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Neolithic "Potnia Theron" type goddess, seated on a throne flanked by two lionesses, from Çatalhöyük.

The evolutionary origin of religions refers to the emergence of religious behavior during the course of human evolution. When humans first became religious remains unknown, but there is credible evidence of religious behavior from the Middle Paleolithic era (300-50 thousand years ago) and possibly earlier.


Primate behavior

Humanity’s closest living relatives are common chimpanzees and bonobos. These primates share a common ancestor with humans who lived between four and six million years ago. It is for this reason that chimpanzees and bonobos are viewed as the best available surrogate for this common ancestor. Barbara King argues that while non-human primates are not religious, they do exhibit some traits that would have been necessary for the evolution of religion. These traits include high intelligence, a capacity for symbolic communication, a sense of social norms, realization of "self" and a concept of continuity.[1][2][3]

Setting the stage for human religion


Increased brain size

The religious mind is one consequence of a brain that is large enough to formulate religious and philosophical ideas.[4] During human evolution, the hominid brain tripled in size, peaking 500,000 years ago. Much of the brain's expansion took place in the neocortex. This part of the brain is involved in processing higher order cognitive functions that are necessary for human religiosity. The neocortex is responsible for self consciousness, language and emotion. According to Dunbar's theory, the relative neocortex size of any species correlates with the level of social complexity of the particular species. The neocortex size correlates with a number of social variables that include social group size and complexity of mating behaviors. In chimpanzees the neocortex occupies 50% of the brain, whereas in modern humans it occupies 80% of the brain.

Robin Dunbar argues that the critical event in the evolution of the neocortex took place at the speciation of archaic homo sapiens about 500 thousand years ago. His study indicates that only after the speciation event is the neocortex sufficiently large enough to process complex social phenomena such as language and religion. The study is based on a regression analysis of neocortex size plotted against a number of social behaviors of living and extinct hominids.[5]

Tool use

Lewis Wolpert argues that causal beliefs that emerged from tool use played a major role in the evolution of belief. The manufacture of complex tools requires creating a mental image of an object that does not exist naturally before actually making the artefact. Furthermore, one must understand how the tool would be used, which requires an understanding of causality.[6] Accordingly, the level of sophistication of stone tools is a useful indicator of causal beliefs.[7] Wolpert contends use of tools composed of more than one component, such as hand axes, represents an ability to understand cause and effect.

Development of language

Religion requires a system of symbolic communication, such as language, to be transmitted from one individual to another. Philip Lieberman states "human religious thought and moral sense clearly rest on a cognitive-linguistic base".[8] From this premise science writer Nicholas Wade states:

"Like most behaviors that are found in societies throughout the world, religion must have been present in the ancestral human population before the dispersal from Africa 50,000 years ago. Although religious rituals usually involve dance and music, they are also very verbal, since the sacred truths have to be stated. If so, religion, at least in its modern form, cannot pre-date the emergence of language. It has been argued earlier that language attained its modern state shortly before the exodus from Africa. If religion had to await the evolution of modern, articulate language, then it too would have emerged shortly before 50,000 years ago."[9]

Morality and group living

Dr. Frans de Waal and Barbara King both view human morality as having grown out of primate sociality. Though morality may be a unique human trait, many social animals, such as primates, dolphins and whales, have been known to exhibit pre-moral sentiments. According to Michael Shermer, the following characteristics are shared by humans and other social animals, particularly the great apes:

"attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group".[10]

De Waal contends that all social animals have had to restrain or alter their behavior for group living to be worthwhile. Pre-moral sentiments evolved in primate societies as a method of restraining individual selfishness and building more cooperative groups. For any social species, the benefits of being part of an altruistic group should outweigh the benefits of individualism. For example, lack of group cohesion could make individuals more vulnerable to attack from outsiders. Being part of group may also improve the chances of finding food. This is evident among animals that hunt in packs to take down large or dangerous prey.

