Imageless Religions Helped Human Survival – OpEd


Why did our species survive when Homo Neanderthals and all other almost human species went extinct? The theories are many, but some comparisons of Homo Neanderthals living 100,000 to 35,000 years ago, and modern humans from 80,000 to 30,000 years ago, point to religion. 

“Neanderthals’ lives used to be portrayed as shaped by constant pressures to survive in harsh ecological conditions, thus contributing to their extinction”. Asked how exactly that differed from the lot of Upper Paleolithic modern humans who lived in basically similar conditions many scholars now say thinking about the suffering Neanderthal is passé. Such assumptions that clever modern types better mitigated the horrible pressures with the help of our broader behavioral repertoire are outdated.

Today, research has identified many similarities between the two species, though acknowledging we were not the same – for one thing, it is believed that their brains were bigger than ours, and their social groups were much smaller (in low hundreds instead of low thousands). Larger social groups are important to survival. 

I believe that Modern Homo Sapiens lived, hunted, innovated and fought in larger groups of clans and tribes than Neanderthals; and that this was due to a much higher level of unifying non-blood relationship religious holidays, ceremonies and pilgrimages.  

Rafiq Tschannen writes (Muslim Times 10/26/16) about a great Muslim scholar who understood the methods of biological evolution 600 years prior to Darwin. Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsī was a Persian polymath and prolific writer who explained how hereditary variability was an important factor for the biological evolution of living things: 

“The organisms that can gain the new features faster are more variable. As a result, they gain advantages over other creatures. […] Their bodies are changing as a result of [both] internal and external interactions.” [quoted by Tschannen]

Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsī insights should help all imageless monotheistic believers to realize that the human capacity to believe in an unseen spiritual world was both a benefit for, and the outcome of, increasingly intelligent minds. Thus religion is not a maladaptive “illusion” (Freud), nor is religion a manipulative “opiate” (Marx).  Religious behavior is one ubiquitous biological adaptation rooted in Homo Sapiens’ very being, because religion —like intelligence and language— greatly helps human communities survive.

Religion, like intelligence and language, can be used for both good and evil purposes, but this is also true of culture, science, politics and all other important human activities. Since almost all revealed religions teach that humans have a pre-birth soul that pre-disposes them to respond to a Divine call even before the revelation occurs, I identify the existence of a biologically-based, self-conscience, spiritual soul with the evolution of Homo Sapiens spirituality.  

A reference to a pre-scripture, pre-historic period when religious evolution was unaided  by what today we would recognize as God’s holy books appears in the Biblical book of Genesis where it states: “At that time humans began to invoke YHVH by name.” (Genesis 4:26) Most rabbinic commentators translate the verb hukhal (‘began’) to invoke, as meaning ‘to profane’, taking this as a negative statement. But ‘began’ is the more normal meaning of the verb. 

The Torah asserts that prior to Enosh (another name which like Adam means humanity) humans did not practice religion with the divine insight of revelation “invoke YHVH by name” that they did later. Mystical and spiritual experiences were interpreted by human intelligence without the benefit of prophetic revelation to mankind as Allah’s vice-regents: 

“Remember˺ when your Lord said to the angels, “I am going to place a successive human authority on earth.” They asked ˹Allah˺, “Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while we glorify Your praises and proclaim Your holiness?” Allah responded, “I know what you do not know.” (Qur’an 2:30). 

In the spirit of these Qur’an and Torah insights, I offer the following account of a possible evolution of prehistoric, pre-monotheistic religion in a pre-Homo Sapiens world. I gather together a large amount of academically current information to form a plausible picture to replace a Theory of Evolution which has always ignored the contribution of a Creator.

All sentient beings are able to respond to the challenges of life. In each species some individuals respond to new environmental challenges better than others do; and their descendants increase. Some sentient beings that are conscious are capable of learning from the challenges of life. They can improve themselves. A few are even able to show others what they have learned and thus improve the chances of survival  for their group and their descendants. These species have developed culturally effective ways of meeting life’s challenges. 

