The Evolution of God By Robert Wright

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The Evolution of God
By Robert Wright
New York:Little, Brown and Copany, 2009

I was once denounced from the pulpit of my mother’s church. The

year was 1994. My book The Moral Animal had just been published,

and I’d been lucky enough to have it excerpted in Time magazine.

The excerpt was about the various ways in which our evolved

human nature complicates the project of marriage. One such complication

is the natural, universally human temptation to stray, and

that is the angle Time’s editors chose to feature on the magazine’s

cover. Alongside a stark image of a broken wedding band were the

words “Infi delity: It may be in our genes.”

The pastor of the First Baptist Church in Santa Rosa, California,

saw this article as a godless defense of philandering and said so one

Sunday morning. After the service, my mother went forward and

told him that her son was the author of the article. I’m willing to

bet that — such are the wonders of maternal love — she said it with


How far I had fallen! Back around age nine, at the Immanuel

Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas, I had felt the call of God and

walked to the front of the church as a visiting evangelist named

Homer Martinez issued the “invitation ” — the call for unredeemed

sinners to accept Jesus as their savior. A few weeks later I was baptized

by the church’s minister. Now, nearly three decades later,

another Baptist minister was placing me in the general vicinity of


I doubt that, if this minister had read my Time piece carefully,

he would have come down so hard on it. (I had actually argued that

the adulterous impulse, though natural, can and should be resisted.)


On the other hand, there were people who read not just the excerpt

but the whole book and concluded that I was a godless something or

other. I had argued that the most ethereal, uplifting parts of human

existence (love, sacrifi ce, our very sense of moral truth) were products

of natural selection. The book seemed like a thoroughly materialist

tract — materialist as in “scientifi c materialist,” as in “Science

can explain everything in material terms, so who needs a God?

Especially a God who is alleged to somehow magically transcend

the material universe.”

I guess “materialist” is a not- very- misleading term for me. In

fact, in this book I talk about the history of religion, and its future,

from a materialist standpoint. I think the origin and development

of religion can be explained by reference to concrete, observable

things — human nature, political and economic factors, technological

change, and so on.

But I don’t think a “materialist” account of religion’s origin,

history, and future — like the one I’m giving here — precludes the

validity of a religious worldview. In fact, I contend that the history

of religion presented in this book, materialist though it is, actually

affi rms the validity of a religious worldview; not a traditionally religious

worldview, but a worldview that is in some meaningful sense


It sounds paradoxical. On the one hand, I think gods arose as

illusions, and that the subsequent history of the idea of god is, in

some sense, the evolution of an illusion. On the other hand: (1) the

story of this evolution itself points to the existence of something

you can meaningfully call divinity; and (2) the “illusion,” in the

course of evolving, has gotten streamlined in a way that moved it

closer to plausibility. In both of these senses, the illusion has gotten

less and less illusory.

Does that make sense? Probably not. I hope it will by the end

of the book. For now I should just concede that the kind of god that

remains plausible, after all this streamlining, is not the kind of god

that most religious believers currently have in mind.

There are two other things that I hope will make a new kind of



sense by the end of this book, and both are aspects of the current

world situation.

One is what some people call a clash of civilizations — the tension

between the Judeo- Christian West and the Muslim world, as

conspicuously manifested on September 11, 2001. Ever since that

day, people have been wondering how, if at all, the world’s Abrahamic

religions can get along with one another as globalization forces

them into closer and closer contact.

Well, history is full of civilizations clashing, and for that matter,

of civilizations not clashing. And the story of the role played

by religious ideas — fanning the fl ames or dampening the fl ames,

and often changing in the process — is instructive. I think it tells us

what we can do to make the current “clash” more likely to have a

happy ending.

The second aspect of the current world situation I’ll address is

another kind of clash — the much- discussed “clash” between science

and religion. Like the fi rst kind of clash, this one has a long and

instructive history. It can be traced at least as far back as ancient

Babylon, where eclipses that had long been attributed to restless and

malignant supernatural beings were suddenly found to occur at predictable

intervals — predictable enough to make you wonder whether

restless and malignant supernatural beings were really the problem.

There have been many such unsettling (from religion’s point of

view) discoveries since then, but always some notion of the divine

has survived the encounter with science. The notion has had to

change, but that’s no indictment of religion. After all, science has

changed relentlessly, revising if not discarding old theories, and

none of us think of that as an indictment of science. On the contrary,

we think this ongoing adaptation is carrying science closer to the

truth. Maybe the same thing is happening to religion. Maybe, in the

end, a mercilessly scientifi c account of our predicament — such as

the account that got me denounced from the pulpit of my mother’s

church — is actually compatible with a truly religious worldview,

and is part of the process that refi nes a religious worldview, moving

it closer to truth.



These two big “clash” questions can be put into one sentence:

Can religions in the modern world reconcile themselves to one

another, and can they reconcile themselves to science? I think their

history points to affi rmative answers.

What would religions look like after such an adaptation? This

question is surprisingly easy to answer, at least in broad outline.