All social animals have hierarchical societies in which each member knows its own place. Social order is maintained by certain rules of expected behavior and dominant group members enforce order through punishment. However, higher order primates also have a sense of reciprocity and fairness. Chimpanzees remember who did them favors and who did them wrong. For example, chimpanzees are more likely to share food with individuals who have previously groomed them.[11]

Chimpanzees live in fission-fusion groups that average 50 individuals. It is likely that early ancestors of humans lived in groups of similar size. Based on the size of extant hunter-gatherer societies, recent Paleolithic hominids lived in bands of a few hundred individuals. As community size increased over the course of human evolution, greater enforcement to achieve group cohesion would have been required. Morality may have evolved in these bands of 100 to 200 people as a means of social control, conflict resolution and group solidarity. According to Dr. de Waal, human morality has two extra levels of sophistication that are not found in primate societies. Humans enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. People also apply a degree of judgment and reason, not seen in the animal kingdom.

Psychologist Matt J. Rossano argues that religion emerged after morality and built upon morality by expanding the social scrutiny of individual behavior to include supernatural agents. By including ever-watchful ancestors, spirits and gods in the social realm, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups.[12] The adaptive value of religion would have enhanced group survival.[13] [14]

Evolutionary psychology of religion

There is general agreement among cognitive scientists that religion is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved early in human history. However, there is disagreement on the exact mechanisms that drove the evolution of the religious mind. The two main schools of thought hold that either religion evolved due to natural selection and has selective advantage, or that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other mental adaptations[15]. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, believed that religion was an exaptation or a spandrel, in other words that religion evolved as byproduct of psychological mechanisms that evolved for other reasons.[16][17][18]

Such mechanisms may include the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm (agent detection), the ability to come up with causal narratives for natural events (etiology), and the ability to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions (theory of mind). These three adaptations (among others) allow human beings to imagine purposeful agents behind many observations that could not readily be explained otherwise, e.g. thunder, lightning, movement of planets, complexity of life, etc.[19]

Some scholars have suggested that religion is genetically "hardwired" into the human condition. One controversial hypothesis, the God gene hypothesis, states that some human beings bear a gene which gives them a predisposition to interpret episodes as religious revelation. One gene claimed to be of this nature is VMAT2.

Prehistoric evidence of religion

Paleolithic burials

90,000 year old double burial of Homo sapiens at Qafzeh cave in Israel

The earliest evidence of religious thought is based on the ritual treatment of the dead. Most animals display only a casual interest in the dead of their own species.[20] Ritual burial thus represents a significant advancement in human behavior. Ritual burial represent an awareness of life and death and a possible belief in the afterlife. Philip Lieberman states "burials with grave goods clearly signify religious practices and concern for the dead that transcends daily life."[8]

The earliest evidence for treatment of the dead comes from Atapuerca in Spain. At this location the bones of 30 individuals believed to be Homo heidelbergensis have been found in a pit.[21] Neanderthals are also contenders for the first hominids to intentionally bury the dead. They may have placed corpses into shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones. The presence of these grave goods may indicate an emotional connection with the deceased and possibly a belief in the afterlife. Neanderthal burial sites include Shanidar in Iraq and Krapina in Croatia and Kebara Cave in Israel.[22][23][24][23]

The earliest known burial of modern humans is from a cave in Israel located at Qafzeh. Human remains have been dated to 100,000 years ago. Human skeletons were found stained with red ochre. A variety of grave goods were found at the burial site. The mandible of a wild boar was found placed in the arms of one of the skeletons.[25] Philip Lieberman states:

"Burial rituals incorporating grave goods may have been invented by the anatomically modern hominids who emigrated from Africa to the Middle East 100,000 years ago".[25]

Matt Rossano suggests that the period in between 80,000 -60,000 years after humans retreated from the Levant to Africa was a crucial period in the evolution of religion.[26]

The use of symbolism

The use of symbolism in religion is a universal established phenomenon. Archeologist Steven Mithen contends that it is common for religious practices to involve the creation of images and symbols to represent supernatural beings and ideas. Because supernatural beings violate the principles of the natural world, there will always be difficulty in communicating and sharing supernatural concepts with others. This problem can be overcome by anchoring these supernatural beings in material form through representational art. When translated into material form, supernatural concepts become easier to communicate and understand.[27] Due to the association of art and religion, evidence of symbolism in the fossil record is indicative of a mind capable of religious thoughts. Art and symbolism demonstrates a capacity for abstract thought and imagination necessary to construct religious ideas. Wentzel van Huyssteen states that the translation of the non-visible through symbolism enabled early human ancestors to hold beliefs in abstract terms.[28]

