What follows is an early draft of a presentation I’ll give at the International Whitehead Conference in June. Comments (constructive or critical) are welcome.
I should like to be able to speak to you, as a philosophical cosmologist, about the origins of human spirituality and religion. But because I am speaking to you from within a particular social context and historical era, and because I like all persons have my own unique way of relating to and evaluating the religious problematic, there is no point in pretending that I can impartially access and lay bare the plain facts of the matter. To inquire into the origins of our species—and to connect those origins to the emergence of religious behavior—is necessarily to step beyond the bounds of strictly empirical or positivist science and into the domain of myth-making. It is important that I be upfront about this, since it does a disservice to the phenomenon in question to pretend that what is essential to it could be accessed in an impersonal or merely academic way. Religion, now and in the past, has more to do with matters of concern than with matters of fact. It provides us with the narratives that give meaning to our existence, that tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. At the same time, religious values are matters of fact arising in the universe of human experience that require interpretation within an adequate cosmological scheme.
Even the most sober-minded materialistic scientists slip into the narrative or mythic mode when they inquire into human origins. The evolutionary form of explanation is especially prone to slip into this mode, since its narrative element is so strong. Evolutionary theory is historical through and through, and to erase the element of story in it would be to rob the theory of all its explanatory power. To understand why a leaf insect looks the way it does today, we need to tell a story about its past, a past none of us was there to observe. It is a strange irony that so many materialists believe evolutionary theory spells the end of religion—that finally, thanks to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the apparent design of living organisms can be explained mechanistically, purposelessly, without any hint of teleology. Materialist science is thereby said to have provided an explanation for what for too long remained the purview of natural theology: Charles Darwin superseded William Paley. As we’ll see, this irony is magnified when the phenomenon of religion is itself subjected to an evolutionary explanation.
In this talk, I will compare several evolutionary accounts of the emergence of religion, including that of Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell (2006), Robert Bellah in Religion in Human Evolution (2011), and Whitehead in Religion in the Making (1926). The latter two thinkers, Bellah and Whitehead, explicitly avoid reductionistic accounts—what Whitehead famously referred to as “heroic feats of explaining away”—and instead seek some form of cosmological reconciliation between scientific theorization and religious myth-making. Dennett, on the other hand, is an unapologetic reductionist. He begins his book by comparing religion to Dicrocelium dendriticum (lancet fluke), a tiny manipulative parasite that infects the brains of ants, compelling them to climb to the top of the nearest blade of grass so as to get themselves eaten by a cow, thereby transporting their fungal stowaways into the nutrient rich environment necessary for the completion of their reproductive cycle. Religion is explained, not as a genetic parasite, but, building on Richard Dawkins meme theory that analogizes natural and cultural evolution, as a memetic parasite, a sort of mind disease. With materialists like Dennett, though the form of evolutionary explanation remains narrativistic, its content has been purified of meaning. By analogizing cultural evolution to the blind process of natural selection, even mind is explained away as mere mimicry. Monkey see, monkey do. Humans, like every other organism from the reductive neo-Darwinian perspective, are not evolutionary actors, but lumbering machines passively shaped by their environment. Religious memes spread not because they were found deeply meaningful to primal peoples but because they proved advantageous to survival and propagation for one reason or another. Now that we have science and know the universe is nothing but a large, complicated, purposelessly operating machine, religion has worn out its usefulness. Or so the story goes.
To be fair to Dennett, his book is less an attempt to provide the definitive explanation for the evolution of religion than it is an argument that religion ought to be studied scientifically as a natural phenomenon. Following thinkers like Bellah and Whitehead, I am largely in agreement with him on this point. But of course it all depends what we mean by “science” and what we mean by “nature.” Dennett offers several potential candidates for what he deems to be a naturalistic explanation of religion, including the idea that humans have evolved some sort of God module or “intentional stance detector” in our brains predisposing us to attribute agency to everything around us, up to and including the universe as a whole. Belief in some sort of cosmic agency, says Dennett, functions to comfort us in the face of death, to bind us together into societies of shared meaning, and to provide simple cultural explanations for complex natural phenomena.