First, they’ll have to address the challenges to human psychological

well- being that are posed by the modern world. (Otherwise

they won’t win acceptance.) Second, they’ll have to highlight some

“higher purpose ” — some kind of larger point or pattern that we can

use to help us orient our daily lives, recognize good and bad, and

make sense of joy and suffering alike. (Otherwise they won’t be

religions, at least not in the sense that I mean the word “religion.”)

Now for the really hard questions. How will religions manage

these feats? (Assuming they do; and if they don’t, then all of

us — believers, agnostics, and atheists alike — may be in big trouble.)

How will religions adapt to science and to one another? What

would a religion well suited to an age of advanced science and rapid

globalization look like? What kind of purpose would it point to,

what kind of orientation would it provide? Is there an intellectually

honest worldview that truly qualifi es as religious and can, amid

the chaos of the current world, provide personal guidance and

comfort — and maybe even make the world less chaotic? I don’t

claim to have the answers, but clear clues emerge naturally in the

course of telling the story of God. So here goes.





In summing up, then, it may be said that nearly all the great

social institutions have been born in religion.

Emile Durkheim

Chapter One

The Primordial Faith

The Chukchee, a people indigenous to Siberia, had their own special

way of dealing with unruly winds. A Chukchee man would

chant, “Western Wind, look here! Look down on my buttocks. We

are going to give you some fat. Cease blowing!” The nineteenthcentury

European visitor who reported this ritual described it as

follows: “The man pronouncing the incantation lets his breeches

fall down, and bucks leeward, exposing his bare buttocks to the

wind. At every word he claps his hands.” 1

By the end of the nineteenth century, European travelers had

compiled many accounts of rituals in faraway and scarcely known

lands. Some of these lands were inhabited by people known as

savages — people whose technology didn’t include writing or even

agriculture. And some of their rituals seemed, like this one, strange.

Could a ritual like this be called religious? Some Europeans

bridled at the thought, offended by the implied comparison between

their elevated forms of worship and crude attempts to appease


Maybe that’s why Sir John Lubbock, a late- nineteenth- century

British anthropologist, prefaced his discussion of “savage” religion

with a warning. “It is impossible to discuss the subject without mentioning

some things which are very repugnant to our feelings,” he

wrote in The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of

Man. But he made his readers a promise. In exploring this “melancholy

spectacle of gross superstitions and ferocious forms of worship,”

he would “endeavour to avoid, as far as possible, anything

which might justly give pain to any of my readers.” 2


One pain Lubbock spared his readers was the thought that their

brains might have much in common with savage brains. “The whole

mental condition of a savage is so different from ours, that it is often

very diffi cult to follow what is passing in his mind, or to understand

the motives by which he is infl uenced.” Though savages do

“have a reason, such as it is, for what they do and what they believe,

their reasons often are very absurd.” The savage evinces “extreme

mental inferiority,” and his mind, “like that of the child, is easily

fatigued.” 3 Naturally, then, the savage’s religious ideas are “not the

result of deep thought.”

So there was reassurance aplenty for Lubbock’s readers: “Religion,

as understood by the lower savage races,” is not only different

from civilized religion “but even opposite.” Indeed, if we bestow

the title “religion” on the coarse rituals and superstitious fears that

observers of savage society have reported, then “we can no longer

regard religion as peculiar to man.” For the “baying of a dog to the

moon is as much an act of worship as some ceremonies which have

been so described by travellers.” 4

Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that a well- educated British Christian

would so disparage elements of “primitive religion.” (“Primitive

religion” denotes the religion of nonliterate peoples broadly,

whether hunter- gatherer or agrarian.) After all, in primitive religion

there is deep reverence for raw superstition. Obscure omens often

govern decisions of war and peace. And the spirits of the dead may

make mischief — or may, via the mediation of a shaman, offer counsel.

In short, primitive religion is full of the stuff that was famously

thrust aside when the monotheism carried out of Egypt by Moses

displaced the paganism of Canaan.

But, actually, that displacement wasn’t so clear- cut, and the proof

is in the Bible itself, albeit parts of the Bible that aren’t much read

by modern believers. There you’ll fi nd Israel’s fi rst king, Saul, going

incognito to a medium and asking her to raise the prophet Samuel

from the grave for policy input. (Samuel isn’t amused: “Why have

you disturbed me by bringing me up?”)5 There you’ll also fi nd raw

superstition. When the prophet Elisha, preparing King Joash for bat-




tle against the Arameans, tells him to strike the ground with some

arrows, he is disappointed with the resulting three strikes: “You

should have struck fi ve or six times; then you would have struck

down Aram until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike

down Aram only three times.” 6

Even the ultimate in Abrahamic theological refi nement — monotheism

itself — turns out to be a feature of the Bible that comes

and goes. Though much of the scripture assumes the existence of

only one God, some parts strike a different tone. The book of Genesis

recalls the time when a bunch of male deities came down and

had sex with attractive human females; these gods “went in to the

daughters of humans, who bore children to them.” (And not ordinary

children: “These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of


Here and elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible — the earliest scripture in

the Abrahamic tradition, and in that sense the starting point for Judaism,

Christianity, and Islam — holds telling remnants of its ancestry.

Apparently Abrahamic monotheism grew organically out of the

“primitive” by a process more evolutionary than revolutionary.

