I first became aware of the concept of Big History from the TV documentary on History which aired in 2013, and I was thoroughly fascinated from the start. Recently, I took the Coursera Big History: Connecting Knowledge series, and while proceeding through the course I realized that both my book, Manifest Insanity, and my recently featured article, Psychology of Faith, examined religion from the Big History perspective. Here, then, is a summary of the Big History of religion.
Big History covers eight thresholds, the first five of which are a given: 1: Big Bang; 2: star formation; 3: build-up of heavier elements, nucleosynthesis; 4: planetary formation; 5: emergence of life.
Starting from threshold 6, the evolution of collective learning, along with threshold 7, the agricultural revolution, we will examine how religious thought arose in our ancestors with a series of quotes from leading thinkers in evolutionary psychology and cultural anthropology, and how other disciplines (archaeology, philosophy, neurology) illuminate our understanding of the subject; something made increasingly easier by threshold 8, the ever-increasing interconnectedness of the world.
Inhibition is very often the key to our survival.
Evolutionary Psychology — Threshold 6
All but a handful of scholars in this area regard religion as an accidental byproduct of our mental evolution. Specifically, religious thought is usually portrayed by scholars as having no particular adaptive biological function in itself, but instead it’s viewed as a leftover of other psychological adaptations. . . .Bering, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life
. . . The private perception of being intelligently designed, monitored, and known about by a God who actively punished and rewarded our intentions and behaviors would have helped stomp out the frequency and intensity of our ancestors’ immoral hiccups and would have been strongly favored by natural selection.
In the Big History: Connecting Knowledge course, was a video on evolution that noted the similarity between chimps and humans regarding these immoral hiccups:
While all primates have a hierarchy of alphas and betas, humans and chimps, who share 98.4% of their DNA, are the most prone to team up together and launch a revolution against the alpha male. We’re also both prone to ganging up, roaming our territory, and beating up unsuspecting foreigners of the same species, and not for direct survival reasons. Chimpanzees have been observed finding a lone chimp male from another group and kicking, hitting, and tearing off bits of his body and then leaving the helpless victim to die of his wounds, and humans definitely bear this stamp of our lowly origin, where indeed, the imperfect step-by-step process of evolution made us highly intelligent, but still, with prefrontal cortex’s too small, and adrenal glands maybe too big. Aggression and blood lust are definitely part of our shared heritage, and, looking at more recent human history, does that really surprise anyone?Human Evolution: Crash Course Big History #6
Therefore, according to evolutionary psychologists, religion played a role in moderating our baser instincts.
Patience, restraint, modesty, humility — these are all desirable, biblically endorsed features of humanity not because they are heavenly virtues, but because they’re pragmatic. . . . For us, inhibition is very often the key to our survival.Bering
In other words, the illusion of a punitive God assisted their genetic well-being whenever they underestimated the risk of actual social detection by other people. This fact alone, this emotional short-circuiting of ancient drives in which immediate interests were traded for long-term genetic gains, which have rendered God and His ilk a strong target of natural selection in human evolution.
This is the beginning of religion as we know it. Now these people have to appeal to the gods to make sure nature does what they want it to do in order to survive. This is exactly how religion operates today.
Agricultural Revolution — Threshold 7
In every world zone the invention of agriculture was a precursor for the rise of states. The key to having a state is agrarian surplus. If you produce enough food, you can have a class of people who don’t need to farm. They can then fulfill other duties in this increasingly numerous and complex society whether they be leaders or judges who settle disputes, bureaucrats who deal with administration, and infrastructure doctors who heal the sick, priests who make sacrifices to vengeful gods or soldiers who provide security or at least extract a portion of the agricultural surplus for the leadership through some kind of taxation. And with more people filling new jobs and generating new ideas about them, this is also good news for collective learning. Diversification of labor is also the first step of early states toward hierarchies and classes — aristocrats and popular and despotic kings and pharaohs and sultans, shahs and emperors.Migration and Intensification: Crash Course Big History #7
For 99% of our time on Earth, we had no organized religion. But then, we settled down, grew food . . .First Civilizations, Episode: 2 — Religion, Video 6 of 11, Nabta Playa, PBS (2018).
. . . The longest-lasting civilization in the history of the world was in ancient Egypt. . . . It was here civilization and religion became fused as one. Every major civilization since has adopted the same formula. . . .
. . . Begun over 7000 years ago, it’s one of the oldest religious sites n he world. . . . This is where the building blocks of religion began to merge. For over two million years we were hunter-gathers, and hunter-gathers typically practice a religion called animism. . . . But, when they switch to herding, this changes their worldview. While hunter-gathers roamed freely across the landscape, herders settled for weeks at a time wherever they could find pasture. This led to a new kind of religion. The first thing that happens when people start herding, they start building sacred spaces. If you want to pray, or you want to worship, you’ve got to come to this space. And what this does, is it brings people together, from all over the place, into this one area, to worship together. . . .
