For some time I’ve been interested in religion as a natural phenomenon, how it might have developed in early human cultures, what evolutionary processes might be involved, and so on. I wrote a review here of Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett, which I read as my first serious foray into the subject. Since I was somewhat disappointed with that, I tried Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, which suited me better.
I found Inside the Neolithic Mind (INM) not just fascinating, but actually so inspiring that I had to break off to write about it. I had an extraordinary feeling of wonder contemplating evolution, humanity and the dawn of religious thought. This blog post developed from those notes. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s a long post. (I’m an obsessive editor and it’s not even finished now, as I’d like to add more images and links, but the text is pretty well there, and if I don’t click Publish today, I may never finish it!)
Shortly after reading the book, my partner and I took our autumn break in North Wales at my suggestion, so that I could visit some of the Neolithic sites on Anglesea discussed by Lewis-Williams and Pearce, which brought the descriptions alive for me and provided some holiday snaps to post here.
This is not intended as a comprehensive book review, as I no longer have the library book to refer to. There are a great many interesting insights in INM that I haven’t shared, I will relate some other relevant scientific facts here, and I will explore my own conjectures about the development of religion (by which I do not mean to imply that they are original, just that no-one else should be blamed for them!). In addition, I hope I can express something of the awe that a sceptical atheist can feel in the process of understanding naturalistic explanations of things. This is, I believe, one of the fears people have when they dare to doubt their faith – that the atheistic world view seems unemotional and without wonder. It isn’t. Ooh! doesn’t depend on woo.
The main question I had, then, was:
What can we learn from science about the emergence of religion as a natural phenomenon?
INM deals with evidence from archaeology and neurology. In order to understand how humanity developed mystical world views, there can hardly be a better method than to dig into the earth for physical evidence of the thoughts people had thousands of years ago, analyse their likely religious and other meanings, and consider correlations between these and mental experiences (especially ones often considered “mystical”) in the lab, which the thinker can report as they happen.
Archaeology spans the whole spectrum between hard scientific fact and pure conjecture (or as I like to call it, “archaeo-guesswork”). I think the authors stretch a few points here and there, but their work demonstrates a good balance of evidence and interpretation, the latter is on the whole well-reasoned, and they are careful to indicate where their opinions lie on the continuum between fact and fancy.
The Neolithic or New Stone Age is the time when humans were developing agriculture and beginning to construct stone buildings and monuments, very often associated with burials. The process happened at different times in different places, but spanned from about 10,000 to 4,000 years ago. Religion almost certainly pre-dates this, but the Neolithic is richer in artifacts and mythic vocabulary, and so is accessible to richer analysis.
The iconic image from this period, although a somewhat unusual example of the type, is Stonehenge. Simpler stone circles and earth enclosures such as passage tombs and barrows are more common.
Some of the awe I felt on reading the book was predicated by the immense bounty of scientific facts and theories humanity has acquired, which would take inumerable lifetimes for one person to learn. My awareness of this is magnified when I think how swiftly our species developed culture and technology: our ancestors used stone tools for about 2.6 million years, yet the interval between the end of the Stone Age, when we began smelting metals to the advent of space travel is barely five thousand. The view behind us includes almost unimaginable depths of history and prehistory, full of unrecoverable detail, and here we stand between those dark strata of the past and the unknowable future. I find that the more I understand the past, the more I am stunned by its complex beauty, as though I were taking time to soak in details of a superb vista. It reminds me of doing just that as a boy from the top of a mountain pass in Norway, and it has some of the same qualities. The awe came from the (relatively) enormous distance between me and the mountains, the sheer scale of rocks and trees and snow fields to be seen at once, and a curiously heightened sense of the physical presence of each minute detail, twig, pebble, ice crystal, formed by unknown quotients of inevitability and happenstance. Vertigo may have played a part too.
This study also gives me a feeling of continuity and belonging. Archaeology gives us a taste of the intimacy with our ancestors that was probably more common before the invention of writing. I imagine that people in ancient cultures would recite the names of their ancestors for many generations back, as well as telling mythic tales of their journeys and battles.