This doesn’t mean there’s a line of cultural descent between the

“primitive” religions on the anthropological record and the “modern”

religions. It’s not as if three or four millennia ago, people who

had been talking to the wind while pulling their pants down started

talking to God while kneeling. For all we know, the cultural ancestry

of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam includes no tradition of talking

to the wind at all, and certainly there’s no reason to think that

Chukchee religion is part of that ancestry — that back in the fi rst

or second millennium BCE, Chukchee culture in Siberia somehow

infl uenced Middle Eastern culture.

Rather, the idea is that “primitive” religion broadly, as recorded

by anthropologists and other visitors, can give us some idea of the

ancestral milieu of modern religions. Through the happenstance

of geographic isolation, cultures such as the Chukchee escaped the

technological revolution — the advent of writing — that placed other

parts of the world on the historical record and pushed them toward


modernity. If these “primitive” cultures don’t show us the particular

prehistoric religions out of which the early recorded religions

emerged, they at least give us a general picture. Though monotheistic

prayer didn’t grow out of Chukchee rituals or beliefs, maybe

the logic of monotheistic prayer did grow out of a kind of belief

the Chukchee held, the notion that forces of nature are animated by

minds or spirits that you can infl uence through negotiation.

Savage Logic

This, in fact, was the theory of one of John Lubbock’s contemporaries,

Edward Tylor, a hugely infl uential thinker who is sometimes

called the founder of social anthropology. Tylor, an acquaintance

and sometime critic of Lubbock’s, believed that the primordial form

of religion was “animism.” Tylor’s theory of animism was among

scholars of his day the dominant explanation of how religion began.

It “conquered the world at one blow,” 8 one early- twentieth- century

anthropologist wrote.

Tylor’s theory was grounded in a paradigm that pervaded

anthropology in the late nineteenth century, then fell out of favor

for many decades, and lately has made a comeback: cultural evolutionism.

The idea is that human culture as broadly defi ned — art,

politics, technology, religion, and so on — evolves in much the way

biological species evolve: new cultural traits arise and may fl ourish

or perish, and as a result whole institutions and belief systems form

and change. A new religious ritual can appear and gain a following

(if, say, it is deemed an effective wind neutralizer). New gods can

be born and then grow. New ideas about gods can arise — like the

idea that there’s only one of them. Tylor’s theory of animism aimed

to explain how this idea, monotheism, had evolved out of primitive


“Animism” is sometimes defi ned as the attribution of life to the

inanimate — considering rivers and clouds and stars alive. This is

part of what Tylor meant by the term, but not all. The primitive

animist, in Tylor’s scheme, saw living and nonliving things alike



as inhabited by — animated by — a soul or spirit; rivers and clouds,

birds and beasts, and people, too, had this “ ghost- soul,” this “vapour,

fi lm, or shadow,” this “cause of life and thought in the individual it

animates.” 9

Tylor’s theory rested on a more fl attering view of the “primitive”

mind than Lubbock held. (Tylor is credited with a doctrine that

became a pillar of social anthropology — the “psychic unity of mankind,”

the idea that people of all races are basically the same, that

there is a universal human nature.) He saw animism not as bizarrely

inconsistent with modern thought, but as a natural early product of

the same speculative curiosity that had led to modern thought. Animism

had been the “infant philosophy of mankind,” assembled by

“ancient savage philosophers.” 10 It did what good theories are supposed

to do: explain otherwise mysterious facts economically.

To begin with, the hypothesis that humans have a ghost- soul handily

answers some questions that, in Tylor’s view, must have occurred

to early humans, such as: What is happening when you dream?

Primitive societies use the notion of the human soul to solve this

puzzle. In some cases the idea is that the dreamer’s ghost- soul wanders

during sleep, having the adventures the dreamer later recalls;

decades after Tylor wrote, the anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe- Brown

observed that Andaman Islanders were reluctant to awaken people,

since illness might ensue if sleep was interrupted before the soul

came home.11 In other cases, the idea is that the dreamer is being

visited by the souls of others. In Fiji, Tylor noted, people’s souls

were thought to leave their bodies “to trouble other people in their

sleep.” 12

And the idea that the souls of dead people return to visit via

dreams is widespread in primitive societies.13 Thus animism handles

another enigma that confronted early human beings: death

itself. Death, in this scenario, is what happens when the soul checks

out of the body for good.

Once early humans had conceived the idea of the soul, Tylor

said, extending it beyond our species was only logical. The savage

couldn’t help but “recognise in beasts the very characteristics which



it attributes to the human soul, namely, the phenomena of life and

death, will and judgement.” And plants, “partaking with animals

the phenomena of life and death, health and sickness, not unnaturally

have some kind of soul ascribed to them.” 14

For that matter, the idea that sticks and stones have souls is rational

if viewed from the standpoint of “an uncultured tribe.” After all,

don’t sticks and stones appear in dreams? Don’t ghosts that we see

while dreaming, or while delirious with fever, wear clothes or carry

weapons? “How then can we charge the savage with far- fetched

absurdity for taking into his philosophy and religion an opinion

which rests on the very evidence of his senses?” Tylor may have

had Lubbock in mind when he said of primitive peoples, “The very

assertion that their actions are motiveless, and their opinions nonsense,

is itself a theory, and, I hold, a profoundly false one, invented

to account for all manner of things which those who did not understand

them could thus easily explain.” 15

Once a broadly animistic worldview had taken shape, Tylor

believed, it started to evolve. At some point, for example, the notion

of each tree having a spirit gave way to the notion of trees being

collectively governed by “the god of the forest.” 16 This incipient

polytheism then matured and eventually got streamlined into

monotheism. In 1866, in an article in the Fortnightly Review, Tylor

summed up the whole process in what may be the only one- sentence

history of religion ever published — and may also be one of the longest

sentences of any kind ever published:

