Ethiopian Orthodox Christians pray on the last day of ‘Abiy Tsom’, fifty-five days of fasting ahead of Easter, at Medhane Alem Cathedral in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 7 April 2018. Photo by Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty
Whether via music, dance or prayer, the trance state was key to human evolution, forging society around the transcendent
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.
False agency hypotheses don’t do much better. These assume that our forebears were jumpy and superstitious: they thought that a shrub swayed because of a spirit not the wind; and they were easily fooled, though their mistakes were evolutionarily advantageous because, on occasion, the swaying was caused by a predator. The upshot was that those who believed in supernatural agency tended to live, while those who didn’t died, which meant that evolution selected for the false perception of an enchanted cosmos. Religious delusions became part of human experience.
This simple version of the hypothesis is readily refuted. Observations of indigenous peoples today reveal that they are astonishingly astute about what’s going on in their environments. They tend not to make mistakes, which is the real reason they survive. That said, false agency proposals come in more sophisticated forms as well. One has to do with the development of human cognition. It proposes that it was natural for early humans to believe in gods, in much the way it’s natural for a young child to treat its toys as animate agents. However, even sophisticated versions of the hypothesis appear to have been holed below the waterline. Miguel Farias, who runs the Brain, Belief and Behaviour lab at Coventry University in the UK, has tested whether an assumption of spiritual reality leads people to attribute false agency to the world around them. In one experiment, he examined whether practices such as going on pilgrimage make people more inclined to adopt supernatural beliefs. They don’t, and his team’s findings chime with other research that has probed the false agency hypothesis. ‘The idea has been tested and disconfirmed across various experiments,’ Farias told me.
So there is a need for a new idea, and coming to the fore now is an old one revisited, revised and rendered more testable. It reaches back a century to the French sociologist Émile Durkheim who observed that social activities create a kind of buzz that he called effervescence. Effervescence is generated when humans come together to make music or perform rituals, an experience that lingers when the ceremonies are over. The suggestion, therefore, is that collective experiences that are religious or religious-like unify groups and create the energy to sustain them.
The explanation is resurfacing in what can be called the trance theory of religious origins, which proposes that our palaeolithic ancestors hit on effervescence upon finding that they could induce altered states of consciousness. Research to test and develop this idea is underway in a multidisciplinary team led by Dunbar at the University of Oxford. The approach appeals to him, in part, because it seems to capture a crucial aspect of religious phenomena missing in suggestions about punishing gods or dangerous spirits. ‘It is not about the fine details of theology,’ Dunbar told me, ‘but is about the raw feelings of experience, and that this raw-feelings element has a transcendental mystical component – something that is only fully experienced in trance states.’ He notes that this sense of transcendence and other worlds is present at some level in almost all forms of religious experience. So how can the new hypothesis be fleshed out and evidenced?
Mark Vernonis a psychotherapist and writer, and works with the research group Perspectiva. He has a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy, and degrees in theology and physics. He is the author of A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness (2019) and Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey (forthcoming, September 2021). He lives in London.
Edited byMarina Benjamin