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Our ancestors were not deluded

13 September 2019

A new hypothesis appeals to evolutionary biologists and theologians, says Mark Vernon


Professor Robin Dunbar

Professor Robin Dunbar

EXPLANATIONS for the origins of human religiosity have not escaped the immense fecundity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many proposals address why people have believed in gods and other worlds as far back as archaeologists can see. To date, two ideas have tended to dominate.

One is that Homo sapiens needed “big gods” to survive. These deities threatened to punish people for their wrongs, with the upshot that large groups worked better together. It sounds plausible, except that our ancestors lived in large groups long before punishing big gods emerged; so the proposal nowadays is widely criticised.

A second idea is that early humans were superstitious: they were readily inclined to interpret a rustle of leaves, say, as the movement of a spirit. They were wrong, it is presumed, but that doesn’t matter, because, every so often, a rustle of leaves had a real cause: it signalled the presence of predators. Evolution, therefore, selected for the superstitious because they survived.

Once again, however, the theory seems inadequate. Modern hunter-gatherers are enormously astute about their environments; so there is no reason to believe that our ancestors were deluded fools.


IN SHORT, the field is ready for a new hypothesis, and another is now gaining ground. Moreover, this hypothesis appeals not only to evolutionary biologists but also to sociologists and theologians. It feels less reductive than its predecessors, and may well cast light on human religiosity today, as well as in times gone by.

Leading its development is the Oxford evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar. A recent meeting of the International Society for Science and Religion brought together experts in science and theology as well as archaeology and psychology. It made for a fascinating few days.

The proposal might be called “the trance hypothesis”. In the middle palaeolithic period, perhaps 200,000 years ago, humans started to realise that they could induce altered states of consciousness. It marked a step change from the capacity to experience awe and wonder, which is something that we probably share with our primate cousins and other animals. The control of ecstatic states meant that what was revealed could be intentionally explored.

Shamanistic rituals and animistic practices flourished. People began to relate to dead ancestors and local gods. Life took on extra dimensions that mattered enormously. But what yielded intrinsic value also produced instrumental benefits.

Trance states release endorphins. These opioids ease tensions in large groups: then and now, the evidence is that they help groups to bond. In short, early religiosity increased prosocial behaviour. It aided survival. A sense and taste for the transcendent has been part of the evolution of our species from the earliest days.

Later on, formal religious systems began to emerge. Caves became holy; burial practices became more elaborate. Then, most recently, hierarchies of priests and impressive stone temples were devised, along with holy texts and liturgical rites. The theist’s awareness of God is born out of this long evolution, which had both practical and spiritual benefits.


THE hypothesis will be contested, in part because it looks so friendly to religion. To put it another way, it challenges directly the widespread narrative that science and religion are at loggerheads. It is not that the science proves the theological. But the new proposal can be understood as telling the back story that readied our minds to receive and develop religious insights.

Moreover, the trance hypothesis supports intuitions about religion that still hold today. Consider how it formed in two stages: first, with the practice of ecstatic states of mind; second, with organised rites that preserved and spread convictions about the transcendent. The two exist in relation, as roots do to shoots. If the roots dry up, the shoots wither. Hence, the history of religion is packed with accounts of revivals and awakenings that criticise current forms and claim to return to origins. As a venerable and highly successful formal religion, Christianity is prone to such tensions. The science suggests that this is only to be expected.

More positively, you might say that churches need binocular vision. They must maintain a living connection with the mystical — perhaps alarming — source of their vitality, while preserving what keeps the larger group feeling safe. It is a balance that is not at all easy to achieve. It might explain why churches that offer direct experiences, from cathedrals to the Charismatic, are growing today while others experience decline. It also unpacks the intuition of the theologian Karl Rahner: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”

Further, it makes me think of that group of people who are often derided by church leaders: the so-called “spiritual but not religious”. It seems to me that they have a prophetic message. If you mock them because they seem not to believe much, you risk missing the point. Directly or indirectly, they may be seeking a return to the origins of human religiosity. They may be key to refreshing the 21st century’s connection with the divine.

Dr Mark Vernon’s new book is A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the evolution of consciousness (John Hunt Publishing) (Feature, 30 August).

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