Upwards from the simplest theory which attributes life and personality

to animal, vegetable, and mineral alike — through that

which gives to stone and plant and river guardian spirits which

live among them and attend to their preservation, growth, and

change — up to that which sees in each department of the world

the protecting and fostering care of an appropriate divinity,

and at last of one Supreme Being ordering and controlling the

lower hierarchy — through all these gradations of opinion we

may thus see fought out, in one stage after another, the long-




waged contest between a theory of animation which accounts

for each phenomenon of nature by giving it everywhere a life

like our own, and a slowly- growing natural science which in

one department after another substitutes for independent voluntary

action the working out of systematic law.17

Any questions?

There have been lots of them, actually. Tylor’s theory hasn’t kept

the stature it once held. Some complain that it makes the evolution

of gods sound like an exercise in pure reason, when in fact religion

has been deeply shaped by many factors, ranging from politics to

economics to the human emotional infrastructure. (One difference

between modern cultural evolutionism and that of Tylor’s day is

the modern emphasis on the various ways that “memes ” — rituals,

beliefs, and other basic elements of culture — spread by appealing

to nonrational parts of human nature.)

Still, in one broad sense Tylor’s view holds up well today. However

diverse the forces that shape religion, its early impetus indeed

seems to have come largely from people who, like us, were trying to

make sense of the world. But they didn’t have the heritage of modern

science to give them a head start, so they reached prescientifi c

conclusions. Then, as understanding of the world grew — especially

as it grew via science — religion evolved in reaction. Thus, Tylor

wrote, does “an unbroken line of mental connexion” unite “the savage

fetish- worshiper and the civilized Christian.” 18

At this level of generality, Tylor’s worldview has not just survived

the scrutiny of modern scholarship, but drawn strength from

it. Evolutionary psychology has shown that, bizarre as some “primitive”

beliefs may sound — and bizarre as some “modern” religious

beliefs may sound to atheists and agnostics — they are natural outgrowths

of humanity, natural products of a brain built by natural

selection to make sense of the world with a hodgepodge of tools

whose collective output isn’t wholly rational.

Elaboration on the modern understanding of how “primitive”

religion fi rst emerged from the human mind can be found in the


appendix of this book. For now the main point is that, even if Tylor’s

animism- to- monotheism scenario looks defi cient from a modern

vantage point, there is still much in it that makes sense. In particular:

to understand the early stages in the evolution of gods, and of

God, we have to imagine how the world looked to people living

many millennia ago, not just before science, but before writing or

even agriculture; and there is no better aid to that thought experiment

than immersing ourselves in the worldview of hunter- gatherer

societies that have been observed by anthropologists — the worldview

of “savages,” as both Lubbock and Tylor would say.

Of course, it would be nice to observe literally prehistoric societies,

the societies whose religion actually did evolve into the ancient

religions on the historical record. But there can’t be detailed records

of beliefs that existed before writing; all that is left is the stuff

archaeologists fi nd — tools and trinkets and, here and there, a cave

painting. If the vast blank left by humanity’s preliterate phase is to

be fi lled, it will have to be fi lled by the vast literature on observed

hunter- gatherer societies.

Using hunter- gatherers as windows on the past has its limits. For

example, the anthropological record contains no “pristine” huntergatherer

cultures, cultures wholly uncorrupted by contact with more

technologically advanced societies. After all, the process of observing

a culture involves contact with it. Besides, many hunter- gatherer

societies had been contacted by missionaries or explorers before

anyone started documenting their religions.

Then again, to the extent that the religious beliefs of an indigenous

culture seem “strange” — bear little resemblance to the beliefs

of the cultures that have contacted it — then this contact is an

unlikely explanation for them. The practice of offering bare buttocks

to the wind, for example, seems unlikely to have been taught to the

Chukchee by a Christian missionary from Victorian England.

When a “strange” category of belief is found in hunter- gatherer

societies on various continents, then it is even less likely to be a

mere import, and more likely to be a genuine product of the huntergatherer

lifestyle. As we’re about to see, there is no shortage of




hunter- gatherer notions that pass these two tests: they are widespread

and — to our eyes — strange. So with fair confi dence we can

reconstruct the spiritual landscape of prehistoric times, back before

religion entered the historical record.

No one any longer believes, as some nineteenth- century anthropologists

did, that observed hunter- gatherers are crystalline examples

of religion at its moment of origin tens of thousands of years

ago. But they’re the best clues we’ll ever have to generic religious

beliefs circa 12,000 BCE, before the invention of agriculture. Cave

paintings are attractive, but they don’t talk.