In place of that kind of intimacy, science gives us deeper knowledge of the general processes and a range of very specific facts that would be unimaginable to the ancients. Chemical analysis of a tooth, for instance, can reveal with amazing geographical precision where a person grew up thousands of years ago.
The feelings of wonder might explain the bus-loads of visitors to Stonehenge and other megalithic sites. We like to touch the stones. We feel as though we could somehow reach back through time and touch the builders, and some of their intention was probably similar, to honour the dead. Our feeling is perhaps not too far from a kind of ancestor worship: we acknowledge and honour our ancestors, at least.
But many people imagine deeper connections than the scientific evidence would attest: that they can feel “energies”, hear echoes or see visions.
The Meaning of Our Ancient Myths
INM attempts to reach back through thousands of years of prehistory and work out the probable purposes and meaning of Neolithic architecture, but it begins with an overview of what we know about perception, particularly the phenomena of hallucinatory experiences.
It describes how religion could have developed naturally from the neurology of the human brain, which, under the influence of certain stimuli, generates altered states of consciousness, throwing up convincing hallucinations of shapes, colours, lights, passage through tunnels, out-of-body experiences, the feeling of flying and traveling to otherworldly places. The effects are hard-wired in the human brain irrespective of culture, and are likely to have been present in Neolithic peoples, who shared with us behavioural modernity.
A particular set of these hallucinations, and also “entoptic phenomena” (visual effects origninating in the eye itself under certain light conditions) are described and drawn by subjects in modern experiments, and they are also well represented in ancient rock art. They include spirals, concentric circles or half-circles, chevrons (zig-zags) or wavy lines, grids of criss-crossing lines, lozenge shapes, patterns of dots and intersecting or radiating lines.
Although other explanations could be forwarded, a very reasonable one is that early humans interpreted hallucinatory and entoptic experiences as revelations of a supernatural realm, and engraved those deeply affective images into their sacred stones.
The above, for instance, is one of the stones in the cruciform passage grave at Barclodiad y Gawres, Anglesea, showing lozenges and zig-zags and a fainter and probably earlier spiral, top right. (Produced with kind permission of Maggie and Keith Davison, from their excellent web site, www.megalithics.com). Lozenges are often associated with spirals because the interstices between the circular shapes naturally form lozenges. A particularly spectacular example can be found at Newgrange in Ireland.
The authors of INM trace the signs of the hallucinatory myth-making process back into the Upper Paleolithic, when people decorated rock faces, especially cave walls, with images of beasts, hand prints and graphic symbols. They make a good case for the impact that natural caves would have on early peoples, satisfying some of the conditions known to stimulate altered states, and suggesting symbolic connections with important concerns like birth and death. A cave is a womb-like enclosure in the Earth, and the ground is the place where bones return, even without deliberate burial.
Lewis-Williams and Pearce contend that the Aurochs and other animals that adorn caves are not merely painted on to a suitable surface, but appear to emerge from the natural protrusions and inclusions of the rock, and they suggest that early humans imagined a spirit world underground, perhaps just on the other side of the rock, as though the cave wall were a semi-permeable membrane and a conduit to the spirit realm.
Caves provide opportunity for some of the kinds of stimuli that are known to lead to altered states of consciousness, particularly sensory deprivation, but also perhaps pain, hunger, thirst and fear. Others include rhythm (drumming, chanting and dancing) and, of course, hallucinogenic drugs.
It is not hard to draw comparisons between ancient and modern religions: the list applies, with regional variations, to shamanic or pious practices the world over, from Medieval monk to New-Age spiritual retreat-goer, from coca-chewing Kogi Indian to “loved up” city clubber. Some will emphasise chanting or dancing, others ingesting psychotropics, fasting or self-harm, and all report altered states, often with sincere reverence for their religious significance.
Hallucinatory experience involves pareidolia, the involuntary interpretation of random data as having pattern and meaning – seeing faces and other forms in clouds or hearing voices in the wind. INM describes the abstraction process by which shapes and colours and movements merge, much as they do in dreams, into the persuasive impression of an otherworldly-yet-comprehensible object, such as a walking tree or a man with the head of a bull. In the impressionable trance state, the sensation of dark peripheral vision with a lighter central region, occurring simultaneously with dizziness or light-headedness, for instance, can be sythesized automatically in the brain into the perception of traveling through a dark tunnel towards a bright light.
