoke to the ancient Hebrews saying ‘You shall have no other gods before me’, then clearly his entire scheme of the evolution of religion is thrown into serious doubt, if not entirely contradicted.

Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, in their analysis of religion, treat is an entirely sociological phenomenon. It exists merely to satisfy sociological needs – for moral laws, a coherent scheme for appropriate conduct and behaviour creating a moral community. In this view, people continue to believe in supernatural beings and practice their religions because it brings them this-worldly benefits, like success in hunting, harvests or work, a sense of community with their fellows and so on. Now undoubtedly it is the case that people practice their religion in expectation that they will receive some material benefits. The Mosaic Law creates the conditions through which one may be included in the congregation of Israel, a member of Israel as a religious community. Correct observance of the Law brings the promise of a long and successful life. The commandment to ‘honour thy father and mother’ has the condition ‘that thou may live long in the land that I, the Lord, shall give you.’ Yet religion is not reducible merely to a set of sociological principles. While social anthropologists like A. Radcliffe-Brown attempted to reduce society to general principles, Evans-Pritchard instead adopted a hermeneutic approach, attempting to understand religion through its ideas, metaphors, and the meaning of its rituals, thus understanding it as an independent system in its own right. 34

Cognitivist Approaches to Religion

Other scholars have turned from a sociological perspective towards a Cognitivist approach to analysing religion. This draws heavily on evolutionary psychology to state that humans have produced representations of the gods because humans evolved to do so. ‘Evolutionary science postulates no change in the human brain and mind which would have rendered them markedly different now from what they were and how they functioned in classical antiquity. Quite the contrary, we may safely assume that we form our representations of supernatural beings, to all intents and purposes, just as the ancients did. Any adaptive changes, so cognitive theory argues, took place in earlier and far longer epochs as our remote ancestors passed through the hunter-gatherer phase, and they took place in response to the exigencies of the hunter-gatherers’ environment. They occurred because they gave those hunter-gatherers with these adaptations a competitive and reproductive edge over those without.’ 35 Thus humans believe in gods not because they belong to a particular culture, but simply because this is part of human evolutionary nature. ‘We form representations of supernatural beings not by virtue of membership in societies and cultures but by virtue of membership in the species Homo Sapiens. Our particular societies and cultures shape and standardise our representations, conforming them to the various explicit tradition current and licensed in our various times and places. But it is we who construct the gods, not ‘society’, not ‘culture’; and ‘we’ means the human mind functioning in the human brain.’ 36

Despite the radical reductionism of the Cognitivist approach to religion, this clearly presents problems for the atheist. Firstly, it religion has evolved to confer a benefit on the species, then it is not the negative force which atheism views it. Indeed, it may be atheism that is, in evolutionary terms, a negative phenomenon. Furthermore it corroborates the statement by Calvin that people naturally have a ‘sensus divinitatis’ or sense for the divine.

Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology

Also, socio-biology and evolutionary psychology themselves are highly conjectural approaches to human psychology. Despite claims that these approaches will provide satisfying accounts of human behaviour, philosophers have objected that they are radically incomplete. Human self-consciousness means that humans are rational agents in a way other parts of the universe are not, and make decisions and act in ways that do not conform to Darwinian principles. Indeed some philosophers have argued that evolutionary psychology is actually pre-scientific in the way it presents man as part of the cosmos in a manner similar to the conception of humanity as the microcosm – the universe in miniature – in ancient Greek philosophy. ‘Far-fetched as Socrates as microcosm might seem today, those who would wish to explain human behaviour without reference to mind, and who would disparage explanations of actions in terms of doing what is for the best as folk psychology, are making an analogous move in reverse rather than treating the macrocosm by analogy with the microcosm, they are treating the microcosm as analogy with the macrocosm. They are treating the microcosm (man) as it if were just part of the macrocosm, and guided and animated by the same principles. But this is surely misguided. Whatever we decide about or ultimate destination and origin, it remains the case that we, as human beings and as self-conscious agents, can question our standing in the world in a way no other part of nature can. This, indeed, is part of what ‘acting for the best’ comprises: raising questions about our relationship to the rest of nature and to each other. The normativity, the search for truth for its own sake, which this involves, engages us in types of considerations which are not found in the scientific descriptions and explanations, whether those of physics or of biology.’ 37

Rudolf Otto on the Evolution of Religion

In fact the inadequacy of evolutionary theory for providing a complete account of the origin of religion, or of explaining it away, was discussed nearly a century ago by the great German religious scholar, Rudolf Otto, in his 1917 The Idea of the Holy. Evolutionary theory could only offer partial or inadequate solutions, as it could not study early hominids, like Pithecanthropus, directly, but only make inferences about them through modern human behaviour, a process that was nevertheless flawed because of the highly conjectural nature of such similarities. Nor could it explain the soul and the emergence of life from dead matter. Rather, there existed in humanity a predisposition to religious experience that was activated and developed through evolution.