Hunter- Gatherer Gods

The Klamath, a hunter- gatherer people in what is now Oregon,

talked. And, fortunately for us, they talked to someone who understood

them more clearly than visitors often understand indigenous

peoples: Albert Samuel Gatschet, a pioneering linguist who in the

1870s compiled a dictionary and grammar of the Klamath language.

Gatschet’s writings on the Klamath capture something found in

every hunter- gatherer culture: belief in supernatural beings — and

always more than one of them; there is no such thing as an indigenously

monotheistic hunter- gatherer society.

In fact, the anthropological record reveals at least fi ve different

kinds of hunter- gatherer supernatural beings, some of which are

found in all hunter- gatherer societies and most of which are found

in most hunter- gatherer societies. Klamath culture, with a rich theology,

illustrates all fi ve.19

Hunter- gatherer supernatural being Type I: elemental spirits. Parts

of nature that modern scientists consider inanimate may be alive,

possessing intelligence and personality and a soul. So the workings

of nature can become a social drama. When the Klamath saw clouds

obscuring the moon, it could mean that Muash, the south wind, was

trying to kill the moon — and in fact might succeed, though the

moon seems always to have gotten resurrected in the end.


Hunter- gatherer supernatural being Type II: puppeteers. Parts of

nature may be controlled by beings distinct from the parts of nature

themselves. By Klamath reckoning, the west wind was emitted by

a fl atulent dwarf woman, about thirty inches tall, who wore a buckskin

dress and a basket hat (and who could be seen in the form of a

rock on a nearby mountain). The Klamath sometimes asked her to

blow mosquitoes away from Pelican Bay.20

Combining supernatural beings of types I and II into a single

scenario is possible. The Klamath believed whirlwinds were driven

by an internal spirit, Shukash. The nearby Modoc hunter- gatherers,

while agreeing, believed that Shukash was in turn controlled by

Tchitchatsa- ash, or “Big Belly,” whose stomach housed bones

that rattled, creating the whirlwind’s eerie sound.21 Such theological

differences are found not just among different hunter- gatherer

societies, but within them. Thus Leme- ish, the Klamath’s thunder

spirit, was sometimes spoken of as a single entity but was sometimes

said to consist of fi ve brothers who, having been banished from polite

society, now made noise to scare people. (These interpretive divergences

form the raw material of cultural evolution, just as biological

mutations create the diverse traits that feed genetic evolution.)

Hunter- gatherer supernatural being Type III: organic spirits. Natural

phenomena that even we consider alive may have supernatural

powers. The coyote, for example, housed evil spirits, and, Gatschet

noted, “his lugubrious voice is the presager of war, misfortune, and

death.” 22 One species of bird could make snow, and another made

fog. Some animal spirits could help the Klamath cure disease, a

collaboration facilitated by a spirit called Yayaya- ash, which would

assume the form of a one- legged man and lead a medicine man to

the home of these animal spirits for consultation.

Hunter- gatherer supernatural being Type IV: ancestral spirits. Huntergatherer

societies almost always feature spirits of the deceased, and

typically these spirits do at least as much bad as good. Ancestral spirits,




Gatschet wrote, were “objects of dread and abomination, feelings which

are increased by a belief in their omnipresence and invisibility.” 23

Hunter- gatherer supernatural being Type V: the high god. Some

hunter- gatherer societies, though by no means all, have a “high god.”

This isn’t a god that controls the other gods. (One early- twentiethcentury

anthropologist wrote about the Klamath, with traces of disapproval:

“there has been no attempt to marshal the spirits into an

ordered pantheon.”)24 Rather, a high god is a god that is in some

vague sense more important than other supernatural beings, and is

often a creator god. For the Klamath this was Kmukamtch, who

inhabited the sun. Kmukamtch created the world, then created the

Klamath themselves (out of a purple berry), and continued to sustain

them, though he had been known to rain burning pitch upon his

creation in a fi t of temper.25*

So what was the point of all these gods and/or spirits? (The line

between “gods” and “spirits” is fuzzy at best. I’ll use the word “gods”

broadly enough to cover both.) Obviously, one thing these gods did

for the Klamath is explain the otherwise mysterious workings of

nature. The above inventory of supernatural beings (just the tip of

the Klamath iceberg) explains why it snows, why wind blows, why

clouds obscure the moon, why thunder crashes, why dreams contain

dead people, and so on. Every known hunter- gatherer society has

similarly explained natural dynamics in supernatural terms — or at

least in terms that we consider supernatural; for hunter- gatherers,

these invisible beings are seamlessly bound to the observed world

of nature, just as, in modern science, the gravitational force is seamlessly

bound to the observed, orbiting moon.

This leads us to one of the more ironic properties of huntergatherer

religion: it doesn’t exist. That is, if you asked huntergatherers

what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were

* Underlined note numbers indicate that elaboration can be found in the corresponding

note at the end of this book.


talking about. The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label “religious”

are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that

they don’t have a word for them. We may label some of their explanations

of how the world works “supernatural” and others “naturalistic,”

but those are our categories, not theirs. To them it seems

fi tting to respond to illness by trying to fi gure out which god caused

it, just as to us it seems fi tting to look for the germ that caused it.26

This fi ne intertwining of the — in our terms — religious and nonreligious

parts of culture would continue well into recorded history.

