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In conversation with author Robin Dunbar: From cave to chancel

22 April 2022

Mark Vernon interviews Robin Dunbar about his new book, How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures


MARK VERNON: Your proposal is that it’s our religious origins that mark Homo sapiens. Compared with other Homo species, like Neanderthals, [religion] begins right at the origins of the emergence of Homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago. It’s integral to our appearance on planet Earth.

It comes with a more sophisticated engagement with ritual, particularly with trance. And this launches Homo sapiens into a new chapter of experiencing, relating to the world in the ways that we would now call “religious”.

Robin Dunbar: The issue is a combination of two things coming together. One of them is an increasing ability to wonder about what lies behind the superficiality of the world we live in as we see it and experience it, which allows us to imagine whether there could be another world parallel to ours — in this case, the spirit world, the transcendent world.

And [that allows us] to do many other things, including [create] fiction, for example, because we couldn’t tell our stories if we couldn’t imagine that there might be a different world to the one we live in, in which we can construct fictional characters and fictional stories. And it allows us to do all sorts of interesting things like science, as well as religion.

So there’s that key element. The Neanderthals had some capacity to engage in that kind of activity. It’s just they couldn’t do it in quite as deep a way as anatomically modern humans managed to do.

So it’s a phased transition. But these are built on top of raw feelings and emotional engagement with things we can’t explain.

MV: Is it a fair summary that, where a Neanderthal might have thought or shared with others the sense that “this land belongs to us and our ancestors,” Homo sapiens might have added: “This land belongs to us and our ancestors and was given to us by some kind of spirit or God or presence”?

RD: Yes, that would be a reasonable example. In terms of the evolution of religion or religiosity, it very much has to do with the ability to produce and understand propositions, which are really quite complicated, but allow you to exchange ideas about what and why things are, and how things happen out there, and in a spirit world, in a way that is not possible for species that don’t have as highly developed mentalising capacities as we do.

And that’s the same as all other animals. But we can do that [thinking] in a more complex way than the Neanderthals could, and it leads us to have a difference between what I call social religions — the kind of thing maybe the Neanderthals had — which was “I have these experiences, and I can tell you about them, and I can tell you what I believe, but you’re not necessarily committed to that.”

Whereas, with modern humans, the extra mentalising capacities that we’ve evolved allow us to engage in discussions which commit both of us. Once you’ve explained to me what you believe to be going on, and I’m convinced by that, we can both agree on what it’s all about. And that’s what I call communal religion.

And that’s the essence of religion proper. You might have your private personal beliefs — but if you can’t communicate, it’s not a religion, in the sense that a religion has to be a communal activity.

MV: This sense of sharing beliefs, you’re clear was shared originally much more through shared experience, shared rituals, shared myth, a shared sense of the presence of that parallel world that surrounds — animism would be the shorthand for that now — and then maybe [we] added afterlife, then ancestors. Then these so-called religious specialists, like shamans, start to appear, who can guide others through these parallel cosmologies; and only quite recently, high gods and doctrinal religion.

And what we think of as belief now appears after many, many millennia. The high gods and doctrinal stuff is really only the past few thousand years.

RD: The sequence is a case of a very, very long early period from when we first appeared, maybe 200-250,000 years ago, right the way up through to the Neolithic, where religions were much more immersive because there’s no priesthood, there’s no theology. There’s no moral code handed down from above. People have a moral code, but it’s a social code that we all agree about.

But [religions are] built around experiences and engaging in ritual activities like trance-dancing, which take you into the spirit world. There isn’t a specialised priesthood between the high altar and the nave. Everybody’s up there, gathered around the high altar, if you like.

Then, with the Neolithic [period] and the need to live in large settlements, the archaeological evidence suggests doctrinal religions, meaning they have priesthoods and what we will call temples, specialised religious spaces and religious specialists.

And, also, some sense of gods up there who take some interest in our human activities, but they tend not to be the kinds of interest that we associate with the contemporary world religions.