The problem, obvious to anyone who has studied Whitehead’s work closely, is that all of Dennett’s explanations for the evolutionary emergence of religion presuppose what Whitehead’s philosophy of organism so passionately protested against: the bifurcation of nature (see The Concept of Nature). For Dennett, to count as a scientific explanation, the cultural meanings of religion must be reduced to the natural mechanisms of biology. All the seemingly intrinsic values of our human existence must once have been of merely instrumental survival value, otherwise they could not have been preserved by the Darwinian mechanisms of natural and sexual selection. So all seemingly intrinsic value must be explained away as a mere “psychic addition” to what is really the purposeless exchange of genetic or memetic material.
The contrast between Dennett’s reductionistic biological account of religion and Bellah and Whitehead’s more cosmological approach could not be starker. Dennett mentions and even praises William James’ radically empiricist approach to religious experience, only to dismiss it as inadequate for his own, more scientific purposes. Dennett instead trades in James’ psychological microscope for what he describes as a wide-angle biological and social (or sociobiological) lens. For Whitehead and Bellah, biology, psychology, and sociology each have important contributions to make to the study of religion, but in the end the proper lens to take is that of the telescope: human religious behavior must be understood in the broadest context we are capable of imagining, namely, cosmology.
“Cosmology,” says Whitehead, “is the effort to frame a scheme of the general facts of this epoch, of the general character of the present stage of this universe. The cosmological scheme should present the genus, for which the special schemes of the sciences are the species” (The Function of Reason, 77). He goes on: “A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything which will not fit in. Its business is not to refute experience, but to find the most general interpretive system” (ibid., 86).
So long as nature remains bifurcated, reductionistic explanatory strategies like Dennett’s will continue to handicap scientific investigation into the evolutionary emergence of religion. Instead of trying to explain away religious behavior as the accidental result of blind biological forces, we must treat it as a genuine part of the universe we in fact find ourselves living within. Human religious experience, in other words, counts as part of the data that must be included in any adequate account of this universe. From the perspective of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the history of the human species’ religious experience “consists of a certain widespread direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (Religion in the Making, 74).
Stated in more general terms, instead of following the typical, reductionistic logic of evolutionary explanation that would seek to make life and mind mere epiphenomena accidentally emergent from what remains in fact a dead material universe, we can adopt the alternative, no less scientific, Whiteheadian approach.“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms,” admits Whitehead. “But why,” he continues, “why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms. Why not reverse the process?” (The Function of Reason, 15). That is, why not give up the polemical desire to explain away the more complex by reducing it to the less complex by recognizing that, if phenomena like life and mind (and with them, human religiosity) are present in today’s universe, they must have in some sense been prefigured from the beginning. “In the course of evolution,” Whitehead asks, “why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his mental activities…remain without influence on his bodily actions?” In other words, the question we should ask ourselves is “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” Whitehead’s answer is that “…some lowly, diffused form of the operations of [mentality] constitute the vast diffused counter-agency by which the material cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 26). This “counter-agency” is counter to the otherwise entropic tendency of the physical universe, which Whitehead has no interest in denying. Much of the cosmos, including the Sun that feeds all life on our planet, he readily admits, is decaying and will eventually return to chaos. He invokes a counter-agency only out of explanatory necessity, since the mere mechanics of efficient causality cannot account for the current highly organized state of the universe, for the fact that a star like the Sun feeding a living planet like the Earth should have been possible at all. Physicists now understand that far from equilibrium systems are not in fact disobeying the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but more efficiently realizing it. But why must we emphasize entropy as the sole causal tendency, given that physicists now also understand our universe to be self-organizing at every scale? Why not also emphasize “centropy,” the tendency of the universe to organize itself into ever-more complex forms? Alongside efficient causality, final causality is also evident as the creative urge of the universe toward as yet unactualized possibilities of self-organization. If we deny the cosmic extent of purposiveness, logical consistency requires the absurdity that we deny purposiveness in ourselves, as well. For we are the children of this universe.
“Many a scientist,” writes Whitehead, “has patiently designed experiments for the purpose of substantiating his belief that animal operations are motivated by no purposes. He has perhaps spent his spare time in writing articles to prove that human beings are as other animals so that ‘purpose’ is a category irrelevant for the explanation of their bodily activities, his own activities included. Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study” (The Function of Reason, 16).
“It is the accepted doctrine of physical science,” he says elsewhere, “that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (Process and Reality, 119).
