From the 35,000-year-old cave art at Leang Timpuseng, Indonesia, to the Cuneiform writings of the Sumerians from 3500 years ago, to modernity, Homo sapiens have been on a journey towards self-awareness. Along the way we have asked the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ But from where did the need to ask these questions arise? How do they serve us as a survival mechanism? Do we need to continue asking these questions? And why did God and or religion become the universal answer that so many of us accept? I will attempt to wrestle with these, and other, questions here through my own life experiences and study of this aspect of the human condition.
Let’s begin with a short account of my own life experiences regarding this matter. I suppose some of the stories may be typical of what you or someone you know has gone through and other parts may be completely unfathomable. Though the experiences of humanity may be vast and varied my intention here is to focus on the commonality, the core systems of belief we all share due to our broad, shared, ancestry. Many differences we may consider foreign are precisely that, ‘foreign,’ because they are born of different societies and cultures which may, or may not, agree with our nurtured ideals. Here is where my story comes into play.
At the time I was born in the 1960’s 90% of the population in the US called themselves Christians. My parents were no different, my mother was an Episcopalian, and my father raised as a Methodist, so I suppose my early childhood was typical, though not overtly, Christian. I proceeded to ‘lose my religion’ to typical rebellion in my teen years but, looking back, I was still subjected to and influenced by, all sorts of belief systems. I devoured books by Erich von Däniken and fell prey to every claim of ‘if you play the record by so-and-so backward [insert satanic claim here].’ Those stories and many others were fascinating to me, and I just knew they had to be true.
In my early 20’s I had an unimpeachable urge to find God. Any God at all. There were things in my life that seemed to require the resolute answers for which only a God could, seemingly, account. I was, among other things, a musician and a poet. How I thought, could such beautiful things as art and the seemingly impossible complexity of the world around us be mere happenstance? There was significant discomfort in the idea that this was all meaningless.
And so began the search for meaning, for truth, and for a purpose. Being in America, my search predictably started in the Christian institutions. I will not take any of your precious time here describing the differences, both small and large, of this denomination or that. In the end, they all believe the same thing: there is an eternal God, Jesus is divine and came to save us from our sins. Leading us quite nicely into one of the tenets of this paper: People are told and believe that we are broken. How has thinking this assisted in our survival?
As the social brain of Homo sapiens began to develop approximately 300 million years ago, it was all about survival. Evolution has many methods of producing protective devices for organisms, e.g., teeth, claws, speed, armor, and stealth. Since we seem lacking in the offensive weaponry of most predators and lacking the defensive speed or shield of the common prey, we needed brains that allowed for social interaction (safety in numbers) and cooperation. We see these traits in innumerable combinations across the animal kingdom. We observe combinations of speed and horns in antelope, teeth and coordinated hunting in wolves. Communal care and brute strength in groups of orangutans. Humans were not fast enough to outrun many of the predators on the Savannah, have no armor to speak of and only moderate strength. These selective pressures seem to have led to:
- our upright, bipedal posture, enhancing the ability to see above the tall grass to spot predators.
- High-level communication skills aiding in coordinated hunting
- Cooperation in groups which allowed for the survival of our species extended the period of gestation, rearing of our helpless infants and defensively weakened mothers.
I can hear you asking, “What does this have to do with religiosity?” A valid question into which we will begin a long slow dive into those waters.
The survival mechanisms listed above and many more all require a bit of a magic trick by our evolutionary tuned brains:
- We needed decision-making abilities beyond the relatively simple fight or flight mechanisms.
- Hominid survival required a sense of the intentions of other animals.
- The need to assess friend or foe, whether someone was taking more than their share, pulling their share of the load during hunting and gathering expeditions.
Many of these behaviors became selected over vast spans of time, and I will attempt to elaborate more as we continue our journey. The overarching name for this cognitive development is called The Theory of Mind (ToM): The ability to understand one’s intentions, moods, etc. and then to read, Intuit and attribute those conditions to other beings. Where the train went off the tracks, from a logical standpoint, is the inability of our prehistoric ancestors to discern the difference between animate and inanimate objects. As important as it was to be able to tell if the interloper in our camp was friend or foe we also began to assign intention to falling trees, thunder, and other inanimate but still active events. This idea of seeking purpose in the natural world served us in several distinct ways
- To provide some comfort in the unknown and seemingly uncontrollable aspects of the natural world
- Giving us a way to communicate about more abstract ideas by placing them into a familiar context which was easily relatable to our way of experiencing the world
- A sense of purpose to the chaotic and random events, seen as both good and bad
- The potential to feel some measure of control through attempts at appeasement of the gods behind natural, catastrophic events.
There are two major types of gods perceived by humans. Of course, there are many, but they can be broken roughly into two categories: the pastoral, Monotheistic gods and the Pantheistic gods
- The pastoral gods tended to rise from nomadic herding tribes in harsher climates. These gods, as a reflection of the ideals and needs of the people, were portrayed as fast acting, vengeful and punishing gods. Often referred to as ‘High gods’ because the tended to be the all-seeing protectors of their people. In many of these societies life was harsh and resources relatively scarce, so punishment had to be swift because the loss of ones herd was likely a death knell for the group which lost its primary means of sustenance. The parallels here are undeniable as agrarian societies served the same function for their flock. They were their protectors and obviously viewed themselves as superior to their charges in all aspects. So, it makes sense the herders would wish for a similar type of protection for themselves. The Abrahamic religions are the classic example of the pastoral god. It is, to me, quite amusing the use of the terms flock, lost sheep, lamb of god, etc. The constant use of imagery depicting God, Jesus, and Moses wielding a staff which, of course, is a standard tool in the herder’s hands for guiding and disciplining the flock.
- The Pantheistic gods arose from more plentiful arenas where the battle for daily survival was not nearly as prominent. These belief systems centered around gods who were less involved with the day to day activities of the people. Pantheistic religions tended to be less nomadic, so the gods didn’t need to travel. There were gods associated with specific areas and regions often related to a resource, i.e., water or food or a potentially dangerous natural area like volcanoes, oceans, etc. *note* [With multiple deities, perhaps the gods were not as bored and didn’t feel the need to manipulate their charges]
At the risk of making sweeping generalizations, Pantheistic religions tended to be more peaceful than those of Monotheism. As stated above the lack of resources dictate a more insular society which will be less willing to share with its neighbors.