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IslamiCity > Articles > Evolution and Religious Developments
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The evolution of spiritual activities that enhance the successful survival of humanity is not only concerned with enhancing the survival of our own species. With the recent domestication of plants and animals and the very recent industrial revolution, Homo Sapiens (HS) acquired a great deal of responsibility for the evolution of most of the species on the planet itself.

Evolution and Religious Developments
2/11/2013 - Interfaith Science Religious - Article Ref: IC1301-5374
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Opinion Summary: Agree:  Disagree:  Neutral:
By: Rabbi Allen S. Maller
IslamiCity* -

Without successful reproduction no species can flourish, or even survive. HS were as subject to the biological imperative (commandment) to be fruitful and multiply as all other species. But the intelligent minds of HS knew the dangers of childbirth. Infant mortality rates in most tribes were more than one in four. The maternal death rate for every four births was more than one in ten. Pregnancy was highly desired and birth anxiously awaited. Pregnant women naturally sought the physical help of their mothers and grandmothers who in turn sought the spiritual help of their now departed mothers and grandmothers. Among the earliest Gods were birth Goddesses. Small stone figures of very pregnant birth Goddesses often referred to as "Venus" figures go back 30-35,000 years. They are the first examples of iconic religion. The worship of spirits within natural phenomena does not need iconic representation. But birth rarely took place in the open or in public. The birth Goddess needed to be present in some tangible way in order to ease the anxiety of women in labor. Even today in some African countries the maternal mortality rate is 3% per birth. A woman who gave birth to 8 children had a one in four chance of dying from giving birth. Any band would benefit even if the presence of Goddesses reduced that mortality rate by only 5%. Carvings in wood of birth Goddesses probably preceded stone statues by many millennia and may have originated 50-100,000 years ago. 

Shamans also found that visual aids helped their patients relate to the mysterious struggle that the Shaman fought in the foreign spirit world. Since the spirits of animals were often involved both as friend and foe, much of prehistoric rock art (especially in difficult to access caves) probably relates to Shamanistic healing rites. Eventually iconic representations of gods and spirits would become almost universal. In historic times these icons would be viewed by increasing numbers of people as representatives rather than incarnations of the Divine.

There was no reason to limit activities of spirits to the realm of the dead or the diseased. All natural phenomena could be motivated by spirit minds. Self aware intelligent minds that can read the intentions and motivations of others can also project all kinds of motivations on to other people, animals, objects and events. The movement of herds; the quantity of animals, fruits and spring water; thunder, floods and drought; indeed everything that happens in nature can be ascribed to the will of spirits. Gifts and offerings should be able to influence these spirits (intelligent minds do not like to admit to impotence) and so regular offerings should be made by a group/clan/tribe, to keep the natural forces friendly. Western anthropologists influenced by Christian thinking refer to these offerings as sacrifices. The biblical Hebrew term korban is both more accurate and more insightful. The verb l'karayv means to draw near or come close. A korban is a way to attach, engage or bind the human realm to the spirit realm. When food and drink are offered to another it is not a sacrifice. Food and liquid offerings are an invitation to a closer relationship. Especially during ceremonial occasions food and drink serve to bring people together, including those who have been estranged from one another because of transgressions that have occurred. Thus offerings to the Gods can help people who feel estranged from God return to a closer (karayv) relationship. Offerings help people reunite or reconcile with God. The food offered to a God is usually eaten wholly or in part by those who contribute it or by the priests who offer it. The Biblical God doesn't want grain or meat offerings (Psalm 40:7). Humans offer them, especially when they feel estranged from the Divine, in order to draw closer (karayv) to the Divine. Only human sacrifice should be called sacrifice. While human sacrifice was widespread in the past it was usually relatively rare.

Ritual specialists, who unlike charismatic Shamans are more likely to be administrator types, usually direct these offerings. As time goes on the rites tend to get more complex and the necessary skills require more training. Those people performing the complex rites easily become a hereditary cast of professional priests. They sometimes also offer an alternative type of leadership to that of the hunter/warrior types. Priests can become the custodians of the customary law of the tribe. Priests can offer advice to help in making important decisions by consulting the gods to determine their will. Fortune telling enables decision-makers to avoid the backlash of wrong decisions while claiming credit for the good ones. Divination also reduces many people's anxiety about difficult decisions in unclear situations. Even today millions of Americans still consult astrology charts and in Asia people in many Buddhist temples still cast their fortunes. 