People Waking Up
Considering the hallucinatory experiences, superstitious habit and cognitive biases of the brain, combined with early humans’ concerns of birth and death, finding food and water, power struggles and so on, it is easy to see the invention of myths as not only a convenient explanatory method, but perhaps even a logically unavoidable one. As humans evolved greater intelligence and refined their languages, they would have faced these questions not just as practical problems, but as ontological ones; not just how questions, but why questions.
Their own behaviours would have gradually come under scrutiny, transforming them from instinctual acts to culturally significant activities. We cannot expect anything other than a mythic (wildly incorrect and largely arbitrary) answer to any question arising in the human mind about the natural world, including the nature of the sky, heavenly bodies, the ground, rivers, oceans, fire, lightning, plants and animals. Not least, they would begin to apply the same arbitrary guesswork to what they themselves were.
The emergence of awareness in the human lineage, the gradual awakening of brains to recognise their existence, is echoed in the development of every modern child. Children naturally develop mythic views of their lives. They invent invisible friends and cherish what Donald Winnicott coined “transitional objects” (a favourite toy or “comfort blanket” that helps them cope with periods away from their primary caregiver as they develop increasing independence). These correspond rather closely to societies’ supernatural beings and sacred objects. Sacred objects ameliorate the loss not of an actual parent, but an imagined supernatural one (or, perhaps originally, actual departed parents and grandparents, since “ancestor-worship” appears to be common in primitive societies).
But why did apes develop intelligence at all? Some might suggest that this demonstrates a beneficent power behind evolution. Isn’t this evolution going upwards, towards better things?
Well, yes and no. We understand that evolution is mechanistic and unconcerned about improvement, mutations are random, and most render the organism less adapted to the environment. But we also understand evolution as a kind of arms race, which naturally causes “improvements” and drives complexity. Any mutation that can give an organism a selective advantage has the potential to be passed on, and the resulting feature can be further refined by more random mutation.
Since responding advantageously to environmental conditions is crucial to evolutionary fitness, the history of life involves organisms developing increasingly refined abilities to apprehend and react to their environment through the sensorimotor system. Further advantages arise from gathering sets of sensory inputs over time, combining them and delaying some responses, since this will reflect a deeper, more information-rich model of the environmental conditions. This drives the evolution of biological systems that can chemically store and process inputs at more and more abstract levels, culminating in self-awareness and abstract thought.
Complexity in nature also drives more complexity. Since there is more information in the biological environment at each stage, organisms can use this as sensory input and behave according to it, including other organisms’ behaviour. This helps explain why our human capacities appear so miraculous – we emerged at the leading edge of an exponential explosion of natural information processing. I chose “leading edge” to correct my first choice, “top”, to avoid the common mistake of thinking the whole of evolution was to perfect the human species. For one thing, everything living is as exquisitely fit for its environmental niche as we are, and value judgements about our mental superiority are therefore unwarranted (in strict evolutionary terms); for another, the wave is unstoppable, and even if we consider this refinement of information processing the most important of all evolutionary products, it seems highly unlikely that our later progeny will not outdo us in intelligence, not to mention our digital creations or our progeny digitally enhanced.
It is hard to express the profound awe that comes from seeing even a glimpse of this process, which has resulted in matter not only evolving to recognise its existence, but to understand, in principle, mathematically and predictively its own evolution. Making flint tools (as one important step along the way) appears to have led to so much learning that we now make tools that learn and think and autonomously explore distant planets for us. Darwin, one of the first people to understand evolution, said “there is grandeur in this view”, but it is tempting now, after the information revolution, to say colloquially that he “simply had no idea!”.
