THE GOD BREUIL believed he had encountered in the Volp caves is one that scholars of religion had known about for years. It is an ancient deity, perhaps one of the first ever conceived, thought to be the master of animals, ruler and guardian of the forests. It can be beseeched with prayers to guide the hunter to his prey and placated with offerings should its anger be stoked and the animals disappear. To it belong the souls of all animals; it alone has the power to release them into the wild, and after they are hunted and killed, it alone can collect their souls back to itself. It is known as the Lord of Beasts.1
The Lord of Beasts is not just one of the oldest gods in religious history; it is also one of the most widely transmitted. Some version of the deity exists in nearly every part of the world—from Eurasia to North America to Mesoamerica. Its image can be found on Mesopotamian stone vessels dating to the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E. An ivory and flint knife made in Egypt sometime around 3450 B.C.E.—long before the rise of the pharaohs—has engraved on its handle a figure representing the Lord of Beasts grasping a lion in each hand. In the Indus Valley, the Lord of Beasts has been associated with both the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda and the Hindu deity Shiva, especially in his incarnation as Pashupati, or Lord of All Animals. Enkidu, the hirsute hero in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh—one of the world’s first written myths—is a Lord of Beasts figure, as is Hermes, and sometimes Pan, the half-goat, half-man god of nature, in Greek mythology.
Even the Hebrew god Yahweh is occasionally presented as the Lord of Beasts in the Bible. The book of Job depicts Yahweh boasting of the power to let the wild ass go free, of compelling the ostrich to leave its eggs on the earth so they can be gathered by men, and of ordering the wild ox to let itself be harnessed with ropes and set to harrow the valleys at man’s command (Job 39). In the modern world, certain Wicca devotees and neopagan adherents worship the Lord of Beasts as the Horned God, a mythological being found in Celtic mythology.
How did this peculiar prehistoric deity, conceived by the Paleolithic mind tens of thousands of years ago, spread to Mesopotamia and Egypt, to Iran and India, to the Greeks and the Hebrews, to witches in America and neopagans in Europe? More to the point, how did our prehistoric ancestors evolve from a state of primitive animism to the kind of sophisticated belief system that would result in the creation of the Lord of Beasts in the first place?
Such questions have vexed theologians and scientists alike for centuries. What was it that spurred ancient humans to believe in “spiritual beings”? Did the religious impulse give us an advantage in our quest for dominance over every other species on earth? Was Homo sapiens the first species to exhibit religious belief, or could evidence of such belief be found in earlier species of humans?
Ivory and flint knife handle depicting the Lord of Beasts, found in Egypt (c. 3450 B.C.E.)
Rama / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR / Wikimedia Commons
What most scholars agree upon is that the religious impulse reaches deep into our Paleolithic past. But just how deep remains a matter of fierce debate. The Paleolithic era is formally divided into three periods: the Lower Paleolithic Period, between 2.5 million and 200,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens first appeared on the scene; the Middle Paleolithic Period, between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago, when the first examples of cave paintings can be found; and the Upper Paleolithic Period, between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, when we start to see the blossoming of full-fledged religious expression, including evidence of complex ritualistic behavior.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the religious artifacts discovered so far—including the Sorcerer, which has been dated to between 18,000 and 16,000 years ago—comes from the Upper Paleolithic Period. Yet new discoveries and improved dating procedures are constantly forcing us to reexamine our assumptions about just how far back in human evolution religious expression can be traced. For instance, in the remote islands of Indonesia, researchers recently discovered painted caves that are almost as old as those of El Castillo in Spain (painted approximately 41,000 years ago), but which contain not abstract symbols, as in the Spanish cave, but clearly identifiable animal figures such as the bulbous-bodied babirusa, or pig-deer. The presence of such advanced images on the other side of the world indicates that the practice of cave painting may be far older than we thought, perhaps by tens of thousands of years.2
This view has been bolstered by a newly discovered cave in Malaga, Spain, marked with what appears to be a procession of seals descending a stalactite column. Remarkably, the seal drawings have been carbon-dated to somewhere between 43,500 and 42,300 years ago, meaning they were created not by Homo sapiens, who had yet to arrive in Europe, but by Neanderthals. In 2016 an even older Neanderthal cave was discovered near France’s Aveyron valley, this one containing an “altar” constructed from broken stalagmites that were purposefully arranged on the cave floor in two concentric rings—a sort of Paleolithic Stonehenge. Initial carbon testing of the rings shows that the structure was made more than 176,000 years ago, at the tail end of the Lower Paleolithic Period.3
Neanderthal stone rings in the shape of an altar, found in Bruniquel cave, Aveyron, France (c. 176,500 B.P.)