Ancient Hebrew, the language of most of the Holy Bible, had no

word for religion.

With all due respect for hunter-gatherer custom (and for ancient

Hebrew), I’ll continue to use words like “religion” and “supernatural”

— partly for easy communication with readers who use them, and

partly for a deeper reason: I think the parts of hunter- gatherer life

that we label “religious” are specimens of human culture that,

through cultural evolution, were transmuted into modern religion.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Beyond a general interest in how the world works, hunter- gatherers

evince a particular interest in the question of why bad things happen.

According to the Haida Native Americans of the north Pacifi c Coast,

earthquakes happen when an undersea deity’s very large dog (whose

job is to hold up the islands on which the Haida live) shakes itself.27

If the Mbuti pygmies of Africa’s Congo region fi nd part of the forest

devoid of game, that means the keti, forest spirits who are avid hunters

themselves, have gotten there fi rst.28 When a !Kung Bushman of the

Kalahari Desert gets sick, it is likely the work of gauwasi — ancestral

spirits — who may be acting at the behest of a god.29

Of course, hunter- gatherers aren’t the only people to have asked

why bad things happen. The Christian tradition alone has generated

roomfuls of treatises on this question. But hunter- gatherers do

a better job of answering the question than many modern theologians;

at least, the hunter- gatherers’ answers are less bedeviled by




paradox. Theologians in the Abrahamic lineage — Jewish, Christian,

or Islamic — are constrained from the outset by a stiff premise:

that reality is governed by an all- knowing, all- powerful, and

good God. And why such a god, capable of curing cancer tomorrow,

would instead watch innocent people suffer is a conundrum.

Just ask Job, who after years of piety was hit by disaster. Unlike

most innocent victims, Job was allowed to interrogate God himself

about the seeming injustice of it all, yet in the end was forced to

settle for this answer: you wouldn’t understand. Numerous theologians

have wrestled with this question at book length only to wind

up agreeing.

In the hunter- gatherer universe, the problem of evil isn’t so baffl

ing, because the supernatural doesn’t take the form of a single

all- powerful being, much less a morally perfect one. Rather, the

supernatural realm is populated by various beings that, as a rule, are

strikingly like human beings: they’re not always in a good mood,

and the things that put them in a bad mood don’t have to make much


For example, Karei, thunder god of the Semang hunter- gatherers

of Southeast Asia, would get irate if he saw people combing their

hair during a storm or watching dogs mate.30 On the Andaman

Islands, the storm god Biliku could fl y into a rage if someone melted

beeswax or made a loud noise while cicadas were singing. The

British anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe- Brown, while studying the

Andaman Islanders a century ago, noticed that they did in fact melt

beeswax, hoping Biliku wouldn’t notice. Radcliffe- Brown puzzled

at this “variance between their precepts and their actions.” 31 But it’s

not clear that “precept” is the right word for a rule laid down by a

deity that isn’t a moral beacon to begin with. Radcliffe- Brown had

come from a culture in which “god” meant good, but that equation

is hardly universal, and among hunter- gatherers it’s just about


Thus, Kmukamtch, the Klamath sun god, harbored petty

resentment of his handsome adopted son, Aishish, and so spent

much time and energy stealing Aishish’s clothes and trying them


on. (This explains why the sun is sometimes surrounded by small

puffy clouds — Aishish’s beaded garments.)32 Worse still, Kmukamtch

was always trying to seduce Aishish’s wives. But that’s

nothing compared to the behavior of Gaona, the high god of the

!Kung hunter- gatherers of Africa, who raped his son’s wife and ate

two brothers- in- law.33

When Bad People Go Unpunished

That hunter- gatherer gods aren’t paragons of virtue helps explain

an observation made by more than one anthropologist: huntergatherers

don’t generally “worship” their gods. Indeed, they often

treat their gods just like you would treat a mere human — kindly

on some days, less kindly on others. The Ainu, Japan’s aborigines,

would sometimes try to win divine favor with offerings of millet

beer, but if the gods didn’t reciprocate with good fortune, the Ainu

would threaten to withhold future beer unless things improved.34

!Kung medicine men have been known to punctuate a curing dance

by reproaching a god named Gauwa for bringing illness: “Uncovered

penis! You are bad.” 35 If Gauwa (something of a bumbler) then

brought the wrong medicine, a medicine man would shout, “Idiot!

You have done wrong. You make me ashamed. Go away.” Crude but

effective: sometimes Gauwa came back with the right medicine.36

Even when hunter- gatherers do show ritualized respect for gods,

the respect often seems more fearful than reverential, and the ritual

not very formal. The Semang, faced with a violent thunderstorm

and aware that it resulted from their having watched dogs mate or

from some comparable infraction, would desperately try to make

amends, gashing their shins, mixing the blood with water, tossing it

in the relevant god’s general direction, and yelling, “Stop! Stop!” 37

Still, sometimes hunter- gatherer rituals are suffi ciently solemn

that you can imagine them evolving into something like a modern

worship service. In the early twentieth century, when the explorer

Knud Rasmussen visited some Inuit (known as Eskimo in his day),

he observed the gravity with which they divined the judgments of




Takanakapsaluk, goddess of the sea. At the time of his visit, seals

and other sea game were scarce. The sea goddess was known to

withhold such bounty when the Inuit had violated her rules. (Understandably

so, since their violations became dirt, drifted to the bottom

of the sea, matted her hair, and shrouded her in suffocating

fi lth.) So the Inuit assembled in a dark dwelling and closed their

eyes while their shaman, behind a curtain, descended to the bottom

of the sea and approached Takanakapsaluk. Upon learning the

source of her pique, he returned to the Inuit and demanded to know

which of them had committed the transgressions she cited. Confessions

were forthcoming, so the prospects for seal hunting improved.