It is so mindboggling, I understand people concluding that this could not have happened without a deity to design the laws of physics so that evolution would eventually produce someone to appreciate them. It seems essentially arguing from incredulity to me, since so much of the process itself is demonstrably undirected whilst appearing miraculous. The more one sees the cogs in the machine, the harder one has to squint to pretend there’s a ghost in there. We do not think moving pictures have some essence of life in them just because we routinely forget the actors are made of flickering pixels. Also, it would seem a very cruel god who could deliberately design such a suffering-intensive and wasteful world, merely to end up with someone appreciating the long haul.
Nevertheless, I am sometimes so overwhelmed by the power of this evolutionary principle that there seems little separating my view from deism. Deism says there is some underlying Miracle (God) who creates the ordinary stuff we see around us; science leads to a view that ordinary stuff is so creative that it might almost be considered inherently, if mechanically, “miraculous”. Theism, on the other hand – belief in a personally responsive god who cares about particular entities and their arbitrary hopes or immortal souls – seems not to require much refutation at all…but here is a little more anyway.
We, like Nature, learn by trial and error. Underlying our invention of mythic explanations for the world is a range of cognitive errors that we are naturally primed to make. For example, we understand now that confirmation bias leads to superstition, eroneous beliefs about the causes of events. If a person even tentatively considers there might be a causal relationship between one thing and another, they are very prone thereafter to notice any apparent confirmation and filter from awareness any disparity, leading to completely wrong conclusions.
In the absence of a feasible explanation for a phenomenon, we habitually make one up. We are very uncomfortable with not having some kind of answer, however wrong it may seem in the light of experience. This is how people form the belief that their friends phone more often when they’re thinking about them, or they begin to imagine ghostly presences when placed in the cellar of what they are told is a haunted building.
The propensity to invent reasons for things is not a cultural sophistication, however, but a much earlier evolutionary imperitive. In 1948, B. F. Skinner showed that pigeons could be induced to demonstrate behaviour remarkably like superstition, operating at a very simple level of conditioning.
Animals can be conditioned to respond to a particular stimulus (like Pavlov’s dogs responding to a bell, salivating when they heard it, since previously it was used to signal feeding time). Skinner discovered what happens if the artificial stimulus is removed and the reward of food delivered (in this case to pigeons) at random intervals. What happens is that the animal’s incidental behavour at the time it is fed becomes reinforced and repeated, although it bears no causal relation to the reward. In other words, at some level, the bird “decides” that turning round to the left, or pecking, or nodding its head, or whatever it happened to be doing at the time, caused the food to arrive! The bird’s behaviour (normally the response) becomes, as it were, its own stimulus, sometimes leading to more and more elaborate and repetitious “rituals”. One could say that a pseudo-mythic proposition has been induced in the bird’s brain that the behaviour caused the environmental response.
Furthermore, with a bit of a stretch of the imagination, one could say even that the environment (or part of it, the food chute) is transformed in this process into a sort of agent in the bird’s mind, a doer, an intelligence, whose behaviour responds to its own. A subservient, ingratiating or manipulative stance to the environment therefore seems to pre-date even human consciousness and god concepts.
There is a clear parallel between this and the ritual behaviours of religion, which are likely to have begun in relation to the issues most vital to survival, the success of a hunt or the arrival of rain, for instance. Alternatively, perhaps a highly hallucinogenic set of practices, as mentioned above (rather than random behaviour) would be a strong contender to become the imagined “stimulus” (behaviour), the key to influencing He or She Who Responds. If dancing for extended periods can induce hallucinations, it can easily become the superstitious “cause” of rain, through the intercession of gods seen in visions during the dance.
Superstitions about causal relationships between behaviour and the enviroment might be expected to be strengthened during the Neolithic, when people began to plot the motion of heavenly bodies to help judge the seasons and the best time to sow crops. These vital measurements might in time begin to be thought of as causing the coming of spring rather than witnessing it. The belief that one’s priesthood is keeping the heavens turning, rain falling and all manner of other necessities of the agricultural tribe seems to be very common.
