Evolution Increases Religious Awareness – OpEd


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

Most people think that the name ‘human’ or ‘mankind’ should be reserved only for our own species. Not using the name ‘human’ and ‘man’ carelessly would help resolve most of the conflict over the theory of evolution. The theory of  evolution can help us understand why religion is so important for human survival and why religion is universal. Indeed, modern Homo Sapiens could be better named Homo Religiosus, a term used by some scholars in religious studies and anthropology.      

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. The ability to genetically modify both plants and animals gives humanity a significant role in the future evolution of  life. 

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 social and personal life. Only one of millions of species on this planet can consciously have an impact on the evolution of life. That species is Homo Sapiens. 

Religion provides guidance and direction to enable humans to be good stewards of nature rather than destroyers of society and nature. Thus it is only natural that God has inspired thousands of individuals to urge their communities to live according to God’s will. But first humans had to be prepared to be receptive to the words of the prophets. Although no one knows exactly how spiritual awareness arose, the following scenarios seem reasonable to me.

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 their group and their descendants’ chances of survival. These species have developed cultural 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 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 had been evolving larger and larger brains for several 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. HN co-inhabited in Europe and parts of western Asia with HS- anatomically modern humans, from about 120,000 to 30,000 years ago. 

Spiritual activities among HS have evolved over the last 100-120,000 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. 

Homo Sapiens (HS) faced at least half a dozen different challenges over the last 100-120,000 years that stimulated spiritual developments that improved survival rates both for groups and individuals within the group. One of the greatest challenges to increased intellectual development is anxiety and self-imposed stress. The more HS can think about things, the greater the ability to produce anxiety and self-imposed stress that are debilitating by themselves, and also depress the immune system. Anything that reduces stress and anxiety increases survival rates for intelligent minds. Also as successful groups got larger it became harder and harder to keep them from getting into internal conflict and splitting. 

Larger groups, or groups with strong alliances, were more likely to win when there was intergroup conflict and had  less negative effects from inbreeding. Anything that helped larger groups create bonds that were more than extended family and clan, and behavioral norms that could unite two or more clans, would increase survival rates.  Individuals with a mental illness could not contribute much to a tribe or band. Anything that helped heal or integrate these individuals would help survival rates. These are some of the situations faced by a species that began using its mind more and more.

The first challenge is also the ultimate one: death. Homo Sapiens is the only living species that knows in advance that death is inevitable. Genesis 2:17 teaches “on the day you eat it (the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will know) you will surely die.” Elephants, Chimpanzees and Orangutans have been observed to mourn for a dead child, but no other living species practices ritual burial. The intelligent minds of HS responded to the death of loved ones by creating funeral rites and rituals of ancestor worship. Evidence from Qafzeh cave in northern Israel of ritual burial and grave goods (red ocher and mollusk shells of an inedible species) goes back 90-100,000 years or more. 

These funeral rituals brought comfort and solace to the mourners. Funeral rituals also had the important effect of strengthening group solidarity at a time when leadership might be challenged and changing. Strengthening group solidarity reduced internal conflict and violence thus increasing the chances of raising children to adulthood. Humans were buried in an Israeli cave more than 90,000 years ago (Science News: 10/29/03). And Neandertals buried their dead in an Iraqi Kurdistan cave 60,000 to 70,000 years ago (SN: 2/18/20).

Although other species also dream, the intelligent minds of HS creatively concluded that dreams about the dead showed that the dead were still active and could continue to help their descendants. Thus departed spirits ought to be venerated and worshiped. It is possible that nomadic hunter-gatherer bands used the skulls of important individuals in community rituals for many centuries. Two HS skulls from Herto in Ethiopia, well worn through handling, have been dated to more than 140,000 years ago. These ritual activities strengthened feelings of kinship within and among hunter-gatherer bands enabling them to be more stable and grow larger. This in turn increased the chances for survival for individuals within the more effective bands and clans. 