Most people feel better when they are in control of the important factors in their life. The strong desire for control coupled with belief in good and evil spirits eventually leads some HS intelligent minds to attempt to force a spirit do what an individual wants it to do. Magic is an attempt to subjugate a force in the spiritual world for another person's weal or woe. Magic is always dangerous because people believe that the spirits do not like to be enslaved by humans and power tends to corrupt even those with good intentions. Yet many tribal religions still have lots of room for defensive magic and even those religions that condemn magic have occasional practitioners. Again, the mind-body placebo effect makes magic effective in some societies where belief in magic and superstitions is widespread and well accepted. Accusations of magic and witchcraft are also widespread in some tribal societies. They can be the result of paranoia or scapegoating as often, if not more often, than the actual incidence of magic. Magic and superstitions are the dark side of HS spirituality.

Small groups that lack an incest taboo will be plagued by the ills of inbreeding; therefore exogamy in mating will be selected for. As ancestor worship strengthens kinship ties over more and more generations, it also expands kinship ties over more nomadic bands creating extensive clans and tribes. These clans and tribes gather periodically at a special place to exchange future mates. They also started exchanging i.e. trading for desirable objects not found in their usual local. Seashells, obsidian, red ocher and other materials have been found in campsites and graves more than 100-200 miles away from their closest source. The stronger the attraction of a special place, the greater the effort that distant clans will make to attend, so gathering spots that are turned into sacred sites of pilgrimage through special seasonal rites will enrich human communities. There are scholars who think that HS advanced trade networks helped them out compete Homo Neanderthals in Europe (recent studies of Neanderthal DNA have shown that they were a distinct species not ancestral to HS). The need for all the clans to show up about the same time leads to fixed seasonal holy days and a religious calendar. The need to mark time for pilgrimage festivals led people to study the cycle of the moon and the movement of the constellations and thus move some of the spirit powers into the sky. Pilgrimage festivals still have major economic impact and serve in most religions as great sources of religious experience and solidarity. 

Most but not all, spiritual forces are viewed as personalities. In some cultures an impersonal force (referred to by anthropologists as Mana) is believed to manifest itself in certain individuals or classes of people and accounts for and rationalizes good or bad luck as well as personal, family or clan/class success and failure. Ritual pollution is usually viewed as an impersonal power and its cure depends upon impersonal bureaucratic techniques. But in most cultures the spirits are personified and ties of kinship relate the various spirits to each other. And in most of these cultures all or almost all of the spirits are said to be descendants of an original Divine couple, or individual, or egg, or something else. This "creator" god is usually not central to the spiritual realm in later times just as a great-grandparent is understood as being a progenitor who is revered but no longer active or powerful. Monotheism does not seem to arise naturally from these creator Gods and there is no tendency for the number of Gods to diminish until it arrives at one. Since all living beings come from other living beings i.e. begets or is begotten (Qur'an 112:3) it is very hard for people to conceive of a sole God who is the first cause of all the observed diversity. Although in historic times there have been individuals in every society who preach monotheism, they are almost always reviled and rejected by the great majority of their people. Prophets who reveal a book of sacred scripture, are very, very rare and are clearly not the product of natural evolution. This is the major difference between revealed and natural religions. 


In small groups moral values can be based on utilitarian principles like do to others as you want them to do to you, or what goes around comes around. But in larger more complex societies with diverse classes and castes it may be more effective to root ethics in transcendent terms since there are not enough repeat interactions to validate utilitarian morality. As tribes became larger and villages grew, a judge who rewarded good people and punished evil people helped the community to instill its norms in its members. With the exception of a sociopath, the intelligent minds of HS also have a conscious, self-evaluating, purpose driven aspect that needs to be satisfied because groups with a higher percentage of these kinds of minds were more stable and more effective. Guilt arises from many activities and needs to be atoned for. Self-discipline provides many advantages for an individual's survival and success. Most people, and all societies, need the structure of rules, community and divine discipline to maintain self-control. Hunters needed to kill animals, yet they obviously felt ambivalent about it because almost all human societies have rules either about offering some of the kill to the spirit of the animal killed, or a taboo on killing or eating certain animals. There are much fewer rules relating to eating plants. Spilling blood intentionally is fraught with spiritual ambivalence and tension that needs to be dealt with. 