Luc-Henri FAGE / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Indeed, many scholars now believe we should be looking beyond even our Neanderthal cousins for evidence of prehistoric religious expression. Archaeologists in the Golan Heights recently discovered a lump of rock, about one and a half inches tall, that had been carved into an idol with the distinct shape of a large-breasted, possibly pregnant woman. Called the Berekhat Ram Venus, the idol is estimated to be at least 300,000 years old; that’s before our species even existed. And while the oldest ritual burial sites containing Homo sapiens can be dated to around 100,000 years ago, far older grave sites have been unearthed that bear the unmistakable signs of sacramental behavior, including a Homo erectus site in China that may date as far back as half a million years.4
Even so, the problem with relying solely on these kinds of archaeological finds to date how far back in time religious expression may have existed is that beliefs do not fossilize. Ideas cannot be buried in the ground and later unearthed. When confronted with evidence of ritual behavior in a cave or a burial site, it would be foolish for us to assume that such behavior arose suddenly and synchronously with the belief that spurred it. Early humans maintained certain beliefs about the nature of the universe and their place in it long before they began etching those beliefs onto the walls of their caves. Our ancestors, Adam and Eve, were not walking around in a nihilistic fog from which they suddenly snapped like prophets racked by revelation. Rather, Adam and Eve inherited their belief system much in the way they inherited their hunting prowess or their cognitive and linguistic skills: gradually, and over the course of hundreds of thousands of years of mental and spiritual evolution. When they enter the Volp caves, what they experience there, deep underground, is both the blooming of thousands of years of religious thought and the seeding of thousands of years to come. Everything they know is based on prior knowledge. Everything they create is the result of previous creations.
All of this is to say that if we are going to trace the origin of the religious impulse to its genesis, we must go beyond the discovery of material evidence. We must look deep into our evolutionary past, all the way back to the very moment we became human.
THE SCIENTIFIC DEBATE over the origins of religion began in earnest in the nineteenth century. It was a pursuit nurtured by the post-Enlightenment conviction that all queries—even those concerning the divine—could be answered through reasoned analysis and scientific scrutiny. This was the era of Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory. Concepts such as “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest”—the idea that certain adaptive traits can give an organism a better chance of surviving its habitat, and thus of passing on those traits to its offspring—were already widely adopted in the field of biology. They were increasingly being used to explain economic and political behavior as well (sometimes with devastating consequences). Why not, then, use Darwin to explain religion?
What remains undeniable is that religious belief is so widespread that it must be considered an elemental part of the human experience. We are Homo religiosus, not in our desire for creeds or institutions, nor in our commitments to specific gods and theologies, but in our existential striving toward transcendence: toward that which lies beyond the manifest world. If the propensity for religious belief is inherent in our species, then, scholars reasoned, it must be a product of human evolution. There must be some adaptive advantage to it. Otherwise there would be no reason for religion to exist.
Among the first to seriously tackle this problem was the mid-nineteenth-century English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor. For Tylor, the source of the religious impulse and the behaviors that arose from it lay within humanity’s baffling, enigmatic belief in the soul as separate from the body—a belief that has, in one form or another, emerged in every society, in every culture, and throughout time. How did such an idea arise? Tylor wondered. What could possibly have convinced our ancient ancestors that they were eternal souls trapped in mortal bodies?