Ritual activities and ideas about help available from deceased ancestors reduced stress and anxiety and so led HS to expand the realm of spirits to the treatment of physical and mental illness. We now know that anxiety and stress weaken the immune system and increase the chances of not surviving an otherwise survivable illness. Anything that reduces anxiety and stress increases survival rates. This is one key reason that religious behavior became ubiquitous. 

Illness, especially mental illnesses that tend to be chronic rather than fatal, provided serious challenges to the intelligent minds of HS. Epilepsy, Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Phobias, Bipolar Disorders and other brain diseases occur in at least 2-3% of the population worldwide. Thus there should be at least one or two cases in every band of 50-100 people. Severe cases are very scary and disabling, but the intelligent minds of HS could react to the challenge of mild cases with a variety of rituals and practices that served to alleviate the symptoms through mind-body interactions that we recognize today as placebo faith healing. Placebo faith healing works primarily by reducing pain through endorphin release and increasing the strength of an individual’s immune response, which is weakened by stress and anxiety. Only HS are known to be capable of placebo spiritual healing.

Chanting, drumming, dancing, meditation and fasting are widespread ways of inducing an alternative consciousness that helps alleviate pain, stress and anxiety. With the support of a community of believers, and a tradition that enhances their individual hope and trust results would be even better. A cure, either short or long term, isn’t the only outcome in faith healing. The ceremony itself can reduce many of the side effects of the illness such as depression, stress, anger and negativity. This often ameliorates symptoms and brings relief. Chronic illness negatively impacts the immune system and eventually increases death rates. Ritual faith healing ameliorates symptoms for many people in these types of situations. This reintegrates the ‘possessed’ into a support group and reduces stress, strengthens the immune system and reduces death rates. 

A tiny charismatic minority, who themselves had struggled successfully to overcome these diseases, may became guides to others. These Shaman guides undertook journeys into a realm of evil spirits who they believed had caused these afflictions and effected cures. A cave at Shanidar, Iraq yielded the skeleton of a badly disabled older Homo Neanderthal that the excavator thought might be a Shaman. Since this individual could not hunt and thus support himself, the excavator suggested that the man, disfigured by his shrunken arm and damaged eye, was thought “touched” by the spirits. Thus he might be able to communicate with them on behalf of the community. So the band had supported him, while he intervened with the spirits on their behalf. The bear skull found next to him, the red flowers piled upon his grave, and a ring of stones around the grave are all evidence of his ritual importance. His advanced age suggested that his HN group revered him for years. 

Elders of each family unit, usually in the home, regularly carry on ancestor worship to this day in East Asian religions. Shamans however, were called in as specialists for unusual situations. These Shamans were the first professionals. Their disciples were their most successful patients. Shamans in different bands and tribes most likely exchanged experiences and techniques with each other. Recent outcomes of psychotherapy studies have shown that Native American Healers have cure rates similar to those of modern clinical psychologists. The growing awareness of positive religious influences on restoring health has even entered medical school curricula. In 1995 only 17 American medical schools incorporated patient spirituality in their curricula; ten years later the number had increased to 101.

Brain diseases may be mysterious and scary but they are not contagious. Infectious diseases are. The intelligent minds of HS observed the spread of disease by contact or proximity and concluded that dangerous invisible pollution could occur. The most obvious source of pollution was a new corpse. It could pollute its surroundings and the people it came in contact with. This pollution is contagious. Even second and third hand pollution is dangerous. And very small amounts of pollution are also dangerous. Thus action must be taken to isolate or purify what has become polluted. Although newly dead corpses are the most potent source of contagion, fresh blood, especially menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth (a time of great danger to both mother and newborn due to infection) is also disturbing. 

By extension, other bodily issues like nocturnal emissions; running sores, and some activities like slaughter; and breaking taboos can also be viewed as polluting. Those who devoted themselves to restoring ritual purity achieved status and power. Their techniques and personalities were more bureaucratic than those of the charismatic Shamans, and so they were more likely to establish a hereditary priesthood. Ritually purifying things that were polluted became important to restoring a positive, hopeful and therefore healthy balance to society.

