Humanity Waking Up: origins of religion

Petrified Tree

Standing stone inside Neolithic passage tomb, probably constructed from a petrified tree. Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesea, Wales.

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.

Capel Garmon

Burial chamber at Capel Garmon, Betws-y-Coed, Wales.

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.

Rock Art, Barclodiad y Gawres. Photo courtesy of

Rock Art, Barclodiad y Gawres. Photo courtesy of

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, 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.

Entrance of Newgrange prehistoric monument, Ireland, showing typical spiral and lozenge carvings. (Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons; Hofi0006 ‘Own photo’)

Mother Earth

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.

Aurochs, horses and deer, Lascaux Caves, Dordogne, France.

Aurochs, horses and deer, Lascaux Caves, Dordogne, France. Creative Commons Share Alike; Author: Prof saxx

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.

Rosary, worry beads

Photo credit:

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.

Pigeon Prayers

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.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURESuperstitions 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.

Burial Chamber at Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesea, Wales
Burial Chamber at Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesea, Wales

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.

About lettersquash

White, male, heterosexual, left-leaning, almost-vegetarian blogger, musician, ex-psychotherapist and ex-mystic, now philosophical naturalist (atheist) ... somewhere near his sixtieth year on the freaking planet, trying to counter some tiiny fraction of the magical thinking and lies of his culture.
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11 Responses to Humanity Waking Up: origins of religion

  1. Pingback: Bunch of random thoughts about ancient & modern religions | Spirituality is No Excuse

  2. Yakaru says:

    Really interesting post! I’ll get hold of that book…
    Much to comment on, and I wrote a post on my own blog of a few chaotic and tangential thoughts.

    Jacob Bronowski suggested that the Lascaux cave paintings could have been used to prepare hunters for a dangerous hunt. Pictures of course would have been rare, and no doubt very impressive, even terrifying if suddenly revealed by fire light in a cave. He thought maybe they could be used to prepare a young hunter not to get scared at the decisive moment in making a kill. Seems plausible to me, and would concur with other practices where hunters act out or dance a hunt in advance, as if in preparation.

  3. lettersquash says:

    I just noticed I’ve got a copy of Ascent of Man in the hall. I must have read a fair bit of it over the years, but I don’t think I’ve read it through. So many books, so little time. I was comforted when I looked up his passages on Lascaux to find that he says he can only offer his personal opinion before he gives that explanation. I was feeling rather guilty of my conjecture, but if it’s good enough for Bronowski, I feel a bit better.

    Of course, it’s a plausible explanation. There might be a lot of others, too, which is an irritating situation for a scientific mind, when it would be great to know how such artifacts were used and what they meant to people. I think it’s too soon to say things like “We’ll never know”, and I am encouraged by the amazing technological advances in archaeology and psychology. And not just the hard neurology, as I refer to above, but research in the social sciences that shows effects like our increased pareidolia when we feel we are lacking control. There’s a good overview of these “comfort theories” of religion here

    I’m doing my research after blabbing my mouth of – I wonder if I got anything right!

    Thanks for your comment, Yakaru.

  4. Donald Telfer says:

    Australian aborigines left paintings one rocks (definitely) and in caves (I think).

    I am not sure if aborigines carved stones decoratively (probably not) or fashioned them into tools (probably did).

    As far as I understand aboriginal cosmology, it had no concept (sic, misconception) of god and no concept of afterlife. I might be wrong. But I think that was the way things stood when Europeans first encountered aboriginal culture 240 years ago.

    So in Australia you can gain a different, nearly contemporary or historically fairly accurate, picture of the status of aborigines in their religious “evolution”, which bears comparison with Europe thousands of years ago, and which turns out to be different from Europe.

    I think it is fair to say in Europe ideas like god and afterlife were current thousands of years ago during the new stone age.

    The issue here is the question of religion and chronology. Depending on how you define religion, and how you define the new stone age, I think the case of aborigines demonstrates that there is no general hard and fast sequence, or – putting it another way – some generalisations from obersavations of archaeological evidence in Europe do not hold true everywhere else.

  5. Yakaru says:

    Yeh so many books and so little time.. And so much internet too — google is ruining the art of idle pontificating!

    I wonder if whoever did the Lascaux paintings did a bunch of others all over the place, just for enjoyment, or if they were seen as being special and to be hidden from sight. Whoever painted them seems to have really internalized something about the subject matter — they’re compellingly real somehow.

    So many different ways to make marks on walls! It seems such a part of human nature to do it. Just observe any 4 year old with a box of crayons just after their bedroom wall has been painted a nice shade of off-white.

