An article recently came out some outlining common explanations of where religious thought comes from. I become weary when people attempt to talk about “religious thought” as if there were such a thing. The fact is that the distinction in the west between the secular and the religious is a recent one, more or less springing up with the enlightenment. In addition, it’s important to point out that there is no broad “religious thought” just as there is no broad “political thought.” In politics there is Liberal thought, Socialist thought, Conservative thought, in the past there was Monarchist thought and so on. In religion there is very little that can be said when comparing say, Roman Catholicism and Zen Buddhism, or Ancient Aztec human sacrifice cults and Jainism.
The theory behind the first model in the article (and the scientists it’s representing) is that people, for evolutionary purposes, began to think of nature as having agency, thus assigning some sort of deity to nature, and the idea is that now we know better. The problem is what is being described is not really religion; rather, it is a kind of primitive science. Aristotle, for example, assigned a kind of “will” or “agency” to everything, describing how everything in the world desired to go to its natural place, all the way up to the prime mover. That is not religion in the sense of how us moderns think of religion though. If you look at ancient non-Abrahamic religions, most of them have nothing to do with explanations of how the world works, or what causes things in the world. Most of the religious narratives were a combination of primordial myths, stories of the gods and how the gods came to be and creation myths of how out of some conflict, sexual union, or chaos the world or aspects of the world came to be and cultic practices of keeping the cyclic structure of the universe going, or appeasing the gods.
In a sense there was no, and could be no, such thing as a difference between science and religion, the empirical evidence and pattern seeking of what we would today call “science” coincided with the cultic practices and mythological story telling of what we would today call “religion.” There was also no real “God” in the sense of what we would understand God to be in the modern West. The gods were not the ground of all being, morality and purpose, they did not create the universe, nor were they omnipotent or omniscient. The gods were fallible, they made mistakes, they had origins, they could be manipulated through magical practices, they are subject to a higher divine realm, some were bad, some were good, they could die and so on. The sods were not multiple “Gods” in the Abrahamic sense, but rather, they were what we would think of today as super-beings. You wouldn’t go to your local priest of Baal or Zeus to answer moral questions, you’d go to a philosopher, or a prophet or some sorts. Nor would you go to the priest of Baal or Zeus for an explanation of the universe, you’d go to an astronomer or some other wise man.
Compare that with the Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no primordial origin of God myth, the very notion that there could be one would be considered blasphemous. There is no creation myth in the pagan sense of a conflict, sexual union, or some world emerging from the chaos. Rather there is Genesis 1:1, the world is created by God, purposefully, rationally, and it is, in fact, not divine, but rather created by the Divine. In the Abrahamic religions morality is not simply an intellectual exercise to be thought out by Philosophers. Rather morality is the religious obligation of the faithful who serve a God of Justice, who is not only Just, but rather the ground of justice itself. There are no stories of sexual mischief or rivalries because, in the Abrahamic faiths, God is the infinite and the ultimate, not simply a powerful being among powerful beings. Creation, in the Abrahamic worldview, is not the result of chaos, but rather the result of a single, rational, purposeful and good creator.
My point is there is a categorical difference, not just a creedal or ideological difference, between the Abrahamic worldview and the Pagan worldview.
Therefore, the narrative of the scientists in the article is wrong. It’s not that religion mystified the world, and science came and described it rationally. Rather it’s that the world was mysterious, religion (in the sense that we understand it today, not the ancient sense where it encompassed almost everything) came along, specifically Abrahamic religion, created the modern concept of religion, and in the process de-mystified the world. After the world was de-mystified by the Abrahamic faiths, the path for science was paved to describe it rationally. If anyone is interested in reading more about the historical de-mystification of nature the book “A secular Age” by Catholic Philosopher Charles Taylor would be great resource.
Once the Abrahamic faiths killed of the Gods, and de-mystified the world, science could describe the world according to its own internal logic, once you can do that, you can write God out of the picture for that process (even though it is only that God which gave you the grounds for seeing the world as rational). Once you’ve written out God, you can look back at the ancients, see the Abrahamic God that you’ve dumped, and put him along with the other gods, as some supernatural anthropomorphising of nature, assigning agency to what the scientists now “know” (they don’t really know, it’s more of a working assumption) is dead. However let’s, for the sake of argument look at an example of what “science” was pre-Christianity, for that we can take Aristotle in his work, Physics Book 2 (part 8):
It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the shipbuilding art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in art, it is present also in nature. The best illustration is a doctor doctoring himself: nature is like that. It is plain then that nature is a cause, a cause that operates for a purpose.
It’s not that Aristotle was a bad scientist naively assigning agency because he didn’t have the resources to find a natural explanation; it’s that he was a good scientist functioning with a different worldview. It wasn’t either that he was held down by some religious dogma, he most certainly was not; it’s that he simply thought it absurd that nature would not have a kind of purposeful agency. Although Aristotle had a Prime Mover, a kind of God, he did not have an Abrahamic, personal God who actually created nature rationally according to his will. Aristotle was one of the best scientists of the enchanted world. None the less, in order to get to what we understand as modern science, the world needed to be disenchanted, for that we needed to go through the Abrahamic faiths.
One problem with this article, and the many scientists who look at how religion functions, is that they assume their own axioms that exist in science, as simply given. Nothing is a given, and given the scientific communities insist on the idea that humans are no more than advanced animals, they should be the first to question their own axiomatic assumptions (given that they take themselves as no more than advanced animals), especially when they are outside of their own realm and into something like religion.
How about the other theory posited? That religion develops as an aid to cooperation. Again the theory (like the first one) ignores the fact that there is no such thing as “religion” as a single ideological category in the sense that we think of it today. It also ignores the fact that what we call religion now has huge fundamental differences to other religions of the past, as well as of the present. So for example there are Buddhist practices which require almost no “social contract:” There are also religions that don’t in anyway attempt to get people to act in an unselfish way, in fact much of paganism had almost nothing to do with how people acted.
There’s also a conceptual problem here. The idea is that religion came about in order to promote social cooperation. Whereas the correct way to put it is either that human communities were inherently social and thus religion formed in a social way. Or that religions that were social outlasted those that were not because they promoted things that increased social cooperation, which in turn increased the chances of group survival. Neither of these descriptions are explanations of where religion comes from, or the purpose of religion, rather they are simply descriptions of how ideas affect social cooperation, or vice versa.
To take an example, let’s take the idea of bars. An anthropologist could say that a society with bars would survive and thrive because bars increase the chance of people of the opposite sex finding a wide range of potential sexual partners, which in turn adds to the population and increases the gene pool. Alternatively, they could argue that a bar would increases social cohesion so that when a threat comes, the community is more likely to work together due to the fact that they have spent time together drinking at the bar. Do any of these stories explain the reason why someone would open a bar in a neighbourhood? Are people who open bars thinking of the population growth, the gene poll or a potential response to threats in the community? No, of course not, the reasons that bars open in communities are completely unrelated to those “evolutionary” side effects.
The point I want to press here is that we should be weary of those who believe that their methodology is omniscient, be it scientists, critical theorists or theologians. We also need to understand the world we live in, how it affects our thinking, and not take our own assumptions for granted. Science is a wonderful thing, but when a scientist comes along and says that he can tell a scientific story that will fully explain a deep fundamental part of human experience in the same way one can explain the orbit of the earth around the sun, be suspicious, check his assumptions, and check what is really being explained.