Some of you may find it difficult to attribute purposiveness to nonliving systems. More of you are probably willing to attribute it at least to living systems. Despite the ultra-reductionism of neo-Darwinist accounts of evolution, organisms are very clearly participants in their own evolution. They are not the passive recipients of environmental conditions, but have from the beginning been working to reshape their environments in service to their own needs. Organisms do also adapt to their environments, and so Darwin’s theory is not false (natural selection is, Whitehead says, “one of the great generalizations of science” [The Function of Reason, 6]). But the Darwinian mechanism is all too often given more explanatory weight than it can hold, becoming nothing more than an empty “liturgical refrain…chanted over the fossils of vanished species” (ibid.), as Whitehead sarcastically claims. He continues: “If the mere fact of dying out be sufficient proof of maladjustment to the environment, the explanation is reduced to a tautology” (ibid.): “This species survives today because it survived in the past.” We should not forget that we seldom know “the definite character of the struggle which occasioned the disappearance,” and that it is just as if not more true to say that “animals have progressively undertaken the task of adapting the environment to themselves” (ibid., 7).
Bellah similarly grounds his account of the emergence of religion in the broadest possible context by situating human evolution within so-called “Big History”: he spends the first 40 pages of the second chapter of his book, called “Religion and Evolution,” laying out the course of cosmogenesis from the first few seconds after the big bang, through the formation of galaxies and stars, to the solidification of the Earth, to the appearance of the first single-celled procaryotes, then eukaryotes, metazoa, reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally Homo sapiens. He is less confident than Whitehead when it comes to attributing some “metaphysical direction” to the over-all arc of the evolutionary process. He does, however, approvingly reference a comment in The Origin of Species, where Darwin admits that “a little dose…of judgement or reason often comes into play, even in animals very low in the scale of nature” (208). Purpose does seem to operate, then, at least at the scale of individual living beings.
At the end of the long section on cosmic and biotic history, just before beginning the section on the human species, Bellah says the following: “We did not come from nowhere. We are embedded in a very deep biological and cosmological history. This history does not determine us, because organisms from the very beginning, and increasingly with each new capacity, have influenced their own fate [“facilitated variation”]. But our remarkable freedom, which I am happy to affirm, is embedded in a cosmological and biological matrix that influences everything we do. It is a science fiction fantasy that we, or mechanisms that we create, can simply jump our of this history into pure self-determination. We live in a world that includes our own minds and bodies, and we need to respect the world we live in. Remembering all these things, we can now consider how we are different, really different, from all other creatures” (83).
Bellah dwells at length on the many pre-existing mammalian capacities that prepared the way for humans, including extended parental care, empathy and shared attention, ethical relations (including ritualized aggression and mating), and most significantly, the capacity for play. Play becomes especially prominent in young mammals because of the “relaxed field” provided by prolonged empathic parental care. This period extends even more as evolution draws nearer to Homo sapiens, who are born exceptionally prematurely and remain in childhood longer than any other species. Play is not initially a functional capacity that might be selected for by the normal Darwinian mechanisms. It appears to be engaged in purely for its own sake, as an end in itself. Play has nothing to do with sexual reproduction or eating (though it may be erotic and enjoyable), nor can we play while fleeing or fighting for our lives. This is not to say that play may not become functional later on. “Play,” says Bellah, “emerged in the evolution of mammals as a sphere sheltered to some degree from selectionist pressures, having its end internal to its practice, however much it may have proved adaptive in secondary and tertiary forms” (112). Bellah cites numerous ethologists who described the way bouts of playfulness in some primate species leads to the neutralization of hierarchies and physical inequalities among play partners, such that a sort of proto-justice appears to emerge. More than any other animal behavior, play requires the capacity, not only for shared attention, but for shared intention. Shared attention and intention—in a word, empathy—is the precondition for any form of sociality.
Here is where Bellah’s approach becomes really interesting. He posits that early hominids developed the first ritual activities out of complexified forms of play, and that once our symbolic capacities developed sufficiently, these ritualized activities took on religious significance. Religion, then, grows out of the implications of ritual. Religion is not therefore primarily something you merely believe in; it is something you do. Early rituals, we can speculate based on the archeological evidence, emerged out of collective celebration involving song and dance. Most probably, these celebrations were in tune with lunar and seasonal rhythms. The earliest religious rituals were cosmologically embedded celebrations of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. These ritual celebrations were not based on beliefs in supernatural beings, but on deep perception of and desire to participate in the rhythms animating the actual earth and sky. These rituals no doubt helped to establish social solidarity and group identity, but these functions cannot be offered a causal explanations for the evolution of religion. The exact opposite is the case: social solidarity is better understood as an effect of ritual play, not its cause.