They’re much more the kinds of gods that want you to do lots of sacrificing to them because they like being sacrificed to, but, actually, their only interest in us humble humans down here is to punish us if we don’t do so. That phase lasts for quite a long time.

Between two and 3000 years ago, suddenly, you see all the modern world religions — sometimes referred to as the revealed religions — appearing almost in one go.

It’s remarkable: they all just pop up. And here you have the concept of moral high gods, benevolent gods who demand things of their human servants.

MV: I want to tease out a little bit this business of punishing high gods. That has been quite a standard account of why religion is beneficial, along with gods that might promise you some security in relation to death.

One of the things that chime throughout your book is this idea that the benefits of religion can’t be the causes of religion. Religiosity must come first.

For me, that’s a very powerful notion, because I wonder whether our ancestors experienced life as moving through rivers of meaning, and all the rituals and the libations and the sacrifices were as much about how to relate to that flood of meaning and find a way through it rather than: “Is there a God out to get me?” Or “Perhaps these gods don’t even exist at all?” That’s a very modern kind of thought.

RD: Those kinds of things seem a natural step, but my sense is, yes, these things happen in the process of people’s lives and in the process of evolution of religion, but, in the end, what it was all about was a very effective way of creating a bonded society — of keeping the group on the same page, and also helping to dampen down the inevitable frictions that arise when you live in spatially compressed settlements.

I’m not talking about megacities, the size of London — or Jericho, even. I’m just talking about hunter-gatherer-sized groups of maybe a few hundred people. Something seems to be necessary to keep the lid on the frictions that naturally arise in those sorts of groups, and religion seems to have played a particularly important role in that.


MV: Your book links this with the tangible properties of endorphins, which can be measured. Even in modern congregations, the sense of coming together, worshipping, seeking forgiveness — there’s the release that comes about with those collective activities.

Even now, you can measure the benefits of religiosity, compared with more secular forms of coming together. You suggest evidence that the religious, shared communal activities are more effective at actually bringing people together and erasing the difficulties of the past.

RD: This goes back to the mechanisms that are involved in creating social bonding, both at the individual friendship level, but also at the communal level. These mechanisms seem to be common to all the primates [and] involve the endorphin system in the brain.

The activities that we all do with friends and family and so on are really remarkable in the way they trigger this system.

The endorphins are chemically related to morphine, but just slightly different; so we don’t actually get addicted to them. But they give us the same effects of this feeling of relaxation and calm and “All’s well with the world.”

And they create a sense of trust with the people you engage in particular activities with, that trigger the endorphin system. In that sense, they create this sense of bondedness, or belonging.

The activities that are involved for humans [are] things like laughter and singing and dancing and feasting together, and telling emotional stories. It turns out that many of those are part of religious rituals.

Indeed, when we look at various kinds of religious services, what goes on in the service in terms of praying and kneeling and standing — all these activities and the singing and so on — do trigger the endorphin system, and do create this sense of belonging . . . of being part of a community.

What’s interesting is that it really only works with the people who are there on the day. It doesn’t affect your relationships with people who don’t turn up, which is another good reason for having doctrinal religions in general, which essentially provide you with a reason to keep turning up to the ritual services, for having that injunction that says, “No, you’re going to turn up every Sunday or Friday” — because you need to keep having that endorphin inoculation in order to maintain this sense of belonging.

If some people kind of get lazy, don’t turn up, then the community doesn’t have that sense of social cohesion that seems to be important in the whole process.

So, yes, it’s a very simple pharmacological mechanism, but it’s actually quite widespread.

The endorphin system, while providing you [with] this mechanism for bonding groups, turns out to have a secondary benefit, which perhaps explains some of the more individual health-related benefits that you see from religious attendance.

That is, the endorphins trigger the release of natural killer-cells in the immune system, the white-blood-cell system, and really do have an influence on your personal health. So there’s a twofold benefit going on here.

