Friday, April 23

How do you think the capacity for religious belief evolved?

What an extremely interesting question! I haven't thought about this in depth yet, so this gives me the chance; however I have gotten indignant upon hearing stupid theories on this matter while watching cavemen documentaries. (I went through a prehistoric phase last month.) Obviously, there are no longer any ape men we can study. A better understanding of the emotional and intellectual range of animals would provide clearer knowledge about where we come from on this point, and make it more feasible to guess what the path must have been from there to here, but we don't have that; instead it's commonly assumed that our inner worlds developed from nothing, but we have no idea to what degree that is or isn't true, and personally I find it unlikely that it is absolutely the case. Further, we don't even know very much about prehistoric humans that were biologically about the same as us; I assume that these 'late prehistoric' people would have been very similar to to more recent 'primitive' peoples, and the small amount of physical evidence suggests that similarity, but again it's basically a guess.

So given all that... I would guess that religious belief and practices developed as a way of organizing and working with knowledge, as human knowledge grew ever further beyond the bounds of simple perception (which is a more commonly understood aspect of our evolution). A successful prehistoric human, particularly at times of survival stress, would have had to have phenomenal skills and knowledge in order to compensate for impractical human bodies... not only for social groups, but also for travel, hunting, coping with weather, extracting greater nutrition from food, and medicine. Today we have schools, textbooks, and specialists; in those days an anthropomorphic, emotionally compelling framework made all that knowledge more available and navigable. Of course it was not merely distant unchangeable knowledge for distant unchangeable phenomena, religion also provided a perceived or real point of contact through which nonphysical power could be used, or through which further knowledge could be discovered and developed. While a very different species might have come up with a very different organizing method, ours was based on our emotional and intuitive impulses, also strong forces in our pre-human evolution, as it was moving towards an ever greater degree of cooperation and orientation towards others. It's not surprising that what we know (or assume) of our early religions is so similar to the world of dreams that's constantly with us, and also provides our most constant window to exceptional and rationally inaccessible knowledge. But then animals also seem to dream; so you might say that religiosity would have begun whenever humans developed sufficient intellectual capacity to remember our dreams, reflect on them, and travel in that world as they traveled in this one; then religion would have furthered our ability to use our intellectual capacity.

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