Bellah’s book draws extensively on the work of Johan Huizinga, who I will quote at length: “Archaic society, we would say, plays as the child or animal plays. Such playing contains at the outset all the elements proper to play: order, tension, movement, change, solemnity, rhythm, rapture. Only in a later phase of society is play associated with the idea of something to be expressed in it and by it, namely what we call ‘life’ or ‘nature.’ Then, what was wordless play assumes poetic form. In the form and function of play, itself an independent entity which is senseless and irrational, man’s consciousness that he is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression. Gradually the significance of a sacred act permeates the playing. Ritual grafts itself upon it; but the primary thing is and remains play” (Homo Ludens, 17-18).
Rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play short-circuits any attempt to explain religion in terms of biological utility, since by definition play is not about working as a means to the ultimate end of survival, but about sheer enjoyment as an end in itself. We might also describe ritual as serious play (following Huizinga who points out that the opposite of play is not seriousness, but work). That animals should engage in play behavior is already a sign that reductionistic accounts of biological evolution miss something when they ignore organismic agency and focus exclusively on the struggle for existence and fitness to a pre-existing environment. Life, as Whitehead well knew, isn’t just about mere survival. The urge of life seeks more than mere survival; it seeks to thrive, to “live well, and to live better” (Religion in the Making, 8). If survival was the name of the game, matter would have done better to remain in rock form, for compared to minerals, life is deficient in survival value.
Whitehead, like Bellah, also roots religious behavior in ritual forms of play (see Religion in the Making, 10). Both he and Bellah offer strikingly similar accounts of the stages of religious evolution (ritual—>emotion–>myth/belief–>rationalization for Whitehead; mimetic–>mythic–>theoretic for Bellah), the details of which I don’t have time to get into in this talk. What is important for both of them is the fact that religion of the theoretic or rational type (the sort we are most familiar with today) grows out of and remains dependent upon non-rational forms of mythic speech and ritual play. Again, an adequate account of the emergence of religion in human evolution makes it clear that it is not primarily about what one believes, but about what one does.
Bellah describes ritual play as an experiential opening transporting us into a non-ordinary reality, a reality transcending the everyday world of work. The idea is not to transcend work entirely, which would be impossible, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realties that we participate in. A certain degree of work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains what we are to survive for: if not to engage in ever-more ingenious forms of play, then for what? And what does it mean that ritualized play, and the spiritual efflorescence it provides, is at the existential core of our cultural lives?
One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Gobekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in the 1960s, provides us with a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to the agricultural modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.” The great deal of detailed planning and hard work required to construct such a temple—a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually enacted relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play—makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the playful. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for more elaborate forms of play. Not only religion, but science and art, too, are born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.
It would be inappropriate to go into it in this talk, but this understanding of the origins of religion (and culture more generally) in ritualized play provides a powerful critique of the economic values guiding our contemporary society, where it seems that work has become an end in itself, and where play, when we find the time for it, has little connection to the rhythms of the earth and wider cosmos in which we are embedded. Are we here to toil extracting Earth’s resources, competing with one another for more money to consume more products, or are we here to ritually participate in the cycles of cosmic creativity?
To end, let me return to where I began this talk by admitting that my account of religion in human and cosmic evolution cannot pretend to objectivity or impartiality. Religion, as both Whitehead and Bellah knew, is a profoundly personal matter. Whitehead defines religion at one point as “the wider conscious reaction of men to the universe in which they find themselves” (31). Science, too, when it tries to tell the story of the universe (in other words when it cosmologizes), inevitably becomes religious. Bellah makes this quite clear when he psychoanalyzes the popular works of scientific luminaries like Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Jaques Monod. It became even clearer to me when I watched Alex Rosenberg during a recent cosmology and theology conference introduce Charles Darwin and Lord Kelvin as “old testament fathers” and describe images of a leaf insect, a double helix DNA molecule, and a chamber full of gas particles as “iconography”—that is, religious icons whose contemplation is supposed to convert you to the laws they express. Each of these supposedly scientific thinkers ends up offering their own physical or biological sermon, pretending all the while to have achieved some sort of heroic post-religious and so purely scientific rationality. The implication of course is that they are adults while the rest of us are cowardly children afraid to accept the pointlessness of our own existence, terrified of the fact that we are, as Monod put it, “[gypsies living] on the edges of an alien world” (48).