. . . This giant megalith, here, this thing weighs several tons and would have been carried a few miles just to get it to this point, and that requires organized labor, that requires people working together. We can surmise that they would have had some kind of spiritual significance to these things to put that much effort into this. And if that’s the case, we’re looking at some sort of prototype church. The first monuments were all inspired by religion. . . .
. . . What we’re seeing here at Nabta Playa, this is the beginning of religion as we know it. Now these people have to appeal to the gods to make sure nature does what they want it to do in order to survive. This is exactly how religion operates today.
While Göbekli Tepe in Turkey is considered the oldest temple site, 1–2,000 years older than Nabta Playa, it was created on the cusp of the agricultural revolution, and as such, it is not an altar dedicated to crop fertility but to ancestor worship.
We don’t normally associate this idea with agriculture, but at least in their beginnings theist religions were an agricultural enterprise. The theology, mythology and liturgy of religions such as Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity initially centered on the relationship between humans, domesticated plants and farm animals.Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Biblical Judaism for instance, catered to peasants and shepherds. Most of its commandments dealt with farming and village life, and its major holidays were harvest festivals. People today imagine the ancient temple in Jerusalem as a kind of synagogue where priests clad in snow-white robes welcomed devout pilgrims, melodious choirs sang psalms and incense perfumed the air. In reality, it looked more like a cross between a slaughterhouse and a barbecue joint. The pilgrims did not come empty-handed. They brought with them a never-ending stream of sheep, goats, chickens and other animals, which were sacrificed at the god’s altar and then cooked and eaten. Priests in bloodstained outfits cut the victims’ throats, collected the gushing blood in jars and spilled it over the altar. The perfume of the incense mixed with the odours of the congealed blood and roasted meat, while swarms of black flies buzzed just about everywhere.
The god idea is always culturally conditioned, always.
Legendary professor of world mythology, Joseph Campbell, discussed how the local terrain shaped and defined our ancestors’ perceptions of the divine.
Moyers: Geography has done a great deal to shape our culture and our idea of religion. The god of the desert is not the god the plains —Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers
Campbell: — or the god of the rain forest — the gods, plural, of the rain forest. When you’re out in the desert with one sky and one world, then you might have one deity, but in a jungle, where there’s no horizon and you never see anything more than ten or twelve yards away from you, you don’t have that idea any more.
Moyers: So are they projecting their idea of God on the world?
Campbell: Yes, of course.
Moyers: Their geography shapes their image of divinity, and then they project it out and call it God.
Campbell: Yes. The god idea is always culturally conditioned, always. . . .
Moyers: I wonder what it would have meant to us if somewhere along the way, we had begun the prayer “Our Mother,” instead of “Our Father.” What psychological difference would it have made?
Campbell: Well, it makes a psychological difference in the character of the cultures. You have the basic birth of civilization in the Near East with the great river valleys then as the main source areas, the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, and then over in India, the Indus valley and later the Ganges. This is the world of the goddess; all these rivers have goddess names finally.
Then there come the invasions. These fighting people are herding people. The Semites are herders of goats and sheep, and the Indo-Europeans of cattle. They were formerly the hunters. They translate a hunting mythology into a herding mythology, but it’s animal oriented. And when you have hunters you have killers, and when you have herders, you have killers, because they’re always in movement, nomadic, coming into conflict with other people and they have to conquer the area they move into. This comes into the Near East, and this brings in the warrior gods, like Zeus, like Yahweh.
Moyers: The sword and death, instead of fertility.
In another section of the documentary, Campbell goes on to discuss how societies separated by vast distances evolved the same ideas of the supernatural.
Moyers: Now, what do you make of that, that in two very different cultures, the same imagery emerges?Ep. 6: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘Masks of Eternity’, PBS (1988).
Campbell: Yes, well, there are only two ways to explain it, and one is by diffusion, that an influence came from there to here, and the other is by separate development. And when you have the idea of separate development, this speaks for certain powers in the psyche which are common to all mankind. Otherwise you couldn’t have — and to the detail the correspondences can be identified, it’s astonishing when one studies these things in depth, the degree to which the agreements go between totally separated cultures.
Moyers: Which says something about the commonality of the species, doesn’t it?
Campbell: Well, yes, that was Carl Jung’s idea, which he calls the archetypes, archetypes of the collective unconscious.
The Passover was probably originally a rite of spring, practiced by shepherds. In early Israel it was a family festival.
At Nazlet Khater archaeologists found another burial, the burial of an adult, dated 30 to 35,000 years old. This example is also important because just beside the head of the skeleton was a stone and axe, an offering in the tomb. This is the first evidence of an associate artifact with a human body in a tomb. That means that people, at this stage, were interested in the protection of the bodies in the afterlife. When you protect a body after it’s dead, that means that there is a belief in the afterlife. Why do you want to protect your body if your body is useless after the death? In this case, when you protect the body, we can guess that these people had a very complex belief in the afterlife, and maybe a religion.Tristant, Coursera — Big History: Connecting Knowledge — How did people live in the Palaeolithic?