‘The justification of the ‘evolutionist’ theory of to-day stands or falls with its claim to ‘explain’ the phenomenon of religion. That is in truth the real task of the psychology of religion. But in order to explain we must have the data from which an explanation may be forthcoming; out of nothing nothing can be explained. Nature can only be explained by an investigation into the ultimate fundamental forces of nature and their laws; it is meaningless to propose to go farther and explain these laws themselves, for in terms of what are they to be explained? But in the domain of spirit the corresponding principle from which an explanation is derived is just the spirit itself, the reasonable spirit of man, with its predispositions, capacities, and its own inherent laws. This has to be presupposed: it cannot itself by explained. None can say how mind or spirit ‘is made’ – though this is in effect just what the theory of epigenesis is fain to attempt. The history of humanity begins with man, and we have to presuppose man, to take him for granted as he is, in order that from him we may understand his history. That is, we must presuppose man as a being analogous to ourselves in natural propensities and capacities. It is a hopeless business to seek to lower ourselves into the mental life of a pithecanthropus erectus; and, even if it were not, we should still need to start from man as he is, since we can only interpret the psychical and emotional life of animals regressively by clumsy analogies drawn from the developed human mind. To try, on the other hand, to understand and deduce the human from the sub-human or brute mind is to try to fit the lock to the key instead of vice versa; it is to seek to illuminate light by darkness. In the first appearance of conscious life on dead unconscious matter we have a simple, irreducible, inexplicable datum. But that which here appears is already a manifold of qualities, and we can only interpretit as a seed of potentiality, out of which issue continually maturer powers and capacities, as the organization of the body increases in stability and complexity. And the only way we can throw any light upon the whole region of sub-human psychical life is by interpreting it once again as a sort of predisposition’ at a second remove, i.e. a predisposition to form the predispositions or faculties of the actual developed mind, and standing in relation to this as an embryo to the full grown organism.’ 38 For Otto, the experience of the numinous came from the deepest part of the human soul. It was not created by sense experience, but was merely stimulated and actualised by it. ‘the numinous is of the latter kind. It issues from the deepest foundation of cognitive apprehension that the soul possesses, and, though it of course comes into being in and amid the sensory date and empirical material of the natural world and cannot anticipate or dispense with those, yet it does not arise out of them, but only by their means.’ 39 The numinous – the experience of the holy – was thus a transcendent concept as independent of sense experience as the pure reason postulated by Kant. 40 Criticising the origin of religion in animism and magic suggested by scholars like Tylor and Frazer, Otto turned it these notions on their heads. They could not explain religion, but only be explained by the later development of religion. Religion was primal aspect of the human constitution that was purely unique and could not be understand through anything else. ‘If the examples number 1 to 8 may be termed ‘pre-religion’, this is not in the sense that religion and the possibility of religion are explicable by their means: rather, they are themselves only made possible and can only be explained from a religious basic element, viz. the feeling of the numinous. This is a primal element of our psychical nature that needs to be grasped purely in its uniqueness and cannot itself be explained from anything else. Like all other primal psychical elements, it emerges in due course in the developing life of human mind and spirit and is thenceforward simply present.’ 41