Tylor’s hypothesis, outlined in his magisterial study Primitive Culture, was that the idea of the soul as an “animating, separable, surviving entity, the vehicle of individual personal existence,” could only have occurred to us while we were asleep. “My own view,” he wrote, “is that nothing but dreams and visions could have ever put into men’s minds such an idea as that of souls being ethereal images of bodies.”5
Imagine Adam huddled in his mammoth fur, finishing his meal by the light of a dying fire. He falls asleep and, in his dreams, he travels to another world—a world at once real and unfamiliar, a world whose edges are soft with reverie. Say he runs into a dead relative in his dream—a father or sister. How, Tylor asked, would he interpret their continued presence? Would he not simply assume that they weren’t actually dead? That they exist in another realm as tangible and true as this one? Would Adam not then conclude that the souls of the dead could exist as spirits long after the destruction of the body? And, recognizing this, would he perhaps return to the grave of his father or sister and plead with their spirits to help him with the hunt, to make it stop raining, to heal his children? This, Tylor concluded, is how religion must have begun.
Few of Tylor’s fellow anthropologists agreed with his dream hypothesis. Max Müller, Tylor’s German counterpart, believed that humanity’s first religious experiences were the result of encounters with nature. It is not what Adam envisions in his sleep, Müller suggested, but rather what he sees when he is awake that fuels his religious imagination. After all, Adam lives in a vast, incomprehensible world, teeming with mysteries he cannot possibly explain. He beholds oceans without end; he walks through forests so tall they scrape the sky, so old his ancestors told stories about them; he watches the sun forever chase the moon across the vault of heaven; and he knows that he had no role in creating these things. And so he assumes someone else—something else—must have created them for him.
The British ethnologist Robert Marett termed this feeling of wonderment supernaturalism: “the attitude of mind dictated by awe of the mysterious.” Marett argued that ancient humans believed in an invisible force, a kind of “universal soul” that lay just behind the visible world. He called this force mana, an old Polynesian word meaning “power.”6
Mana represents the impersonal, immaterial, supernatural force that, according to Marett, “takes abode in all inanimate and animate objects.” The recognition of mana’s presence in the oceans and trees, the sun and the moon, compelled ancient humans to begin worshiping those things—or rather, the thing within those things. Eventually, the impersonal mana evolved into personal souls. Each soul, released from a body, became a spirit. Some of those spirits passed into rocks or stones or bits of bone, transforming them into totems, talismans, and idols that were actively worshiped. Other spirits became individualized gods whom people could beseech for help, each serving a particular function (a god of rain, a god of the hunt, and so on). And then, in Marett’s telling, after many years of spiritual development, these individualized gods evolved into the one omnipotent, universal God—a common conclusion among late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars like Marett, Tylor, and Müller, who viewed humanity’s move toward monotheism as the inevitable march from pagan savagery to Christian enlightenment.
Whether it was in dreams, or in the encounter with nature, or in speculations about departed ancestors, what all of these explanations have in common is the assumption that religion arose in human evolution to answer unanswerable questions and to help early humans manage a threatening and unpredictable world. It is an explanation for religious experience that remains popular to this day.
There’s no doubt that for a great many people, religion helps make sense of a mystifying and volatile existence. The question is what, if any, adaptive advantage that would have provided primitive human beings in their early development. How exactly does offering soothing yet ever-shifting answers to the mysteries of the universe support the survival of the species?
