13 October 2022
How religion evolved and why it endures?

How religion evolved and why it endures?

Religion has been part and parcel of virtually every culture and civilisation the world over. But what is it, where did it come from, and could it ever fade away?

Religion has been a powerful force throughout human history. Indeed, according to some religions God would have created humans and the world.

And yet the human experience of religion would only be a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of human evolution, according to Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford.

Dunbar argues that it was only with the emergence of Homo Sapiens – anatomically modern humans – around 200,000 years ago that religion became part of the human experience. Religion he defines as “belief in some kind of transcendental world... inhabited by spirit beings or forces".

How religion evolved?

The trigger for religion was Sapiens’ much stronger cognitive abilities, and the ability to “mentalise” -- an ability that Neanderthals and other “Homos” only had in modest amounts.

Mentalising gave Sapiens’ the ability to ask questions of the unknown, the ability to wonder what lies behind the surface of life, and to imagine another world that’s parallel to ours – a spiritual or transcendent world. The ability to mentalise also gives us the ability to do other things, like creating fiction or doing science.

Sapiens’ superior mentalising capacities allowed them to understand complicated propositions and to engage in discussions with their fellow travelers giving rise to “communal religion”, which to Dunbar is the essence of religion.

These experiences were shared through rituals, myths, trances and a sense of the presence of a parallel world with an after-life and relations to ancestors. These religious rituals release endorphins which enable us to experience feelings of intense immersion in a consciousness beyond our own, and take us into the spirit world.

These endorphin-based feelings are important for the survival of religion, as they make you want to come back for more! Endorphins foster social bonding, and as a natural drug they improve personal health.

Early phases of religion

The earliest phase of religion was a world of “animism”, where there were spirits in mountains, water springs, rocks and elsewhere in nature. There were also religious specialists like shaman who could guide us through these parallel cosmologies. But there was no formal theology or god or priests. Moral codes at the time were purely social, not religious or handed down from on high.

Everything changed with the advent of the Neolithic era, and the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. North Africa was very lush and fertile. Populations grew rapidly. That’s when people started to live in villages as the best mode of defense. The move to village life triggered the rise in agriculture, not the reverse as commonly believed. Agriculture was the means to live in villages.

This was also the period of empires, like the Harappan empire in India, the Hittite Empire in the Near East, and the Great Basin Culture in China. It gave rise to “doctrinal religions” with which you have gods, priests, temples, and formal rituals. There was a sense of a god up there who takes an interest in human activities, who wants sacrifices, and will punish humans unless they make sacrifices. And doctrinal religions seemed to have fostered social cohesion which enabled people to live together in high densities relatively peacefully.

Then there was the Mid-Holocene climatic event around 4200 years ago, all around the world. Climate change big time! Everything became much drier and colder, and as a result the Sahara desert started to appear. Within about 1000 years there were massive migrations and huge social upheaval. All these empires collapsed around the same time.

Advent of modern religions

This brings us to the Axial Age when the world’s modern religions (“revealed religions”) emerged during the same time period, around 2000-3000 years ago, and also around the same latitudinal band. They were Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mandaeism and Manichaeism.

These religions are dominated by montheistic concepts, and were an effort to try to create a more integrated population. Here we have the concept of moral high gods, benevolent gods as opposed to those who demand things of their servants.

Dunbar argues that religion has been very beneficial for humankind. The evidence suggests that religiously active people are happier, more satisfied with their lives, more engaged with their communities, trust those among whom they live more, have more close friends, are healthier and live longer. But the benefits of religion are not the causes of religion, religiosity came first.

Moreover he argues that religion is a very effective way of creating a bonded society, keeping a group on the same page, and also helping to dampen down the inevitable frictions that arise when you live in large, spatially-compressed settlements. Something is necessary to keep the lid on the frictions that arise in groups. Having a religious framework for a community allows it to hang together, in part because of the policeman in the sky.

All those points may be valid. But the reality in many situations is that elite leaders adopt a religion, impose it on the masses, and use it is a form of social control and repression. This is a point that Dunbar could have developed in detail.

Exploring modern religions

The various stages in the evolution of religion described above do not involve wholesale replacement of one form of religion by another. Rather, Dunbar argues that the newer forms of religion are bolted on top of older mystical components, which are the real motor of religiosity.

In other words, beneath the elegant superstructure of doctrinal religions lurk ancestral shamanic religions of our deep history. The older forms play a crucial role in providing the psychological basis for being a believer, and the psychological foundation for a sense of community – because deep down religion is largely an emotional, not an intellectual, phenomenon.

Despite the manifest benefits of religion, Dunbar argues that doctrinal, or revealed, religions face a battle against fragmentation through the formation of cults. They constantly fragment into cults and sects, often built around a charismatic leader. Dunbar notes that all modern religions started as charismatic cults, based on charismatic people.

Indeed, between the years 150 and 1054 when the Great Schism occurred, giving rise to the Orthodox church, there were some 22 major schisms in Christianity. The modern world is also rife with fragmentation, with most notably the multiplication of pentacostal sects. Similar fragmentation occurred in Islam, beginning within a few months of the Prophet Muhammed’s death, while Judaism spawned its own divisions.

One troubling trend has been the use of religious identity to promote political interests. Dunbar argues that as population sizes grew exponentially through the Neolithic and beyond, the crowd effects of mass psychology very easily escalated into conflict. This has been largely responsible for the appalling history of militant violence that has characterised all the large-scale religions without exception over the last few millennia.

Thus, while religion has been beneficial at the personal level, its ability to arouse crowd violence against members of other religions has always been, and still is, a major problem for religions.


Dunbar’s work is of great interest in that he does not seek to either promote or disparage religion. He does not present religion as a noble lie or a social delusion which brings benefits like lessening the fear of death or fostering social order. He is largely uninterested in the truth or otherwise of religious claims.

For Dunbar, religiosity is simply part of the human experience and human evolution, which aids social bonding (even though he himself does not believe in an afterlife). Dunbar argues that it is difficult to find convincing evidence that anything else could replace, it is a deeply human trait. That said, the content of religion will surely change over the longer term, as the world continues to evolve. In short, for better or worse religion will likely remain with us.


This book review by John West is the product of some interesting weekend reading.
Tags: asia, religion, robin dunbar

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