Some of the earliest evidence of symbolic behavior is associated with Middle Stone Age sites in Africa. From at least 100,000 years ago, there is evidence of the use of pigments such as red ochre. Pigments are of little practical use to hunter gatherers, thus evidence of their use is interpreted as symbolic or for ritual purposes. Among extant hunter gatherer populations around the world, red ochre is still used extensively for ritual purposes. It has been argued that it is universal among human cultures for the color red to represent blood, sex, life and death.[29]

The use of red ochre as a proxy for symbolism is often criticized as being too indirect. Some scientists, such as Richard Klein and Steven Mithen, only recognize unambiguous forms of art as representative of abstract ideas. Upper paleolithic cave art provides some of the most unambiguous evidence of religious thought from the paleolithic. Cave paintings at Chauvet depict creatures that are half human and half animal, an example of anthropomorphism commonly associated among shamanistic practices.

Origins of organized religion

Social evolution of humans [30][10]
Period years ago Society type Number of individuals
100,000-10,000 Bands 10s-100s
10,000-5000 Tribes 100s-1,000s
5,000-3,000 Chiefdoms 1,000s-10,000s
3,000-1,000 States 10,000s-100,000s
1,000-Present Empires 100,000-1,000,000s

Organized religion traces its roots to the neolithic revolution that began 11,000 years ago in the Near East but may have occurred independently in several other locations around the world. The invention of agriculture transformed human societies from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary lifestyle. The consequences of the neolithic revolution included a population explosion and an acceleration in the pace of technological development. The transition from foraging bands to states and empires precipitated more specialized and developed forms of religion that reflected the new social and political environment. While bands and small tribes possess supernatural beliefs, these beliefs do not serve to justify a central authority, justify transfer of wealth or maintain peace between unrelated individuals. Organized religion emerged as a means of providing social and economic stability through the following ways:

  • Justifying the central authority, which in turn possessed the right to collect taxes in return for providing social and security services to the state.
  • Bands and tribes consist of small number of related individuals. However states and nations are composed of thousands of unrelated individuals. Jared Diamond argues that organized religion served to provide a bond between unrelated individuals who would otherwise be more prone to enmity. He argues that the leading cause of death among hunter gatherer societies is murder. [30]
  • Religions that revolved around moralizing gods may have facilitated the rise of large, cooperative groups of unrelated individuals.[31]

The states born out of the Neolithic revolution, such as those of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, were theocracies with chiefs, kings and emperors playing dual roles of political and spiritual leaders.[10]Anthropologists have found that virtually all state societies and chiefdoms from around the world have been found to justify political power through divine authority.

Invention of writing

Following the neolithic revolution, the pace of technological development intensified culminating in the invention of writing 3500 years ago. Writing is thought to have been first invented in either Sumeria or Ancient Egypt and was initially used for accounting. Soon after, writing was used to record myth.The first religious texts mark the beginning of religious history. The Pyramid Texts from ancient Egypt are one of the oldest known religious texts in the world dating to between 2400-2300 BCE.[32][33] [34] Writing played a major role in sustaining organized religion. In pre-literate societies, religious ideas were based on an oral tradition, the contents of which remained limited to the collective memories of the society's inhabitants. With the advent of writing, information that was not easy to remember could easily be stored in sacred texts. Humans could store and process large amounts of information with writing that otherwise would have been forgotten. Writing therefore enabled religions to develop coherent and comprehensive doctrinal systems that remained independent of time and place.[35]