  6. lettersquash says:

    @Donald, I don’t know much about Australian aboriginal culture, and I might look into that a bit more. The nature of evolution (genetic and cultural) is that we’d expect differences, but perhaps also general trends, which of course we do. Another phrase you used is: “Depending on how you define religion, and how you define the new stone age…”, and something I’ve thinking a lot about recently is how understanding these sorts of phenomena depends on having flexible definitions, because they are ’emergent phenomena’. Whether it is consciousness or religion or stone tool use or language use, there are such fluid gradations one can imagine (or witness), that sometimes people get blinded by their limited definitions, I think. I was reading a paper the other day by Dominic Johnson ( ), in which he says “Although we do not know exactly when religious beliefs arose in human history, we can deduce without doubt that, at some point in our lineage, nonbelief was the default state. This is because we know for sure that our ancestors, if we go back far enough, lacked the cognitive sophistication to be able to entertain concepts such as supernatural agency.”

    On the face of it, with intuitively sensible definitions of “religion”, “belief”, “supernatural” and “concept”, that seems plausible, but it is completely at odds with what I have tried to say above, where there is a blurred edge between “religious concept” and “supersition-like functional response”, and it seems much more likely to me that “non-belief” is only trivially applicable to an early hominid, pigeon or, for that matter, cabbage, even though they don’t have gods. In trying to understand the roots of religion, it’s daft to say “First there were only atheists.”!

  7. Donald Telfer says:

    Last year there was a documentary programme about Piraha indians on TV here.
    (Pronounced Pee Da Ha I think, with a rhythm and with tones – variations of pitch)

    There’s about 400 Piraha indians in about 3 villages riverside of a
    trubutary of the Amazon in Brazil.

    They speak a unique language, very few phonemes (very few sounds), but
    it has tones (like Chinese languages, Mandarin has 4 tones, I think Cantonese has 9 tones, the pitch (treble / bass) of the voice can change during pronunciation which means what European listeners would interpret as one word is actually one of four or nine dictinct words/meanings).

    Only 3 outsiders can speak their language. All three are/were
    Christian missionaries. I think it could be a difficult language to
    speak and hear. I think maybe their own Piraha children even only can
    learn it slowly.

    There are no words for numbers or colours or tenses in their language.
    Everything is present tense. They are thought to be “happy”. The title
    of the documentary is : The Grammar of Happiness.

    There is dispute in academic circles about whether their language has
    “recurrence” or conjunctions.

    I think they have no religion. They do not (and cannot ?) talk about tomorrow, maybe they have no concept of the future. Having no religion and not being concerned with the future may be related.

    The missionaries want to convert them, but after years (decades) no Piraha have
    been converted, and one missionary Daniel Everett, about my age, has
    been converted (by them, unintentionally) to atheism.

    Danial Everett’s wife, another missionary, and one of the other two
    outsider speakers of Piraha, has divorced him, as she is still a Christian.

    Daniel is now the Professor of Linguistics at the University of North Carolina.

    The Brazilian authorities will not let him return to the Piraha. The
    Piraha apparently ‘love’ Daniel. The Brazilian authorities are trying to bring the Piraha into the 21st century. I am not sure they need to be brought anywhere, neither the 21st century nor Christianity. Ironically, they brought Daniel away from the Christianity he was trying to bring them. I do not think the outcome will be as harmless in the case of the Brazilian authorities.

    Anyway, that is just another example to work with if people want to probe into the origins of religion, and I think it might be shed different light compared with theorising about stone architecture created 4000 years ago by people we can never meet or interrogate as to their ideas, beliefs and motivations.

  8. lettersquash says:

    Thanks for that, Donald. I don’t think I’ve seen that documentary about the Piraha, but just wiki-ed it. Very interesting. It says at wikipedia that they don’t have an overall god, but they do believe in spirits that can take on the forms of animals, trees, people etc. Their culture might be a good analogue of early hunter-gatherer tribes prior to the Neolithic revolution. I wonder if we underestimate the change that would create in human psychology. I haven’t had time to read much about Australian aborigines, but the wikipedia entry on their mythology is amazing – their stories describe landscapes that geologists know existed 10,000 years ago.

  9. Donald Telfer says:

    Hopefully in another 10 000 years it will still be possible for the Earth to be like it is today, with the same ecological diversity, and humans not extinct. I wonder what the odds are, the odds could be quite small ?
    I would be happy for religions to be eradicated before then. Academics of the future could then research “extinct” religions, much as they do with Tasmanian Tigers, dodos and mammoths.
    I do not consider religions to be a natural phenomena, I mean in the sense that I assume humans were here for some time before religions arose, and religion is not a pre-requisite for human survival.
    In some cases, such as suicide bombers, religion can be harmful to your health. Can religious tracts be published with health warnings ?
    Did the fictional character Tarzan (raised by apes) have religion before he met Jane ?

    I did some searching on Youtube and was unable to find the full television documentary (but another lead it is could be available on DVD commercially). I came across a promotional clip with a voice-over commentary remarking that the Piraha are unable (because of the grammar of their language) to tell fictional stories. So someone like Jesus, speaking in Piraha, would be unable to express parables. It could be rather difficult or impossible to translate something like the Old Testament into “straight language” (sic ? Piraha)

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