The Evolution of Religion

The essence of religion is communal: religious rituals are performed by assemblies of people. The word itself, probably derived from the Latin religare, meaning to bind, speaks to its role in social cohesion. Religious ceremonies involve emotive communal actions, such as singing or dancing, and this commonality of physical action reinforces the participants' commitment to the shared religious views. The propensity for religious belief may be innate since it is found in societies around the world. Innate behaviors are shaped by natural selection because they confer some advantage in the struggle for survival. But if religion is innate, what could that advantage have been?

No one can describe with certainty the specific needs of hunter-gatherer societies that religion evolved to satisfy. But a strong possibility is that religion coevolved with language, because language can be used to deceive, and religion is a safeguard against deception. Religion began as a mechanism for a community to exclude those who could not be trusted. Later, it grew into a means of encouraging communal action, a necessary role in hunter-gatherer societies that have no chiefs or central authority. It was then co-opted by the rulers of settled societies as a way of solidifying their authority and justifying their privileged position. Modern states now accomplish by other means many of the early roles performed by religion, which is why religion has become of less relevance in some societies. But because the propensity for religious belief is still wired into the human mind, religion continues to be a potent force in societies that still struggle for cohesion.

A distinctive feature of religion is that it appeals to something deeper than reason: religious truths are accepted not as mere statements of fact but as sacred truths, something that it would be morally wrong to doubt. This emotive quality suggests that religion has deep roots in human nature, and that just as people are born with a propensity to learn the language they hear spoken around them, so too they may be primed to embrace their community's religious beliefs.

Can the origin of religion be dated? A surprising answer is yes, if the following argument is accepted. Like most behaviors that are found in societies throughout the world, religion must have been present in the ancestral human population before the dispersal from Africa 50,000 years ago. Although religious rituals usually involve dance and music, they are also very verbal, since the sacred truths have to be stated. If so, religion, at least in its modern form, cannot pre-date the emergence of language. It has been argued earlier that language attained its modern state shortly before the exodus from Africa. If religion had to await the evolution of modern, articulate language, then it too would have emerged shortly before 50,000 years ago. If both religion and language evolved at the same time, it is reasonable to assume that each emerged in interaction with the other. It is easy enough to see why religion needed language, as a vehicle for the sharing of religious ideas. But why should language have needed religion?

The answer may have to do with the instinct for reciprocal altruism that is a principal cohesive force in human society, and specifically with its principal vulnerability, the freeloaders who may take advantage of the system without returning favors to others. Unless freeloaders can be curbed, a society may disintegrate, since membership loses its advantages. With the advent of language, freeloaders gained a great weapon, the power to deceive. Religion could have evolved as a means of defense against freeloading. Those who committed themselves in public ritual to the sacred truth were armed against the lie by knowing that they could trust one another. The anthropologist Roy Rappaport argued that sanctified statements were early societies' antidote to the misuse of the newly emerged powers of language. "This implies that the idea of the sacred is as old as language," he wrote, "and that the evolution of language and of the idea of the sacred were closely related, if not bound together in a single mutual causal process." The emergence of the sacred, he suggested, "possibly helped to maintain the general features of some previously existing social organization in the face of new threats posed by an

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