One is a benefit at the social level, creating a sense of belonging and bonding. And the other is a very direct effect on your physical and psychological well-being, because, actually, endorphins are the best antidepressants you can ever get.

MV: Religion is very diverse. Yet there is some sense from some thinkers that there’s something about truth that’s going on here. I just wonder what you make of that.

RD: I tend to take the view that [that] probably is beyond conventional proof. And one consequence of that is, for better or for worse, two people can come to different conclusions about this religious truth, the spiritual truth of what we see or experience. And that will partly depend on their background, and whether they’re scientists or not scientists.

I’m less interested in that than in the role that religion has played in our lives, now. I tend to see [these things] as a consequence rather than causal, that, in the end, what’s driving most of these things — certainly from an evolutionary point of view — is finding mechanisms or ways of doing things that allow you to reproduce more successfully.

MV: What you’re describing there is how religion is a dynamic thing. Another cross- pressure is between the mystical or the charismatic elements. And then the more settled religiosity that, in the biblical way of putting it, would be between the prophets and the priests.

That feels like something which religious people will know today, in terms of the tension within Christianity. Charismatic Christianity is the fast-growing strain of Christianity, now. Certainly in the West, it can feel like the more doctrinal, organised churches are the ones struggling, but the point is that there’s a kind of motor in the religiosity you describe that makes for tensions.

RD: But in terms of the role of these ancestral small-scale, Charismatic-, immersive-, shamanic-type religion. One of the key arguments in the book is that these have never gone away. That’s implicit in the sense that they’re often called the “revealed religions”: that this is the true way of doing it; do away with all these old superstitious things.

Indeed, very often, that is how the hierarchies behave, they really don’t like these kind of mystical charismatic type of activities.

My argument is very much that it’s just the doctrinal religions bolted on top of this basic, very widespread, fundamental, mystical component. And that mystical components are the real motor of religiosity and religion.

That’s why you join. It’s not because somebody gives you a long, dry lecture on theology. It’s because you have these kinds of feelings of warmth and excitement, and are drawn into it.

The perennial problem is that, if you try and enforce things by discipline alone, people will grudgingly do it. But if they can get away with it, they won’t.

MV: Bubbling up is the dark side of religious expression as well, that things can get out of control.

RD: Parish sizes tend to be of a characteristic size, and have great difficulty increasing their size beyond that, as many of the church-planting discussions in Protestantism have recognised over the last decades.

But it also explains why you have this constant bubbling up in all the world religions, or new sects. Very often those sects do have slightly questionable practices. There are many examples of that in the history of Christianity, as well as other religions.

It’s these small intimate groups, in which these kinds of emotional mystical experiences take place — during services, in particular — that are the motor of all religion.

Now, some of those, clearly, can get out of hand. But probably more trouble is created at the other end of the scale, by the use of religious coherence to promote political interests. The political and religious wars of past centuries have all been driven not by the charismatic cult, so much as the established religions’ trying to fight against each other.

They’re all pitching essentially at the same thing. They may have slightly different rituals, and they may have slightly different ways of expressing it in the different world religions, but actually most of them are treading pretty much the same path in the same direction.

And it should be possible to produce a unified religion by more sitting down to agree. That all sounds very nice in theory. Where it falls down is back to the charismatic cults at the bottom bubbling.

[Even if] you’ve created a grand unified religion, we’ll still have the little cults because there’s something emotionally engaging about what happens in these small cults. It’s very difficult to replicate on a large scale.

MV: That takes me back to where we began, with how our early ancestors engaged with worlds that exceeded them. The truth that was beyond them, even as they felt its impact in their lives.

This is an edited transcript of a conversation between the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar and Mark Vernon about Robin Dunbar’s book How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, published by Pelican at £22 (Church Times Bookshop £19.80); 978-0-24143-178-8. Listen to the full interview on the Church Times podcast.

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