The mood brightened.

In this case “precept,” the word Radcliffe- Brown dubiously

applied to the Andaman storm god’s dictates, might be in order. The

solemn air of the occasion and the tearful shame of the confessors

suggest that the sea goddess’s decrees were rules whose violation was

thought never justifi ed. But even here, the precepts aren’t “moral”

in the modern sense of the word, because they’re not about behaviors

that actually harm other people; the sea goddess’s rules don’t

discourage violence, stealing, cheating, and so forth. Rather, the

rules focus on breaches of ritual. (In the case Rasmussen observed,

a woman had failed to throw away certain household items after

having a miscarriage.) True, these violations of ritual code are

thought to harm other people — but only because they are thought

to incur supernatural wrath that falls on the violator’s neighbors.

In the absence of this imagined supernatural sanction, breaking

the rules would be harmless and so not obviously “immoral” in the

modern sense of the term. In other words, in hunter- gatherer societies,

gods by and large don’t help solve moral problems that would

exist in their absence.

In the nineteenth century, when European scholars started seriously

studying “primitive” religion, they remarked on this absence

of a clear moral dimension — the dearth of references to stealing,

cheating, adultery, and the like. Edward Tylor noted in 1874 that the

religions of “savage” societies were “almost devoid of that ethical


element which to the educated modern mind is the very mainstream

of practical religion.” Tylor wasn’t saying that savages lack morality.

He stressed that the moral standards of savages are generally “ welldefi

ned and praiseworthy.” It’s just that “these ethical laws stand on

their own ground of tradition and public opinion,” rather than on a

religious foundation.38 As the ethnographer Lorna Marshall wrote

in 1962, after observing the relationship between the !Kung and the

great god Gaona: “Man’s wrong- doing against man is not left to

Gao!na’s punishment nor is it considered to be his concern. Man

corrects or avenges such wrong- doings himself in his social context.

Gao!na punishes people for his own reasons, which are sometimes

quite obscure.” 39

This isn’t to say that hunter- gatherers never use religion to

discourage troublesome or destructive behavior. Some Australian

aborigines used to say that the spirits are annoyed by people

who are frivolous or chatter too much.40 And when Charles Darwin,

aboard HMS Beagle, visited Tierra del Fuego, some of the

local hunter- gatherers spoke of a giant who roamed the woods

and mountains, knew everything you did, and would punish such

wrongdoing as murder by summoning bad weather. As the ship’s

captain, Robert FitzRoy, recalled one of the locals putting it,

“Rain come down — snow come down — hail come down — wind

blow — blow — very much blow. Very bad to kill man.” 41

But more typical42 of hunter- gatherer societies is the observation

one anthropologist made about the Klamath: “Relations to

the spirits have no ethical implication.” 43 Even if religion is largely

about morality today, it doesn’t seem to have started out that way.

And certainly most hunter- gatherer societies don’t deploy the ultimate

moral incentive, a heaven reserved for the good and a hell to

house the bad. Nor is there anything like the Hindu and Buddhist

notion of karma, a moral scorecard that will determine your fate

in the next life. There is always an afterlife in hunter- gatherer religion,

but it is almost never a carrot or a stick. Often everyone’s spirit

winds up in the same eternal home. And in those societies where

the land of the dead does have subdivisions, which one you wind




up in often has — as some anthropologists have put it — more to

do with how you died than with how you lived. Many Andaman

Islanders believed that if you drowned, you wound up underwater,

as a sea spirit, whereas otherwise you would become a jungleroaming

spirit.44 Haida who died by drowning would become killer


The general absence of moral sanction in hunter- gatherer religion

isn’t too puzzling. Hunter- gatherers live — as everyone lived

12,000 years ago — in intimate, essentially transparent groups. A

village may consist of thirty, forty, fi fty people, so many kinds of

wrongdoing are hard to conceal. If you stole a man’s digging stick,

where would you hide it? And what would be the point of having it

if you couldn’t use it? And, anyway, is it worth the risk of getting

caught — incurring the wrath of its owner, his family, and closest

friends, and incurring the ongoing suspicion of everyone else? The

fact that you have to live with these people for the rest of your life is

by itself a pretty strong incentive to treat them decently. If you want

them to help you out when you need help, you’d better help them

out when they need help. Hunter- gatherers aren’t paragons of honesty

and probity, but departures from these ideals are detected often

enough that they don’t become a rampant problem. Social order can

be preserved without deploying the power of religion.

