(In the previous Religion post, “Believing in Believing in God“, the modern dilemma of religious belief was presented. “Gods” don’t easily fit in our modern world. In response ,“god” has become some very vague idea, believed in but on which little depends; or “god” becomes highly specific —the Jesus of the Bible, or the teachings of the Koran— and a highly charged belief because now in tension and conflict with science, sexual equality and so many other modern social trends. In the following post, the origins of religion will be considered as “naturally” arising and closely connected to the the origin of Culture, itself!)
(A “Venus” figurine, dating back 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, from Germany. Cro-Magnon humans were fascinated by pregnant women and childbirth! Shucks, I wonder why? Even with all our science and medicine, it is still Utterly Amazing and Attractive!)
Is There A Kind Of Religion That Is “Natural” To Humans, or at least natural in the history of humans? That is a strange idea, but one championed by theorist Dan Dennett. Dennett is One Of Our Most Outspoken Atheists, yet in his scientific theory of religion, he gives “Good Reasons” for the occurrence of religion, and maybe even its continued existence—-in at least some form!
“Good Reasons” are akin to a theoretical term of his; more precisely they are “free-floating rationale”, by which he means The Purpose that a functioning object serves. The object’s purpose is real and yet not so real at the same time! The purpose of a thing is expressed by the organization of its parts and it is Not one of those parts itself. It is “free-floating” in that sense; it is like ‘the focal point’ of the parts, as if they were ‘gazing upward at the larger system they are a part of, seeking to understand their role and the meaning of it all.’ Gee, sounds kind of Religious already!
Dennett contends that religion served a purpose, or at least evolved for good reasons. In Breaking The Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomena, it is refreshing to find the typical dismissive ‘explanations’ of religion dismissed as too simplistic. If one contends religion is just a bad explanation for things that some people can’t explain in better ways (103), “then get to work and find some real answers,” we might say. Or religion is just an attempt to make us feel better; “Too bad, life is tough and it ends; so suck it up and stop making up silly stories,” the realists say. Or, religion helped and still helps people work and live together; it promotes cooperation. The famous French sociologist, Emile Durkheim with his functionalist theories, contended this was religion’s social purpose. In response, it is easy to point out all the times that differing religions have fought, hated each other, and expressed their differences in conflict and not cooperation.
So, religion is based not in our ignorance and is not primarily inaccurate explanation, and religion is not just a salve for our disappointment and fears. These are not good scientific explanations of religion according to Dennett. These are not good Evolutionary Explanations of a phenomena so prevalent, so complexly organized and so “expensive.” Anything that lasts that long and becomes so prominent in the population and consumes so much time and effort must have some benefit for survival for someone or something. There maybe some truth to these dismissive explanations but they don’t cut deep enough. Religion as promoting human cooperation does a little better, we shall see.
Dennett’s theory is that the religious impulse is based in a powerful and helpful human instinct (112). In that sense, this instinct is accurate and efficient, even though it has been misapplied often. It is the instinct to regard the complex events around us as instigated by human-like agents; agents or actors somewhat like ourselves and motivated by reasons — in their heads — somewhat like ours. We “see” other persons in this way, of course; and also animals, but even plants to some extent. When we get to the cosmos at large and ‘the storms at sea,’ for example, then “we” were and are mistaken to regard them personally. But Religion, in this earliest form, is “Folk Religion,” says Dennett, and it is this projection of agency, of the acts of agents, out into the world.
Folk Religion is not the highly organized and institutionalized religion of today. It lacked “stewards” or at least the same degree of “professionalization” and hierarchy that we see often. Though it had its priests, “shaman”, it had no Bishops or Popes or leaders of rabbinical schools, or Imams. It had no highly standardized creed.
Dennett makes an initial characterization of it as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents (God or gods) whose approval is to be sought” (9). Curiously, this is connected by Dennett to the evolution of a very real, but equally mysterious ‘thing’, The Human Mind. This primitive form of religion, folk religion, was part of the development of our uniquely human way of being with other humans as highly social, communicating, technology-driven, cultural animals. The Mind is our way of being together and “religion” played a role in that development. These early humans saw “persons” everywhere; agents with motives that you could possibly negotiate with!
The Value of Ritual
Much of what we do, that is unique to us as humans, is based in Language. Folk Religion is as old as language and even some of the proto-languages that undoubtedly preceded it until language itself was well enough structured and established to stand alone. Folk religion and its Ritual may have been like a scaffolding that supported these early developments.
Time Line of Cultural Milestones
- Proto-Language and Language itself: 40,000+ years ago
- Folk Religion: origin 40,000 to 25,000 years ago
- Agriculture: 10,000 years ago
- Metalworking: 8,000 years ago
- Written Language: 5,000 years ago
Evolutionary Biological Advances are based in our genetic code. Evolutionary Cultural Advances are based in our linguistic codes. Biological advance starts in mutations of the DNA code and if accompanied by successful bodily or behavioral expressions, they are selected. They then are not easily lost, that is the very definition of success; they are passed down to further generations genetically.
But what of early Cultural Advances? They were not recorded in our DNA nor in any written language, because written language was itself a rather late developing cultural advance. How did Cultural Advances persist? How were they passed on to future generations when even oral language was still in formation? Ritual is the answer: group based, oral, rhythmic, bodily movement-based, repetitive, highly emotive, expressive events.
(Rituals, from top left to right. Hindus of India speaking to the ancestors in an effort to attain health and healing through the management of intergenerational karmas. Shia Muslim mourning the death of their prophet at the annual Ashura commemoration in Iraq. Courtship ritual of the Wodaabe people of Niger. Occur once a year, men dress and make themselves up and are judged by available females. Bottom, speaking in tongues in the U.S.A.)
(In the following post in this series on Dan Dennett’s scientific theory of religion as a natural object, the contribution of Religious Ritual to the formation of Culture will be presented.)