Religion as A Priori Concept

Although rejecting the notion of primitive monotheism as ‘missionary apologetic’, and firmly believing that humanity moved from primitive forms of religion, such as the belief in ghosts and demons to monotheism, Otto nevertheless appreciated that higher forms of religion certainly existed among polytheist peoples. ‘But they do point to facts, which remain downright riddles, if we start from any naturalistic foundation of religion – whether animism, pantheism or another – and must in that case be got out of the way by the most violent hypotheses. The essence of the matter is this, that elements and strands are to be found in numerous mythologies and the stories of savage tribes, which reach altogether beyond the point they have otherwise attained in religious rites and usages. Notions of ‘high gods’ are adumbrated, with whom the savage has often hardly any relations in practice, if any at all, and in whom he yet acknowledges, almost in spite of himself, a value superior to that of all other mythological images, a value which may well accord with the divine in the highest sense.’ 42 The idea of the holy is an a priori concept, according to Otto, an innate truth. And the existence of this innate truth is demonstrated by the fact that subsequent developments in the idea of divinity are accepted when they are first announced, without any logical necessity. ‘How should it be logically inferred from the still ‘crude’, half-daemonic character of a moon-god or a sun-god or a numen attached to some locality, that he is a guardian and guarantor for the oath and of honourable dealing, of hospitality, of the sanctity of marriage, and of duties to tribe and to clan?’ 43 Indeed, when Socrates in Plato’s Republic declares that God is single, true, unchanging and does not deceive others, what is remarkable is not the new, impressive conception of God formed by the great Greek philosopher, but the dogmatic tone in which he pronounces it and the fact that it is uncritically accepted as true by his companion, Adeimantos. ‘And his assent is such as implies convincement; he does not simply believe Socrates; he sees clearly for himself the truth of his words. Now this is the criterion of all a priori knowledge, namely, that, so soon as an assertion has been clearly expressed and understood, knowledge of its truth comes into the mind with the certitude of first-hand insight.’ 44 The a priori nature of the religious feeling is demonstrated in Luther’s own comments about the innate feeling of God present throughout humanity. ‘The knowledge of God is impressed upon the mind of every man by God. Under the sole guidance of nature all men known that God is – without any acquaintance with the arts or sciences; and this is divinely imprinted upon all men’s minds. There has never been a people so wild and savage that it did not believe that there is some divine power that created all things’. 45 This did not mean that everyone possessed an idea of God – Otto distinguished between a priori conceptions and innate conceptions. Rather it meant that there was a predisposition towards the knowledge of God that everyone had the potential to possess, but which often needed to be awakened by a higher nature, such as a prophet or the Son of God. 46

For Rudolf Otto knowledge of God was a transcendent capacity, which existed in humanity like Kant’s pure reason. Biological evolution developed this and brought it out, but did not create it. Some evolutionary biologists have concurred at least partly with this view. The British evolutionary biologist, Sir Aleister Hardy, considered that religion was indeed the product of human biological and psychological evolution, but that nevertheless it corresponded with and was based on a real external, objective experience, and quoted the great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, on the objective reality of the religious experience.

Evolution of Religion based on Transcendent Reality

‘Our entire study rests upon this postulate that the unanimous sentiment of the believers of all times cannot be purely illusory. Together with a recent apologist of the faith [William James] we admit that these religious beliefs rest upon a specific experience whose demonstrative value is, in one sense, not one bit inferior to that of scientific experiments, though different from them.’ 47 Hardy believed that when praying ‘we are making contact with what we call the Divine which is in part within ourselves, in our subconscious, but in part beyond ourselves.’ 48 It’s remarkable, and unorthodox view of God, but nevertheless has contacts with and indeed corroborates the perfectly orthodox Christian doctrine that God has written a consciousness of Himself on humanity’s hearts, an inner consciousness that points to His objective existence.

Similarly, attempts to explain religious ritual behaviour as the product of human evolution through analogy with the behavioural rituals of various animals, such as those of Julian Huxley and Konrad Lorenz, and Eugene d’Aquili’s and Andrew Newberg’s claim that human religious experience may be hard-wired through evolution, based on their brain-imaging scans of Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns in prayer, may actually point to an ultimate transcendental origin of religion. If that is the case, then brain imaging scans have nothing to say about the reality of the religious experience. ‘One could say that the brain wiring developed as our ancestors responded to a transcendent reality. Every claim about reality, whether of a table, an electron, or another person’s love, requires neural activity in the brain. The reality of the referent of our symbols can never be determined by examining the brain.’ 49

This perhaps explains the increasing desperation amongst some atheist polemicists to provide a materialistic explanation for religion, and the shrill tone of atheist denunciations of religion as a maladaptive form of evolutionary behaviour. Rationalist criticisms of religion have failed to explain religion away, and the major 19th century attempts to account for its origin have now been rejected. Freudianism in particular is no longer taken seriously by scholars as such an explanation of religion. Similarly attempts to explain religion as based on the child-like thinking patterns of primitive people have been demonstrated as being scientifically wrong and based on racism. Dawkins’ pronouncement in The God Delusion that belief in God was like children’s imaginary friends has more than a passing resemblance to these discredited theories and is no more convincing. Religion, like so much else in human nature, cannot be simply reduced to evolutionary explanations. Instead, such explanations, rather than disproving religion, may demonstrate that religion confers a benefit upon humans as biological organisms and point to its basis in the transcendent reality of the Almighty. Indeed, these may even act to provide some support to the traditional Christian doctrine that a knowledge, or predisposition to the knowledge of God is ubiquitous throughout humanity. The ancient Hebrews were able to use rationalist critiques of ancient religions to demonstrate their falsity against the true religion of the one God. However, rationalist attempts to explain away religion as a whole have proven to be extremely problematic, and have paradoxically succeeded in rendering atheism problematic, irrational, and a potentially destructive evolutionary anomaly.