Some scholars have argued that through ritual practice, certain feelings can be activated that could conceivably provide a primitive “believer” with the ability to, for example, control his fears and thus be more successful than a “nonbeliever” in hunting prey. But even if it were true that possessing supernatural beliefs could lead to physical or psychological benefits that increase evolutionary fitness (and that is highly doubtful), there is no reason to presume that not having such beliefs would decrease evolutionary fitness. Running headlong toward a bison because you do not fear death could just as likely sink as boost your chances of evolutionary survival.7
Regardless, for this theory to hold true, one would have to prove that there are certain emotions peculiar to religious expression, or that all religious expressions trigger similar emotions—neither of which is the case. One can experience the same sense of awe, the same sense of comfort, the same sense of fearlessness that so many people feel in response to religion in almost any nonreligious circumstance, and many religions do not engender such feelings at all. Despite common perception, there is simply no evidence for the existence of any emotion that is unique to religion—not even transcendence—and thus no reason to conclude that religious feelings are uniquely beneficial to human survival.8
If the religious impulse cannot be adequately explained by appealing to the individual’s quest for meaning, perhaps we should look instead to its role in constructing and maintaining our sense of community. This was the central thesis of the nineteenth century’s foremost sociologists, including the man who essentially fathered the discipline: Émile Durkheim.
Durkheim specifically rejected the idea that religion arose to assist primitive humans in seeking answers to the mystery of existence. In fact, Durkheim rejected the idea that religion has to do with the supernatural at all. For Durkheim, religion is “an eminently social thing,” which is why, for it to have endured as a social construct in our early development, it must have been firmly planted in the real: not fanciful mythologies or wild speculations, not figments of the imagination or mystical beliefs, but real objects and experiences.9
Dreams are not real. Mana is not real. Spirits are not real. What are real, Durkheim maintained, are the concrete actions of a community bound together by blood and kinship and working as one to adapt and survive in a hostile environment. The origins of the religious impulse, therefore, must be grounded in social life, in the rites and rituals that help a community form a collective consciousness.
Our ancestor Adam is not huddled near that dying fire by himself, after all. He is surrounded by a community. The meat he consumes is shared by everyone; he had help in stalking the prey, in cornering and spearing it, in cleaning and butchering it. The hunt is itself a sort of spiritual exercise, complete with rigidly defined rituals passed down through generations. Every action the hunters take is prescribed—from the carving of their spears to the movement of their bodies through the forest as they track their prey. Through it all, these hunters maintain a sense of mystical solidarity with their weapons, which are sacralized and charged with the spiritual power necessary to transform otherwise mundane objects—rocks and sticks and bone—into instruments that ensure the survival of the community. Survival is no small thing, of course, so it makes sense that such everyday objects as spears or knives could gradually come to be regarded as sacred, not because of any inherent power they possess, but because of their usefulness. For Durkheim, a thing becomes sacred solely through the ways in which an individual acts upon it.
The same logic holds for the collective actions of the hunters. It may make strategic sense for hunters to circle a beast and attack it together, and that may be why the practice was developed and handed down. But it is not difficult to imagine how the very concept of a circle of hunters could give rise to a religious ritual.
Let’s say that before the hunt begins, Adam and his fellow hunters gather in a tight circle, hands clasped, simulating in the safety of their own environment the perils of the hunt. Perhaps they stack the bones of a previous kill in the middle of the circle and focus their intentions upon it. Maybe they eventually replace the bones with a living beast, which would be marked in some way, set apart and sacrificed in the hope that its blood will beget blood. Before they sacrifice the beast, they might make an appeal to its spirit to go out and help them find their prey. In this way, a mythology slowly arises about the hunt, about sacrifice—about the need to shed blood for the appeasement of the spirits, the need for the assistance of the gods and perhaps even for the forgiveness of sins. And so, little by little, what began as nothing more than a simple hunting trip (something real) transforms into a spiritual activity (something supernatural), thereby paving the way for belief in such things as individual souls and divine spirits.
Durkheim’s theory that religion arose as a kind of social adhesive, a means of fostering cohesion and maintaining solidarity among primitive societies, remains the most widely held explanation for the origins of the religious impulse. Evolutionarily speaking, it makes a certain amount of sense to assume that by banding together around a common set of symbols and participating in a shared ritual experience, our ancient ancestors were able to enhance their collective viability and thus increase their chances of survival in a savagely competitive world.