For many centuries it was thought that mankind’s ability to use tools was what made us unique. However, we now know that several different species use tools (including birds) and Chimps not only use but also make at least three different kinds of tools for different functions. Chimp tool use differs in different locations (a cultural, not a genetic, difference). Chimps also show signs of self-awareness by recognizing themselves in a mirror. So what makes us what we are?   

First, we are a small group, hierarchically organized, social primates. Any genes that enable the group (extended family and/or band) to function better will contribute to individual survival and reproduction. Second, the species that preceded Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal have been evolving larger and larger brains for over a million years. 

Eventually two species, Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal evolved that achieved self-conscious ways of meeting life’s challenges through non-material i.e. cultural and spiritual behaviors. Homo Neanderthals were a relative of Homo sapiens that co-inhabited with them in Europe and in parts of western Asia with anatomically modern humans from about 120-150,000 to 30-35,000 years ago. HN were well adapted to the cold and were very muscular. 

Increasing dependence on mental capacities became problematic for those individual HN and HS who malfunctioned mentally or emotionally. Any genes that would help ameliorate individual mental and emotional challenges like stress and anxiety would be selected for and would spread throughout the population. Spiritual activities among HS have evolved over the last 120-160,000 years. If one takes seriously the Biblical claim that humanity was created in the Divine image, spiritual evolution testifies to the creation of creatures who are co-creators of purpose driven non-material responses to environmental and social challenges. This prepared them to respond appropriately when Divine revelations occurred in historical times.   

A great deal of unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding has been caused by the careless use of the terms ‘human’ and ‘man’ to describe the increasing number of fossil finds of tool using biped species that may have been ancestral to Homo Sapiens. I shall try to refer to each distinct species by its scientific name only.    

The evolution of spiritual activities that enhance the successful survival of humanity is not only concerned with enhancing the survival of our own species. With the recent domestication of plants and animals and the very recent industrial revolution, Homo Sapiens (HS) acquired a great deal of responsibility for the evolution of most of the species on the planet itself. Thus the behavior of religious people themselves now becomes a factor in the evolution of life on earth. Religious behaviors are evidence of self-conscious creative thought processes most people associate with Homo Sapiens. 

Religious behaviors are the creative responses of intelligent minds to certain challenges in life. For example, individuals from two very different cultural and religious groups, Christians in the U.S. and Muslims in Afghanistan, who can unconsciously predict complex patterns, an ability called implicit pattern learning, are likely to hold stronger beliefs that there is a god who creates patterns of events in the universe, according to neuroscientists at Georgetown University, who reported their research in the November 2020 issue of Nature Communications.  

Coincidentally or not, one of the main areas of the genome where Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon ancestry was reduced over time is the one related to language abilities and communication. This may indicate that they were more limited in expressing themselves and communicating in complex ways than humans. This should have huge implications on how much cultural, and religious knowledge and cumulative intellectual skills could be transmitted among them. 

Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons also seem to have been less social, and less adventurous explorers, with more restrictive social networks than humans, who already had increasing long distance trade one to two hundred thousands years ago. Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons also may have had fewer different religions, which slows down the creation of new spiritual insights, moral developments, and knowledge of the possibilities of the stimulation and coordination of many different minds for many different purposes.

The Qur’an may be referring to this when it states: “If your Lord had so willed, He would have made mankind one community, but they continue to remain divided.” (Qur’an 11:118)  

The Torah provides important details about Allah’s ancient dispersion and diversification of human beings, and mankind’s linguistic dissemination. One understanding of the Tower of Babel (Torah Genesis 11:1-9) is that humanity arrogantly challenged God ‘s space by building a “tower; with its head reaching up to the heavens”. 

This is the sin of Pharaoh. that the Qur’an refers to when Pharaoh mockingly and arrogantly asks his associate Haman to build a lofty tower. Pharaoh said: “O Haman! Fire up (a kiln to bake bricks) of clay, and build me a lofty tower, that I may mount up to the God of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Prophet Moses) is a liar!” (28:38)

However, a close reading of the Torah text also shows that what the people actually built was a whole city with a tower, not only to challenge God, but also to “make a name for themselves, lest they be dispersed over the whole earth.”