Part of what makes so many scientific materialists averse to accounts of the evolution of religion like that of Whitehead and Bellah is that the latter seem at first to be both anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. When Whitehead claims that photons, protons, electrons, stars and galaxies are species of organism in possession of feelings and desires, and that their ecological evolution is analogous to that of bacteria, plants, and animals, isn’t he just projecting human or at best vital capacities onto a dead inanimate collection of objects? Maybe. That is, unless we are willing to reconsider the bifurcation of nature. What if the scientific attitude of “austere objectivity” makes the scientist constitutionally immune to infection by the subjectivity of the universe? Overcoming the incoherence of the bifurcation of nature will require a new scientific outlook, since the materialist interpretation of science makes it impossible to understand how life and consciousness (not to mention religious expression) could be a part of this universe. We are left having to claim they are astronomically improbable accidents, which to my mind is the exact opposite of an adequate scientific explanation. What if, instead of turning our own existence into an absurdity, we look again at the universe and ask “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” This is not to center the universe on the human, or to make the universe in the image of the human, it is only to admit the evident fact that we are the children of this cosmos. For better or worse, the space-time of this world is our parental unit. We are not an accidental appearance in this world, we are what the universe has come to be doing here and now, the most genuine expression of its essence we could ever hope to discover.
Bellah is not as metaphysically confident as Whitehead about the cosmic extent of meaning or the anthropic tendency of the cosmos. But he is by no means a cosmic pessimist, like Dennett and the other materialists I’ve mentioned. Bellah takes his stand not on an ambitious metaphysical cosmology, but on the phenomenological theology of Martin Buber. Buber distinguished the two fundamental ways of relating to reality: 1) the I-It relation, which objectifies the world into dead things to be manipulated, and 2) the I-You relation, which perceives the world as full of subjectivities, and as itself a subject (i.e., God, the “eternal You”). Building on Buber, Bellah writes: “In a species that has come to be what it is primarily because it is social, even, as some have said, supersocial, it is not surprising that the I-You relation would at the highest level of meaning trumpet the I-It relation. To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need—based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play—to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal” (104).
Understanding how religion could have emerged from mammalian play requires shifting from the I-It to the I-You mode of relation. “In the observation of play,” says Bellah, “and even more clearly in actually playing with an animal, it is almost impossible not to have an I-You relation, which arouses suspicions that one is not really doing science” (82). The I-It relation leads the scientific materialist to a view of evolving organisms as passive machines, rather than creative actors. Grasping the creative, purposeful, playful dimension of organic life requires that we adopt the more participatory I-You relation to evolution, which is what Whitehead invites us to do when he reverses the typical logic of evolutionary explanation. We can even adopt such an I-You relation to ourselves, as Terrence Deacon describes when he says that “Human consciousness is not only an emergent phenomenon, it epitomizes the logic of emergence in its very form…To be human is to know what it feels like to be evolution happening” (quoted in Religion in Human Evolution, 101).
“The final principle of religion,” says Whitehead, “is that there is a wisdom in the nature of things, from which flow our direction of practice, and our possibility of the theoretical analysis of fact…Religion insists that the world is a mutually adjusted disposition of things, issuing in a value for its own sake. This is the very point that science is always forgetting” (Religion in the Making, 128).
Science deals with the facts, but in its immature and hubristic rush to overthrow the religious social matrix from which it emerged a few hundred years ago, it has neglected to include the values of the universe alongside the facts. For what is a fact, metaphysically speaking? Whitehead’s non-bifurcated image of nature is a rejection of the fallacy of vacuous actuality. To be actual, for Whitehead, means to subjectively enjoy existence as an end in itself, to value oneself as an actuality and to be valued by other actualities. Without the value-experience of human and nonhuman subjectivities, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness” (Process and Reality, 167).