Without successful reproduction no species can flourish, or even survive. HS were as subject to the biological imperative (commandment) to be fruitful and multiply as all other species. But the intelligent minds of HS knew the dangers of childbirth. Infant mortality rates in most tribes were more than one in four. The maternal death rate for every four births was more than one in ten. Pregnancy was highly desired and birth anxiously awaited. Pregnant women naturally sought the physical help of their mothers and grandmothers who in turn sought the spiritual help of their now departed mothers and grandmothers. Among the earliest Gods were birth Goddesses. 

Small stone figures of very pregnant birth Goddesses often referred to as “Venus” figures go back 30-40,000 years. They are the first examples of iconic religion. The worship of spirits within natural phenomena does not need iconic representation. But birth rarely took place in the open or in public. The birth Goddess needed to be present in some tangible way in order to ease the anxiety of women in labor. Even today in some African countries the maternal mortality rate is 3% per birth. A woman who gave birth to 8 children had a one in four chance of dying from giving birth. Any band would benefit even if the presence of Goddesses reduced that mortality rate by only 5%. Carvings in wood of birth Goddesses probably preceded stone statues by many millennia; maybe 50-80,000 years ago. 

Shamans also found that visual aids helped their patients relate to the mysterious struggle that the Shaman fought in the foreign spirit world. Since the spirits of animals were often involved both as friend and foe, much of prehistoric rock art (especially in difficult to access caves) probably relates to Shamanistic healing rites.  Eventually iconic representations of gods and spirits would become almost universal. In historic times these icons would be viewed by increasing numbers of people as representatives rather than incarnations of the Divine.

There was no reason to limit activities of spirits to the realm of the dead or the diseased. All natural phenomena could be motivated by spirit minds. Self-aware intelligent minds that can read the intentions and motivations of others can also project all kinds of motivations onto other people, animals, objects and events. The movement of herds; the quantity of animals, fruits and spring water; thunder, floods and drought; indeed everything that happens in nature can be ascribed to the will of spirits. Gifts and offerings should be able to influence these spirits (intelligent minds do not like to admit to impotence) and so regular offerings should be made by a group/clan/tribe, to keep the natural forces friendly. 

Western anthropologists influenced by Christian thinking refer to these offerings as sacrifices. The biblical Hebrew term korban is both more accurate and more insightful. The verb l’karayv means to draw near or come close. A korban is a way to attach, engage or bind the human realm to the spirit realm. When food and drink are offered to another person it is not a sacrifice. Food and liquid offerings are an invitation to a closer relationship. 

Especially during ceremonial occasions food and drink serve to bring people together, including those who have been estranged from one another because of transgressions that have occurred. Thus offerings to the Gods can help people who feel estranged from God return to a closer (karayv) relationship. Offerings help people reunite or reconcile with God. The food offered to a God is usually eaten wholly or in part by those who contribute it or by the priests who offer it. The Biblical God doesn’t want grain or meat offerings (Psalm 40:7). Humans offer them, especially when they feel estranged from the Divine, in order to draw closer (karayv) to the Divine. Only human sacrifice should be called sacrifice. While human sacrifice was widespread in the past it was usually relatively rare.

Ritual specialists, who unlike charismatic Shamans are more likely to be administrator types, usually direct these offerings. As time goes on the rites tend to get more complex and the necessary skills require more training. Those people performing the complex rites easily become a hereditary cast of professional priests. They sometimes also offer an alternative type of leadership to that of the hunter/warrior types. Priests can become the custodians of the customary law of the tribe. 

Priests can offer advice to help in making important decisions by consulting the gods to determine their will. Fortune telling enables decision-makers to avoid the backlash of wrong decisions while claiming credit for the good ones. Divination also reduces many people’s anxiety about difficult decisions in unclear situations. Even today millions of Americans still consult astrology charts and in Asia people in many Buddhist temples still cast their fortunes.

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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