One reason for this is that a hunter- gatherer village is the

environment we’re built for, the environment natural selection

“designed” the human mind for. Evolutionary psychologists tell us

that human nature includes at least two basic innate mechanisms

inclining us to treat people nicely. One, the product of an evolutionary

dynamic known as kin selection, leads us to sacrifi ce for close

relatives. Another, reciprocal altruism, leads us to be considerate of

friends — nonkin with whom we have enduringly cooperative relationships.

If you live in a hunter- gatherer village, most of the people

you encounter fi t into one of these two categories and so fall naturally

within the compass of your decency. Yes, you will have rivals,

but if they become bitter enemies, then one or the other of you may

leave the group for a nearby village. And one type of relationship


you defi nitely won’t have in a hunter- gatherer village is an anonymous

one. There are no opportunities for purse- snatching. Nor can

you borrow money, hop on a bus, and head out of town.

As the anthropologist Elman Service observed in 1966, such values

as love and generosity and honesty “are not preached nor buttressed

by threat of religious reprisal” in these societies, “because

they do not need to be.” When modern societies preach these values,

they are worried “mostly about morality in the larger society,

outside the sphere of kindred and close friends. Primitive people

do not have these worries because they do not conceive of — do not

have — the larger society to adjust to. The ethic does not extend to

strangers; they are simply enemies, not even people.” 46

That last sentence may sound extreme, and it is defi nitely at

odds with the many fl attering depictions of indigenous peoples in

movies and books. But this narrow compass of moral consideration

is indeed characteristic of hunter- gatherer societies. Universal

love — an ideal found in many modern religions, even if it is

honored mainly in the breach — is not even an ideal in the typical

hunter- gatherer society.

This book is partly about how and why the moral compass has

expanded, how religions came to defi ne larger and larger groups of

people as part of the circle of moral consideration. With this understanding

in hand, we’ll be in a better position to gauge the prospects

for the circle being expanded farther — for the Abrahamic religions,

in particular, to make their peace with one another, and conceive of

brotherhood accordingly.

What Religion Is

You could be excused for looking at religion in hunter- gatherer societies

and, like John Lubbock, concluding that it has little in common

with religion as we know it. Certainly that was the reaction of

more than a few Europeans of the nineteenth century. Where was

the moral dimension of religion? Where was brotherly love? Where




was the reverence for — not just fear of — the divine? Where was

the stately ritual? Where was the quest for inner peace? And what’s

with this jumble of spirits and deities doing implausible things to

control parts of the world that are in fact controlled by natural law?

Still, hunter- gatherer religions have at least two features that are

found, in one sense or another, in all the world’s great religions:

they try to explain why bad things happen, and they thus offer a

way to make things better. A Christian prayer on behalf of a gravely

ill child may seem a more subtle instrument than the !Kung medicine

man’s profane confrontation of a !Kung god, but at some level

the logic is the same: good and bad outcomes are under the control

of a supernatural being, and the being is subject to infl uence. And

those Christians who, in the spirit of modernism, refrain from asking

God for earthly interventions are usually hoping for favorable

treatment in the afterlife. Even Buddhists who don’t believe in any

gods (and most Buddhists do) seek through meditation or other disciplines

a spiritual adjustment that renders them less susceptible to


It may seem cynical to see all religion as basically self- serving.

And indeed the idea has been put pithily by a famous cynic. H. L.

Mencken said of religion, “Its single function is to give man access

to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose

is to induce those powers to be friendly to him. . . . Nothing

else is essential.” 47 But less cynical people have also put self- interest

at the core of religion, if in loftier language. About a century ago,

the psychologist William James wrote in The Varieties of Religious

Experience that religion “consists of the belief that there is

an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously

adjusting ourselves thereto.” 48

The difference between Mencken’s and James’s formulations is

important. In Mencken’s version the object of the game is to change

the behavior of the supernatural beings. James’s version doesn’t

quite exclude this possibility, but it places more of the burden of

change on us; we are to “harmoniously adjust” ourselves to the


“unseen order.” James seems to be making the modern assumption

that the unseen order — the divine, as people say these days — is

inherently good; that discrepancies between divine designs and our

own aims refl ect shortcomings on our part.

Of course, religion has in one sense or another always been about

self- interest. Religious doctrines can’t survive if they don’t appeal

to the psychology of the people whose brains harbor them, and selfinterest

is one potent source of appeal. But self- interest can assume

many forms, and for that matter it can be aligned, or not aligned,

with many other interests: the interest of the family, the interest

of the society, the interest of the world, the interest of moral and

spiritual truth. Religion almost always forms a link between selfinterest

and some of those other interests, but which ones it links

to, and how, change over time. And over time there has been — on

balance, taking the long view — a pattern in the change. Religion

has gotten closer to moral and spiritual truth, and for that matter

more compatible with scientifi c truth. Religion hasn’t just evolved;

it has matured. One premise of this book is that the story of religion,

beginning back in the Stone Age, is to some extent a movement

from Mencken to James.

Religion needs to mature more if the world is going to survive in

good shape — and for that matter if religion is to hold the respect of

intellectually critical people. But before we take up these questions,

we’ll address the question of how it has matured to date: how we got

from the hunter- gatherer religions that were the norm 12,000 years

ago to the monotheism that is the foundation of Judaism, Christianity,

and Islam. Then we’ll be in position to ponder the future of

religion and to talk about how true it is or can be.

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