Insights into the roots of religion, along with comparative analysis of contemporary religions, ought, I think, to make it harder for anyone to accept a particular religion as having valid claims about reality. It appears very likely that Neolithic peoples believed in half-men-half-gods thousands of years before Jesus was supposed to have incorporated. It is very likely that shamans channeled the word of god on countless occasions to an expectant audience, making promises of future gardens to enjoy, long before Mohammed took dictation, indeed, long before the advent of writing.
Through science, humanity has discovered that we are very very probably nothing like what we thought we were, play-things of the gods, maintainers of the universe through ritual, or incarnated souls, but incidental and impermanent biological forms, part of a complex process of organic chemistry and mechanics. There is now an enormous weight of evidence for this, which indicates our relative unextraordinariness in the natural world. We know, of course, that we are also relatively extraordinary too, which is probably one of the main reasons people believe religious myths.
But what are we to make of the feeling of awe itself? Does this ubiquitous human longing and depth of emotion show that there is something special about us, some spirit or spark?
Well, like much else that is vitally important to us, it could also simply be an evolutionary “trick”, a physiological response developed through mutation that happened to strengthen the procreative chances of individuals in human groups. Religion was probably a powerful medium through which to consolidate in-group altruism (which we call morality) and out-group aggression, through selfless sacrifice in war and the violence of war itself (which, interestingly, we also widely consider moral).
It is also worth taking a moment to note that remembering our distant ancestors does not just elicit pleasant feelings of belonging, but is a reminder of our mortality. The most impressive fact that humans woke to thousands of years ago was presumably the inevitable death of them and all their kin, and the resulting fear, confusion and dismay could be a strong incentive for inventing beliefs about an invisible survivor, the spirit, the real, “inner” person, who might merge with the spirit animals behind the cave wall or rise toward the stars. Consciousness is odd in that when it isn’t active, we have no knowledge of its absence, so we may come to believe it never ends – people still make this argument today.
Unfortunately, the world is still asleep, at the mercy of untested imaginings. As my partner and I were looking around the site of Bryn Celli Ddu, a woman emerged from the interior. She was doing some research for an American writer’s next book on ancient archaeology (having “done” the Pyramids). We asked her what kind of research it was. The author availed himself of her sensitivity to certain vibrations, she explained, and she was waiting for 1 p.m., when she would spend time inside the tomb tuning in to energies, to see if she felt anything in particular. I’m not sure if it was a special date cosmically, 8th September 2013, but presumably cosmic midday was important (we were on British Summer Time).
And while she waited, she dangled her crystal pendulum over the ground and silently “asked questions” (presumably of the cosmic energies). We could see her making little movements to induce a swing, which no doubt she would have innocently denied had it been pointed out. “You have to be very specific with your questions”, she said, knowingly, but then she did voice one, which went something like “Does the embankment over yonder have anything to do with this site?” – swing – yes it does. She thought so already, but I suppose it’s good to have the universe confirm a hypothesis.
And sometimes, rather than feeling regret that the majority of us are still lost in imaginitive tales about reality, I can feel a kind of awe even at this. It is astounding that we have come so far. I have a certain amount of affection for our quirks. They are who we have been forever. But it is dangerous, too, and I do get impatient. While it makes little sense to be impatient with a child’s development, there is real urgency about waking up to reality if we want to survive as a species, precisely because we do not have what the child has, a benevolent parent looking on, making everything work out right.
1. I realise now, reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, that the above forms only a tiny part of the subject of how and why religious thought may have developed. I haven’t mentioned genes, memes or ethics, for instance. Nevertheless, the article is not at all at odds with his much more complete discussion.
2. Dawkins reminds me that the idea of imputing agency to an object is described by Dan Dennett as the ‘intentional stance’ (and there are also the ‘design’ and ‘physical’ stances). I imagine, however, that I may be the first to consider whether a pigeon holds this stance towards a mechanical food dispenser. I would like to understand more about the cybernetic, informational understanding of consciousness, which I touched on above, which is perhaps the most difficult area of monist explanation. Just as we have been religious ‘forever’, we have never had language capable of expressing such concepts as the apparent-design of the products of natural selection, the apparent-thought of a bird or the apparent-intention of a human, who may, at least often, merely be rationalizing his automatic reactions to the environment.