Above, Harari mentioned how Judaism and Hinduism sprang out of the agricultural revolution, meaning the religions they gave rise to, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, and that a sizeable number of people who subscribe to a major world religion are also tied to these agricultural origins.
Just as P [the priestly source] grounded the Sabbath in the creation story, so it grounds the Passover in the story of the exodus. The Passover was probably originally a rite of spring, practiced by shepherds. In early Israel it was a family festival. . . . The celebration was changed by the reform of King Josiah in 621 B.C.E. into a pilgrimage festival, to be celebrated at the central sanctuary [Jerusalem] and was combined with the Festival of Unleavened Bread.Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible
As with living organisms, religion has continued to evolve and change over the centuries, with, in some cases, substantial shifts in the core tenets. I will focus on Judeo-Christianity, as that was the subject I covered in my book and with which I am most familiar; but I will return to Buddhism in the neurology section. Archaeology, in particular, has shown how Israelite theology changed fundamentally over its duration. The reform of Josiah, mentioned above, was when monotheism first became the official state religion of Judah, not earlier in its history as its texts portray, and which the excerpts below elaborate on.
We know from text and from archaeology, that traditional Israelite religion involved venerating the ancestors, the gods of the underworld so to speak. We know from texts, at least, and from iconography that we find in the ground, that traditional Israelite religion involved venerating the stars and the planets. We know, therefore, the traditional Israelite religion was polytheistic.Baruch Halpern, Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies — University of Georgia, in The Bible Unearthed
The book of Deuteronomy perpetrates one of the great reformations in history: it imposes a strict philosophical monotheism that banishes all other gods from traditional culture. This was part of a reformationist program in which King Josiah attempted to centralize not only power, but the ability to reach the realm of the divine into his own hands, in Jerusalem, in the temple,the temple, which, sat in the backyard of the Royal Palace. . . .Neil Silberman (L) and Israel Finkelstein (R), The Bible Unearthed (2005)
. . . Deuteronomy was hugely important for Western civilization because for the first time the individual was singled out from the crowd as the focus of moral responsibility and duties . . . .
. . . Many elements of the reform actually precede the reform. . . . Effectively, what you see in the 7th century BC is the development of individuality. These social changes were reflected in radical new laws in Deuteronomy, an ideological change of great enduring consequence . . . .
. . . What it testifies to is a new consciousness at the end of the seventh century. . . . The power of the governor was subject to some greater laws, some greater morality, and it’s here on this broken piece of pottery, as archaeological evidence from the time of Josiah, that what we now still believe as biblical tradition and biblical morality, was born among the people. . . .
. . . That is the mindset, the self-conscious mindset, on which science, and monotheism, and Western civilization have been found.
Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments.
After centuries of a repressive Vatican controlling much of what happened in medieval Europe and the affiliated intellectual stagnation, the Protestant Reformation lit the match that would eventually culminate in the Age of Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, European philosophers opposed to blind faith, tradition, and superstition, advocated for the increasing application of reason and scientific rationalism, and advanced the ideas of humanism as an alternative to theism. As many Western secular nations have evolved beyond traditional religion, secular humanism is coming to be the dominant philosophy in a number of these societies. Statistics confirm this trend, as the least religious countries are correlated among the happiest; whereas, religion continues to have the most influence in countries with less-developed economies and greater degrees of uncertainty. Citizens in self-actualized societies don’t appear to need the crutch of religion, allowing our common humanity to be our moral guide.
Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?
In a relatively new field of neurology, coined neurotheology, modern science can now demonstrate how gods manifest in our brains; and here is where we come back to Buddhism, as Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer activate a completely different part of the brain.
This is the resting scan, this is the prayer scan showing increased activity in the frontal lobes and in the language area of the brain. . . .Through the Wormhole, Did We Invent God?, Science (S03E10, 2012).
. . . When a person feels deeply focused on their prayer, we see increased activity in the focusing area of the brain. This area of the brain, the frontal lobe, is intensely active when we hold conversations; it allows us to speak and to listen.
Andy believes that in Judeo-Christian prayer the frontal lobe activates, just as it would in normal conversation. To the brain, talking to God is indistinguishable from talking to a person.
When we study Buddhist meditation, where they’re visualizing something, we might expect to see a change or an increase of activity in the visual areas of the brain. In Buddhist practice, the divine is an abstract presence, not a person who is directly spoken to, but rather an essence that can be visualized during deep meditation. And when Andy looks at the brains of people who do not believe in God, he finds that simple quiet meditation produces none of the brain activity of believers.
A multidisciplinary analysis gives us the Big History view that from an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation, divine agency was born and took root in our brains, and we can now see our god neurons activating with magnetic resonance imaging.
What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.Bering