The trouble with this line of reasoning, however, is that there is nothing intrinsically unifying or cohesive about religion. Religion certainly has the power to bring disparate people together. But it is just as efficient a dividing force as it is a uniting one. Religion engenders both inclusion and exclusion. It spawns as much conflict in society as it does cohesion. It benefits some members of a community more than—and often at the expense of—others. It delegitimizes as much as it legitimizes.10
More to the point, the theory of social cohesion is dependent upon the idea that religion is the primary, most dominant source of attachment among prehistoric communities. That is emphatically not the case. Kinship is a stronger and far more primal tool for social cohesion in our human evolution. Our Paleolithic ancestors lived in small-scale communities—an extended family sharing a shelter. Their sense of solidarity was engendered first and foremost by birth and blood, not by symbols and rituals. To argue that religion arose in human evolution because it gave “believing” communities an adaptive advantage over “nonbelieving” communities would require the existence in religion of some uniquely cohesive power that it simply does not possess. There can be no doubt that its communal properties have allowed religion to survive throughout human history. But whether those communal properties helped religiously inclined humans to survive is questionable.
Even as the anthropological and sociological explanations for the role of religious belief in human evolution were being debated, another new discipline of the nineteenth century, psychoanalysis, joined the fray. The two most famous pioneering theorists in the field, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, both sought to locate the origins of the religious impulse within the human psyche, in the blurred space between our conscious and unconscious minds. Indeed, both men equated the soul with the psyche. Unlike Jung, however, who had a generally positive view of religion and sought chiefly to “psychologize” traditional religious concepts like the soul, Freud considered religion to be a neurosis: a mental disorder that fosters belief in invisible, impossible things and leads to compulsive actions and obsessive conduct.11
Religious belief, Freud wrote in The Future of an Illusion, is “born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable.” Freud believed the religious impulse arose from an innate desire in primitive man to create a “father figure,” though a perfectly good and all-powerful one. Human beings worship gods for the same reason a child idolizes his father: We need love and protection; we want comfort from our deepest and darkest fears.
In Freud’s view, our ancestor Adam has no interest in dreams or nature or rites or ceremonies. His chief desire is to indulge his animal instinct. He wants to have sex with his mother and his sisters. He wants to kill and consume his father. But because he recognizes the social and psychic costs of doing these things, he represses his libido, inventing religion as a means of lessening the guilt that arises from the desire to disavow his basic human nature.
Freud wasn’t alone in grounding the religious impulse in fear or violence. More than a century before Freud, the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that “the primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear.” A century after Freud, the French philosopher René Girard theorized that religion arose among primitive peoples to mitigate violence by focusing that violence upon a ritual sacrifice—a “scapegoat,” as he termed it. More generally, Freud’s assumption that religious ideas are “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind” is merely an echo of his German predecessor Karl Marx, who famously called religion “the opiate of the people,” and Ludwig Feuerbach, who defined God as “the feeling of want,” which springs forth from our hearts. “What man is in need of…that is God,” Feuerbach wrote in The Essence of Christianity.12
Almost everything Freud wrote about the origins of the religious impulse has been debunked. But his perception of religion as “wish fulfillment” has had a lasting impact on modern critics of religion, many of whom would enthusiastically agree that religion’s primary purpose in human evolution is to alleviate discontent, to lessen suffering and anxiety, and to allay fears of the unknown. Yet this, too, is an overly simplistic and deeply flawed explanation for the religious impulse.