Sex is also never simply a natural act for HS. The mind is always involved. It is not just chance that the first thing HS becomes self-aware of in the Garden of Eden is the shame of being naked. (Qur'an 7:22 and 20:121) HS is the only living species that thinks it must clothe itself. Evidence of textiles from more than 20,000 years ago has been found in the cold climates of ice age Europe. However, the origins of clothing in Africa are the not the result of ice age climate but the result of concepts of modesty. Self-aware intelligent minds became moral minds, which became modest minds. Recent DNA studies of body lice that must lay their eggs in clothing, show that these lice evolved from pubic lice that adapted to clothing that covered the pubic area. This genetic adaptation took place 42-72,000 years ago. Thus, HS have been clothing themselves for at least 42-72,000 years. Long before rules about property became important, rules of probity were important.

The age when sexual modesty became evident is important. The Bible states that the first thing humans became aware of after internalizing the knowledge of good and evil was their nakedness. If this occurred 50-60,000 years ago it fits right in with increasing evidence of more rapid spiritual and technological development. The tool kit of Homo Erectus, a species prior to HS, changed very slowly over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. Early HS tools changed more quickly over the course of tens of thousands of years. But about 50-70,000 years ago the pace of change increased substantially for HS both technologically and spiritually. Many paleoanthropologists think that a major improvement in linguistic ability occurred about that time. Physically the HS body has not changed much in the last 100,000 years. The HS body 20,000 years before this transition period (60-70,000 years ago) is not different from the HS body 20,000 years later. But a major change did occur in artistic and other cultural activities. Perhaps the imaginative faculties of HS grew substantially thus causing inspiration and creativity to become more frequent and more rapidly spread. That something very important happened about 60-70.000 years ago is clear even if we do not yet have evidence of exactly what happened. 

I have not devoted much attention to the development of concepts of God in this essay. While beliefs about God are of great concern to revealed religions most other religions focus much more attention on magic, myth, dietary self-discipline, public and private life cycle rituals, inducing mystical experiences, standards of social and personal behavior, healing sickness and sin, and community ceremonies and celebrations. Formal creeds and religious beliefs are a small and recent development within the much larger domain of trust and group loyalty that has been evolving among pre HS species for hundreds of millennia. Recent brain studies have shown how organic trust and sharing are to human minds. Activities that build group loyalty and interpersonal trust enhance individual survival and promote individual spirituality much more than cognitive beliefs and ideologies. But urbanization, writing and mass communications may be changing this. Written revelation introduced a tremendous force expanding the power of religion both in space and time. The impact of religions with written revelations on historic human culture is comparable to the impact of modern science and invention on 20th century life styles. Both revealed religions and experimental science together will make the 21st century a turning point in human destiny.

What role does God (the One God of the revealed religions) play in all this? According to Genesis 4:26 humans only began to call upon the name of the Lord in the days of Enosh (Enosh is another name for Adam). That could mean that prior to Enosh prehistoric religions evolved naturally. Only with the rise of scriptural revelations did the One God penetrate human consciousness. Or it could mean that human consciousness had finally risen to the level of being able to receive Divine communication from the One God. It took over 3,000 years for monotheism to spread world-wide even with scriptural revelations so it is not surprising that it took over a 100,000 years to get to humans ready to receive revelations. 

Spirituality among Homo Sapiens has been evolving for at least 100-150,000 years. It is as deeply, if not more deeply rooted, in the HS brain as art or music. Recent studies, especially those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person's general religiousness. The idea that reason, socialism or modern science would replace religion has turned out to be a wish fulfillment fantasy of people who bear a grudge against religion. Usually their children or grandchildren return to religion. Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous and continue to evolve as the creative intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens encounter changes in their environment. This will most likely continue as long as HS have creative intelligent minds. Or as Albert Einstein put it: "What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in asking it? I answer, people who regard their own life and that of their fellow creatures as meaningless are not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life."

FOR FURTHER READING

Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society
David Sloan Wilson University of Chicago Press 2002

The God Part of the Brain
Matthew Alper Sourcebooks Naperville Ill. 2006

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought 
Pascal Boyer Basic Books 2001

The Origin and Evolution of Cultures
Robert Boyed and Peter Richerson Oxford University Press 2005

The Spiritual Brain 
Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary Harper One N. Y. 2007

Why God Wont Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
Newberg, D'Aquili and Rause Ballantine Books N.Y. 2001

Wondrous Healing: Shamanism, Human Evolution and the Origin of Religion 
J. McClennon Northern Illinois University Press 2002 

*****

Rabbi Allen S. Maller retired after serving for 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is rabbimaller.com.

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