In the aftermath of Noah’s flood, generations of humans were fearful and anxiety ridden. They felt very weak and vulnerable; and they only wanted to huddle together in one place. Humanity did not want curiosity to lead people to explore other locations and thus promote change and development (going against God”s blessing to “fill up the earth” (Torah Genesis 1:28) 

And they especially did not want to expand their knowledge and vocabulary because that promotes non-conformity and diversity. Humans were proud that every single human being spoke the same language, and that their one language had only “a few words” (Torah Genesis 11:1 literal translation from Hebrew).

When the post flood humans said “to one another; come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” (Torah Genesis 11:3) they were doing much more than discussing building methods. Bricks are one of the first building materials created by human beings. Ancient brick makers learned to “burn” bricks by baking them in a very hot oven called a kiln. Manufacturing hundreds of thousands of bricks for very large building projects produced the first mass production factories.

The post flood humans wanted to build their city with uniform manufactured bricks, instead of natural unhewn stones; where each stone is a different shape and color from all the other stones. 

Allah had other plans.

This is why when Prophet Abraham and Prophet Ishmael rebuilt the ruins of the Kabah, they used stones, especially the Kabah’s black cornerstone, and this is why immediately after the giving of the ten commandments the Torah says, “An alter of earth you shall make for me…(Torah Exodus 20:21) and “If you make me an alter of stone, do not build it of hewn stone, for if you use a tool on it, you pollute it. (20:25). 

Thus, an alter of natural unshaped building materials is preferred by both the Islamic and the Jewish traditions to mass-produced manufactured materials. The generations following the flood lacked both a self-confident individual identity and an established positive group identity. 

Their polytheistic account of the flood, found in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, relates that the gods decided to destroy humanity because humans made too much noise, and kept the gods from sleeping. These early humans believed that violence was natural, normal and thus inevitable. 

Widespread human and animal violence would not be punished by polytheistic gods because, in polytheistic myths, the gods themselves spend a lot of time fighting and killing each other. 

The people of Babel believed that one language would guarantee co-operation, so they would not have to learn to respect social or personal differences because there would be no differences at all between individuals or groups of people. 

But Allah planned otherwise: “Let there be no compulsion in Religion: truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah (one God) has grasped the most trustworthy unbreakable hand hold: Allah hears, and knows all things.” (Qur’an:2:256)

They wanted only one group of people, with one and the same language for all humanity. This seemed to them to be an ideal way for humans to create harmony; and avoid strife and violence.

Their plan for the city might have been modeled on their observation of bee hives or termite mounds: lots of close contact, with a high degree of conformity and common purpose. Thank God for religious monotheistic pluralism. 

So does faith in God affect your ability to trust other people? And can religion help build trust in your own community and with other people? A new study explores the connection between religion and trust, especially at a time when trust in political leaders and institutions in general, at least in the United States, is on the decline.

Using data from the General Social Survey, Rubia Valente, at Baruch College, and Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn at Rutgers University isolated two aspects of religion: individual religiosity, with a focus on prayer and belief in God, versus community religiosity, measured by attendance at services or membership in a religious group.

They found higher levels of belief predicted less trust, while higher levels of belonging predicted more trust. They also found that those who belong to religious groups or attend services have a lower level of misanthropy, or dislike of other people. “People that are socially religious — what we classify as belonging — they’re more likely to like people and have a lower misanthropy level,” said Valente.

So religion is not a maladaptive “illusion” (Freud), nor is religion a manipulative power class “opiate” (Marx). Religious behavior is a ubiquitous biological adaptation rooted in Homo Sapiens, because religion, like intelligence, language, art and music, helps human communities survive. The hostility of some religious leaders against modern versions of the theory of evolution is misguided and unnecessary.  

Religion, like intelligence and language. can be used for both good and evil purposes, but this is also true of culture, science, politics and all other important human activities. Since almost all revealed religions teach that humans have a pre-birth soul that predisposes them to respond to a Divine call even before the revelation occurs, I identify the existence of a biological based self- conscience spiritual awareness with the evolution of Homo Sapiens’ religions; especially the imageless, monotheistic religions, like the Abrahamic religions. 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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