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“A change has come over the public discussion of religion in recent years. In the decade of the New Atheists, religion was the root of all evil. Nowadays, however, it tends to be thought of as a good, even necessary, part of society. In his recent book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (2019), the agnostic historian Tom Holland argues that Christianity underpins our civilisation; and the atheist philosopher John Gray has repeatedly stressed that atheism is not the natural default for rational people, but is often a type of religion too. Even Richard Dawkins has admitted there may be an upside to religion insofar as it stops people doing bad things. The calculation is that, while religion undoubtedly causes bloody conflict, it also prompts prosocial behaviour, and the benefits outweigh the downsides. In this, the thinking has moved in line with the scientific understanding of religion’s origins, drawing on work in the cognitive sciences that acknowledges religion and its precursors as a key feature of human evolution that enabled our ancestors to live successfully in ever larger groups.
But I’m wary of this argument. It makes me feel that its advocates are trying to have their secular cake and eat it. Aren’t they neutralising what lies at the heart of human religiosity – experiences of the supernatural, transcendence and gods? Aren’t they turning it into a noble lie? So I’ve been glad to discover that the scientific understanding of religion’s origins is itself changing. Different proposals are making the running. They not only seem better supported by the evidence, but treat the otherworldliness of religion as critical to its prosocial effects.
The hints that our ancestors lived in worlds shaped by meaningful symbols, as well as the need to survive, go back as far as archaeology can see. Much of the evidence is contested, of course. But the broad picture seems settled. The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar sums it up in his book Human Evolution (2014): ‘Anatomically modern humans mark an important transition in our story because with them comes culture in a way that had never happened before.’ And from that culture came religion, with various proposals to map the hows and whys of its emergence.
Until recently, the proposals fell into two broad groups – ‘big gods’ theories and ‘false agency’ hypotheses. Big gods theories envisage religion as conjuring up punishing deities. These disciplining gods provided social bonding by telling individuals that wrongdoing incurs massive costs. They put the fear of God into people and so motivated them to be good. However, big gods theories have been widely criticised. At the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, Joseph Watts has investigated the plausibility of big gods approaches in both prehistoric human societies and modern hunter-gatherer groups, and finds them wanting, as effective drivers of cultural development. He told me: ‘Most societies with big gods have had contact with one of the monotheistic faiths, and that’s an idea of God which developed many millennia after the emergence of large complex societies.’ In short, big gods are not a universal feature of religions and, if they are present, they seem correlated to big societies not causes of them.”
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