Did Religion Simply Evolve to Help Unite Humanity?

Catching up on the Unbelievable? podcast this week I was listening to the episode with Jon Steingard and Sean McDowell. Steingard brought up a common understanding that religion evolved because religious belief structures made it easier to hold larger groups of people together. The theory is that because it is difficult to have intimate relationships with more than 150 people religion (as a fiction) evolved to provide a common structure to unite people. I do not want to pick on Steingard who seems to be dealing with serious questions right now, and frankly he is repeating a popular level understanding of a more complex theory. But I have three basic objections to this theory as support for atheism at least this popular level understanding. I am not objecting to the theory, as such, simply to the idea that it discredits the idea of God. Here I am critiquing the popular level version I have heard, not necessarily the full scientific version. (for an overview of the idea see Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens.) I do not deny that religion can be co-opted by groups to unify individuals (sometimes to monstrous ends), but that is a far cry from religion arising from a need to unify a large group, without any ultimately reality behind it.

Religious sophistication predates the growth of cities. The view that religion evolved to unify humanity relies, in part, on the belief that religious beliefs evolved alongside the growth of human populations. Studies have suggested that humans can develop bonds of intimacy with about 150 people, beyond that number we rely on shared stories to keep us together. A band of 500 people does not need to be woven together by a common myth. In a group of 500 bonds of intimacy can still hold people together, religious ideas would be less of a stabilizing force in the community than simply knowing people. This is because a chief would not need to be bonded to every individual in a tribe, only the men of the community, to produce unity within the tribe. Smaller family units within a tribe could remain united as long as one person shared a bond with others of the group. If all the men were bonded with each other and the women were bonded among themselves groups of 500 could still function relatively well on the grounds of shared intimacy. (Churches of that size today can easily be united around the shared intimacy of a pastor.) Archeological evidence from Göbekli Tepe indicates that religious ideas were very sophisticated far before they would have been needed to hold groups together. Archeologists working on the site suggest that it could be built relatively quickly by 75 individuals. The evidence of Göbekli Tepe suggests that religion evolved to a high degree of sophistication at least a millennium before human communities were large enough to need a shared belief to provide unity. It further seems reasonable that Göbekli Tepe was not the first expression of such complicated religious understanding. This means that religious belief was developing for reasons beyond a need for unity.

The theory denies religious experience. Listening to Steingard and others who have cited this theory there is a starling lack of consideration of religious experience. Religious experiences are a shared trait of humans (presumably including our prehistoric ancestors). Where does the oracle fit into this system? Oracles where often somewhat outside the political and social system of the ancient world. How do we explain the rise of oracles which would eventually come to use religious experiences to undermine the political authority (i.e. prophets confronting kings)? Reading through history, religious experience is often more divisive than uniting. Look at the New Testament house churches of around 20 addressed by Paul and Jude are being torn apart by the results of experiences (far less than the 150 max of intimacy). Clearly individual religious experience would undermine groups not connected with other social bonds.

Other shared myths would be more effective at unifying a community. Here I am using the word “myth” in a more technical sense of shared belief, not in the popular sense of “false story”. Myths around community security would be far more effective in unifying a population than religious structures. A common myth of security in a place or person is often far more effective in unifying people than something less tangible, like many religious ideas. People look for for security, both protection from threats of violence and the elements. The myth that unites people is the one which tells them they are full, warm, and face no violence. Such myths are best constructed around a leader or a place. I see it as far more likely that religion was co-opted by those founding the original cities to further the growing myths that either the leader or growing city was a place of safety. God’s and spirits are intangible and can move with people. growing cities do not need transient spiritual entities; growing cities can though use such stories to backup emerging ideas that this is the safest place to be living or that the king is the best person to lead the people. This idea also fits the evidence better, that humans living in small strongly religious bands for thousands of years before such religions would be used in the development of larger cities.

I do not have issues with the notion that religion evolves; in fact, on the basis that religion is the expression of relationship, we should expect some evolution within religion. I do not deny that religion was a major force in humans establishing large cities and eventually empires. But neither of these thereby indicates that religion is therefore false and only a human construct specifically used to bond people groups. As I look at the evidence it seems that religious development was far earlier than civilization. Likely, this was because of real religious experience and Divine human encounter. Later, as humanity became accustomed to such ideas, less scrupulous individuals began using such religious expression to gain power and control within every increasing communities. We call these individuals “chiefs” and “kings” not priests. As this system developed Kings (with priests) perpetuated the system and were opposed by oracles and prophets contending for true religious experience and expression. I find it easier to believe in a humanity which bends, co-opts, and otherwise corrupts a preexisting religious tradition (particularly if religion is true and God is real) than to believe that humans created a religious myth as a unifying construct for life.

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