See also


  1. ^ Gods and Gorillas
  2. ^ King, Barbara (2007). Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. Doubleday Publishing." ISBN 0385521553.
  3. ^ Excerpted from Evolving God by Barbara J. King
  4. ^ Ehrlich, Paul (2000). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. pp. page 214. ISBN 155963779X. "Religious ideas can be traced to the evolution of brains large enough to make possible the kind of abstract thought necessary to formulate religious and philosophical ideas" 
  5. ^ Dunbar, Robin (2003) ( – Scholar search). THE SOCIAL BRAIN: Mind, Language, and Society in Evolutionary Perspective. 
  6. ^ Lewis Wolpert (2006). Six impossible things before breakfast, The evolutionary origins of belief. New York: Norton. ISBN 0393064492. "with regard to hafted tools, One would have to understand that the two pieces serve different purposes, and imagine how the tool could be used," 
  7. ^ Wolpert, Lewis (2006). Six impossible things before breakfast, The evolutionary origins of belief. New York: Norton. p. page 82. ISBN 0393064492. "Belief in cause and effect has had the most enormous effect on human evolution, both physical and cultural. Tool use, with language, has transformed human evolution and let to what we now think of as belief" 
  8. ^ a b Lieberman (1991). Uniquely Human. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674921836. 
  9. ^ *"Wade, Nicholas - Before The Dawn, Discovering the lost history of our ancestors. Penguin Books, London, 2006. p. 8 p. 165" ISBN 1594200793
  10. ^ a b c Shermer, Michael (2004). "Why are we moral:The evolutionary origins of morality". The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Times Books. ISBN 0805075208.,M1. 
  11. ^ Videos of chimpanzee food sharing
  12. ^ Rossano, Matt (2007). Supernaturalizing Social Life: Religion and the Evolution of Human Cooperation. 
  13. ^ Nicholas Wade. Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior. New York Times. March 20, 2007.
  14. ^ Matthew Rutherford. The Evolution of Morality. University of Glasgow. 2007. Retrieved June 6, 2008
  15. ^ Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS): A Beginner’s Guide
  16. ^ A scientific exploration of how we have come to believe in God
  17. ^ Toward an evolutionary psychology of religion and personality
  18. ^ The evolutionary psychology of religion Steven Pinker
  19. ^ Religion's Evolutionary Landscape Scott Atran Ara Norenzayan. 2004. PMID 16035401. 
  20. ^ Elephants may pay homage to the dead
  21. ^ Greenspan, Stanley (2006). How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Early Primates to Modern Human. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306814498.,M1. 
  22. ^ "The Neanderthal dead:exploring mortuary variability in Middle Palaeolithic Eurasia". 
  23. ^ a b Evolving in their graves: early burials hold clues to human origins - research of burial rituals of Neanderthals
  24. ^ "BBC article on the Neanderthals". "Neanderthals buried their dead, and one burial at Shanidar in Iraq was accompanied by grave goods in the form of plants. All of the plants are used in recent times for medicinal purposes, and it seems likely that the Neanderthals also used them in this way and buried them with their dead for the same reason. Grave goods are an archaeological marker of belief in an afterlife, so Neanderthals may well have had some form of religious belief." 
  25. ^ a b . Uniquely Human page 163
  26. ^ Rossano (2009). The African Interregnum: The “Where,” “When,” and “Why” of the Evolution of Religion. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-00128-4_9. 
  27. ^ Symbolism and the Supernatural
  28. ^ "Human Uniqueness and Symbolization". "This 'coding of the non-visible' through abstract, symbolic thought, enabled also our early human ancestors to argue and hold beliefs in abstract terms. In fact, the concept of God itself follows from the ability to abstract and conceive of 'person'" 
  29. ^ Rossano, Matt (2007). The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religion. 
  30. ^ a b Diamond, Jared (1997). "chapter 14, From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy, The evolution of government and religion". Guns Germs and Steel. New York, NY: Norton. pp. pages 277. ISBN 0393038912. 
  31. ^ Norenzayan, A., & Shariff, A. F. (2008). The origin and evolution of religious prosociality. Science, 322, 58-62
  32. ^ Budge, Wallis (1997). An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. pp. page 9. ISBN 0486295028. 
  33. ^ Allen, James (2007). The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press. ISBN 1589831829. 
  34. ^ The beginning of religion at the beginning of the Neolithic
  35. ^ Pyysiäinen, Ilkka (2004). "Holy Book:The Invention of writing and religious cognition". Magic, Miracles, and Religion: A Scientist's Perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: AltMira Press. ISBN 0759106630.,M1. 

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