Neanderthals Were Smart: Humans Were Smart And Religious – OpEd


“At that time humans began to invoke YHVH by name” (Genesis 4:26) Neanderthals created stone tools held together by a multi-component adhesive. The stone tools were used by the Neanderthals during the Middle Palaeolithic period between 120,000 and 40,000 years ago. This shows that Neanderthals had a higher level of cognition and cultural development than previously thought. So why are they gone while humans are still here?

The following essay helps open-minded religious people understand why religious beliefs  helped Homo Sapiens to outlast the competition. At first humans believed in the local world of spirits. They invoked the spirits of their dead ancestors. The oldest Homo sapiens skulls-160, 000 year-old fossil bones-were polished after death by continuous handling. The earliest examples of ritual burials are from 2 sites in northern Israel dated 90-100,000 years ago. 

Red ochre is frequently associated with ritual burials. Qafzeh Cave in Israel is a remarkable site that contains many skeletons of humans who lived there about 100,000 years ago. Archaeologists have recently discovered 71fragments of red ochre – a form of iron oxide that yields a pigment when heated – alongside bones in the cave. The ochre was only found alongside the bones. 

Early humans worshiped spirits in trees, springs and other natural phenomena. They invoked many different animal spirits. Shamans and medicine women fought the many demon spirits that caused illness and misfortune. A feline-headed human figure from Germany, thought to be 32,000 to 34,000 years old, might be evidence of a belief system in which shamans were thought to have supernatural powers. Most cave art from 15-25,000 years ago features animal figures and probably reflects Shamanistic rituals. 

Every human band or tribal community had dozens of names for spirits. In some societies hundreds of Gods could be called upon by name. This universal pagan nature religion remained widespread in the Americas, Africa, the Pacific Islands and Europe even after the generation of Enosh. There was little overall order or structure in this spiritual world. There was no awareness of a unified creation, plan, purpose or destiny.

Then in the generation of Enosh, whose uncle built the first town (Genesis 4:17), humans began to invoke YHVH by name i.e. they formed a hierarchy of Gods with a creator God or high God at the top. Often this high God was remote and later generations of Gods were more important. Rarely was this creator God an ethical lawgiver. 

This became the religious view of the urbanized polytheistic religions of the Far and Middle East as well as parts of Africa and Mesoamerica. This attempt to perceive an order and system among the spirit forces moved humans closer to the Divine reality: YHVH. With Abraham (and later Akhenaten) the perception of monotheism begins to take root in human spirituality but that is only part of the whole. 

The Torah tells us that not until the generation of the Exodus was the one God YHVH known as the lawgiver of sacred scripture. “I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not let myself be known to them by my name YHVH.” (Exodus 6:3) El Shaddai in Hebrew means the God who is sufficient to meet all present and future challenges. It also means the God of (mother’s) nurturing breasts. 

This signifies the divine spirit within each individual, or the maternal nurturing mystical soul that is invoked in most Indian and some East Asian religions; the mystical religions of inner enlightenment and personal rebirth or escape from the corruption of the material world. This is an advance beyond invoking spirits and the hierarchy of sky Gods or a remote high God. 

However, YHVH is a God of history and society; a God of human society’s spiritual and moral growth. YHVH isn’t fully realized until Israel’s covenant with the Divine lawgiver, who is the source of Western society’s ethics and morality. 

Before the end of the Biblical period Jews stopped audibly invoking the name YHVH (today we say simply HaShem- the name) because they feared some people would make an idol of this name; demanding belief only in their own verbal definition of the one God. 

In the final stage (the Messianic Age) YHVH, the unpronounceable HaShem; the one and only God, who should not be represented by any image or incarnation; will be invoked by all humanity, even while each people still retains its own religion and its own name for God. “In days to come…All peoples will walk, each in the name of their God, and we will walk in the name of YHVH our God for ever and ever.” (Micah 4:5)

So does faith in God affect your ability to trust other people? And can religion help build trust in your 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, assistant professor at Baruch College, and Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn of 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.

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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