  1. ‘Phoenician Mythology’ in Felix Guirand, ed., Richard Addington and Delano Ames, trans. New LaRousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, Hamlyn 1968 p. 82.
  2. Philo of Byblos, Primitive History, cited in ‘Phoenician Mythology’ in Guirand, Mythology, p. 83.
  3. ‘Phoenician Mythology’ in Guirand, Mythology, p. 83.
  4. ‘The Natural History of Religion’ in David Hume, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin, Dialogues and Natural History of Religion (Oxford, OUP 1993), p. 135.
  5. Hume, ed. Gaskin, Natural History of Religion, pp. 135-6.
  6. Clinton Bennett, In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Relgion (London, Cassell 1996), p. 25.
  7. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 28.
  8. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 30.
  9. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 36.
  10. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 40.
  11. H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World (London, Watts & Co 1929), p. 36.
  12. Wells, History of the World, pp. 37-8.
  13. Wells, History of the World, p. 37.
  14. Wells, History of the World, p. 38.
  15. Wells, History of the World, p. 39.
  16. ‘Julian Jaynes’s Software Archaeology’ in Daniel C. Dennett, Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds (London, Penguin 1998), pp. 121-130.
  17. Wisdom of Solomon 13: 1-2, The Apocrypha (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), p. 65.
  18. Wisdom of Solomon 14: 12-21, The Apocrypha, p. 66.
  19. ‘Syria and Palestine’ in Encyclopedia of World Mythology (London, Peerage Books 1975), p. 109.
  20. John A. Wilson, ‘The Function of the State’ in Henri Frankfort, Mrs. H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson and Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1949), p. 81.
  21. ‘Old Testament Theology’ in D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer, A.M. Stibbs and D.J. Wiseman, eds., The New Bible Commentary Revised (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press 1970), p. 21.
  22. ‘Freud’s Evolutionary Fantasy’ in Stephen Jay Gould, The Richness of Life (London, Vintage 2007), pp. 467-480.
  23. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 40.
  24. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 37.
  25. Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion, 1898, p. 2, cited in Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 37.
  26. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 38.
  27. Ronald Hutton, The Shamans of Siberia (Glastonbury, The Isle of Avalon Press 1993), p. 14.
  28. Hutton, Shamans of Siberia, p. 15.
  29. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘God in Nuer Religion’, in Whitfield Foy, The Religious Quest (London, Routledge 1978), pp. 557-576.
  30. ‘Mythology of the Two Americas’ in Guirand, New LaRousse Encylopedia of Mythology, p. 431.
  31. Mythology of the Two Americas’ in Guirand, New LaRousse Encylopedia of Mythology, p. 434.
  32. Hume, ed. Gaskin, Natural History of Religion, p. 162.
  33. H. and H.A. Frankfort, ‘Myth and Reality, in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, pp. 28-9.
  34. ‘Evans-Pritchard, Sir Edward’ in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford, OUP 1997), p. 326.
  35. Roger Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (Oxford, OUP 2006), p. 90.
  36. Beck, Mithras Cult, p. 89.
  37. Anthony O’Hear, Beyond Evolution: Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Explanation (Oxford, Clarendon 1997), p. 12.
  38. Rudolf Otto, John W. Harvey, trans., The Idea of the Holy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1959), pp. 131-2.
  39. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 130.
  40. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 131.
  41. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 141.
  42. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 146.
  43. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 153.
  44. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 154.
  45. Luther, Table Talk, quoted in Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 156.
  46. Otto, Idea of the Holy, pp. 194-5.
  47. Alister Hardy, The Biology of God: A Scientist’s Study of the Religious Animal (London, Jonathan Cape 1975), p. 77.
  48. Hardy, Biology of God, p. 230.
  49. Ian Barbour, Nature, Human Nature and God (London, SPCK 2002), p. 48.