Let’s assume for a moment that there is an adaptive advantage to having our anxieties assuaged and our guilt allayed, though there is no scientific reason to think so. Under no circumstances could religion be considered intrinsically a source of comfort. Quite the contrary. Religion perpetrates as much anxiety and guilt in people’s lives as it alleviates. As the great American anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote, “Religion has probably disturbed men as much as it has cheered them.”13
Religion often involves wrathful, capricious spirits whose pleasure requires backbreaking physical and psychological effort from worshippers. Evolutionarily speaking, it requires actions that carry enormous costs in terms of energy and resources—both of which would be better spent on survival and reproduction.14
A variation of Freud’s theory holds that religion’s primary purpose in human evolution is to motivate altruistic behavior, to control primitive populations and keep them from tearing each other apart. In other words, the only thing stopping Adam from rising from his seat by the fire, stabbing his neighbor in the chest, and taking his meat from him is his belief that the spirits of his ancestors are watching him. They act as divine lawgivers compelling him to act morally or risk punishment. By promising a reward in the afterlife, religion compels him to restrain or alter his actions in some manner and so mitigates the social effects of selfishness among individuals in a group.15
It is certainly true that religion can enhance altruistic behavior between individuals (though it is equally adept at promoting selfishness). The question is whether religion has a unique moral effect on society. The cognitive scientist Paul Bloom has conducted years of research on how religion and religious belief affect moral views. His conclusion is that there is little evidence that “the world’s religions have an important effect on our moral lives.” In fact, study after study has demonstrated that the good and bad moral effects of religion are no more or less powerful than the good and bad moral effects of any other social practice.16
Even if, for the sake of argument, one concedes that religion can mitigate the social effects of selfish behavior in a group, that still does not adequately explain how or why religion evolved in the first place. What we call “religious morality” played no role in the spiritual lives of primitive peoples. Belief in a “divine lawgiver” who determines good and bad behavior is barely five thousand years old; belief in a heavenly reward for such behavior is even newer.
The gods of the ancient world were rarely conceived of as “moral”; they were above the trifling concerns of human morality. The gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt were savage and brutal; their primary interest in human beings was as slaves to their whims. The Greek gods were capricious, vain, entitled beings who toyed with humanity for sport. Yahweh is a jealous god who regularly demands the wholesale slaughter of every man, woman, and child who does not worship him alone. Allah is a martial deity who prescribes an array of draconian punishments—in this life and the next—to those who oppose him. How are these gods, who are at best beyond morality and at worst simply immoral, supposed to serve as the source of moral behavior among humans?
In the end, what all of these seemingly sensible, commonly accepted theories on the origins of the religious impulse have in common is that they are concerned with what religion does rather than where religion came from, how it arose, or why. Despite everything we think we know, the evidence indicates that religion does not make people good or bad. It does not naturally police behavior or foster cooperation in society. It does not enhance altruism any more or less effectively than any other social mechanism. It is no more or less powerful in creating moral behavior. It does not inherently drive cooperation in society. It does not increase advantage over competing groups. It does not necessarily soothe the mind or comfort the soul. It does not automatically lessen anxiety or improve reproductive success. It does not promote survival of the fittest.17
To quote the anthropologist Scott Atran, religion is “materially expensive and unrelentingly counterfactual and even counterintuitive. Religious practice is costly in terms of material sacrifice (at least one’s prayer time), emotional expenditure (inciting fears and hopes), and cognitive effort (maintaining both factual and counterintuitive networks of beliefs).” And so, as Paul Bloom concludes, “religious belief is an unlikely candidate for a biological adaptation.”18
But if that is true—if there is no adaptive advantage to the religious impulse and therefore no direct evolutionary reason for it to exist—then why did religion arise? What spurred our ancient ancestors’ animism, their primal belief in themselves as embodied souls? If Adam’s religious impulse is not the product of his fears or his search for meaning, if it isn’t tied to his environment or his anxiety, if it plays no significant role in helping him adapt and survive, how can it be an evolutionary trait at all?
The answer, it would seem, is that it’s not. That, at least, is the consensus of a new crop of scholars who, over the last few decades, have begun applying a distinctly cognitive approach to the problem of religion’s origins. Faced with the evolutionary puzzle that is the universality of supernatural beliefs, these scientists have come up with an innovative answer. Religion, they say, is not an evolutionary adaptation; religion is the accidental byproduct of some other preexisting evolutionary adaptation.