Religion, Spirituality and Human Evolution.


A Very Brief Consideration of History

Humankind has forever designated divinity as a superhuman force existing only in the extraterrestrial realm.  In more classical or contemporary religions ‘The Creator’—primarily God, but in some instances Saints, and in the prophet are endowed with such supernatural powers.  Catholicism has even set such an ability—proof of a miracle—as one of the criteria for Sainthood. In more ancient—and some may call primitive—religions, events in nature were considered to have been either caused by or themselves supernatural.

To connect with, and control, these supernatural forces we have developed elaborate constructs.  Long-woven stories about how these forces came about. We have invented complex rituals with definitive and absolute rules about how to harness these forces with the two intensions: First, to benefit from it them while we are alive— such as praying for rain so we can have food, or win a football game, and second, to have a promise of salvation from hardships, mistakes and challenges of earthly life through a comfortable eternal life after death such as the promise of the heavens or perpetual reincarnation. 

True to form, dualistic creatures that we are, we applied dualism to this mental construct too. We created the opposite of these powers and invented an equally elaborate set of ideas and origin stories about their coexistence and relationship.  We constructed evil, hell and damnation. When we believed in multiple Gods we had them fighting one another, and when we came down to a single God we had the Devil do that job for balance sake. 

Every time we assign divinity to something outside ourselves that is bigger and more powerful than we are, we remove ourselves from our own innate capacity for divinity.  I believe divinity is infused within every strand of DNA, in every cell and molecule that constructs us and the things around us.

Human Evolution and Religious Beliefs Co-evolve

There is an interesting parallel that I have observed between individual human development stages and the evolution of humanity as a whole.  During my own training and background is in psychology  I studied human development, and one of the first theorists I studied who explicated and elaborate on the evolution of how we think from childhood on was Jean Piaget.  Most readers will be familiar with his work to some extent but for our purposes its worth reexamining them here so we can draw the meaningful parallels to religious practices.

But first a note of timelines.  Let us consider the beginning of the “thinking man” as the starting point of our current human species’ collective evolution. Homo sapiens  have been around for about 200,000 years.  Of course, human evolution has not been a straight-line progression.  It has been exponential.  That is, the amount of progress per century was very little initially and gradually accelerated more rapidly as time passed—and continues to do so just as the universe is speeding up.  Human evolution, then, can’t be measured in annual increments. So instead we will rely on the developmental stages and characteristics of each stage to understand religious evolution. Consider the following developmental characteristics that Piaget proposed as it relates to religious practices.

Stage 1.  Ages 0-2 years: Sensory Motor At the onset of this stage we are aware of what is happening around us but do not recognize the relationship between sensory experiences and their source.  If something hurts, we wail unaware of why. We may even be aware of different types of pain but not understand the causal relationships.  To an infant it must be truly magical for a hand, her hand, to appear before her and suddenly disappear. It must be pure curiosity to be laying down one minute and flying in the sky the next as you get picked up. Thankfully, the senses are rather dull. Vision is limited so that much of the background information is unavailable. Recognition of sound is limited to caregiver voices the sense of touch only heightened in certain areas of the body.  Otherwise the sensory overload would be too much to bear.

Consider this stage from a religious standpoint of early humans.  First their vision, metaphorically speaking, was narrowed to their immediate environment and what they could immediately access.  Second, that which occurred seemed outside their control and ordinary events such as death or plant growth must have felt utterly magical.  Their own reflection in water must have been quite entertaining. 

During this stage in human development we begin to recognize that there is a relationship between what we sense (see, smell, hear, taste and touch) as well as a sense of altitude or height.  If a balloon is attached to a baby’s hand and floating above her head she get excited and moves her arms and legs, the balloon moves, she gets excited some more, the balloon moves faster. She makes the connection that her actions move the balloon. But which hand its tied to is still a mystery so all four limbs have to move without distinction.  This global understanding leads the baby to, over time, create an increasingly sophisticated understanding and control of isolated limbs, and eventually muscles for fine motor control.  This is true of all muscles in the body which have voluntary functions including the tongue which moves from sucking to swallowing to coordination with chewing and then speech.

 Humans have similarly developed a sense of sophisticated control of their environment over time.  We have gone from not knowing how diseases occur to being able to isolate not only causes but vulnerabilities of many diseases. We have gained increasing control over raw materials and transformation of them into other materials we desire. 

Stage 2: Ages 2-7 years: Pre-operational.  In this stage Piaget proposes that we begin symbolic thinking.  We use proper syntax and grammar for expression of complete, yet simple thoughts.  And are at the very beginning points of developing what he calls Conservation. That is, the very start of logic and rationale.  But at this stage children are quite self-absorbed. Their capacity for viewing the world from other’s perspective is not present and they see everything from their own immediate needs and wants.  

In religious development we began to view natural forces that made us feel miniscule by their sheer magnitude symbolically. We offered names to, and build some simple stories about, these forces with a modicum of logic and rationale that today seem childish indeed. We begin to “offer” sacrifices and humanized these forces and gave them what we imagined we would want if we had such powers.

Stage 3: Ages 7-12 years: Concrete Operational: Concepts become more solidly attached to objects and events. Time and space as well as quantity has begun to take form and logic becomes more sophisticated but remains quite black and white.   Ideas become more elaborate and abstraction (extrapolation) becomes more predominant during the years of this developmental stage. We are still very black and white in our thinking and while we do begin to develop the ability to empathize and see the world through others’ eyes we operate quite egotistically still.

Religiously, at this stage of cognitive development we can see that all contemporary religions are an elaboration, extrapolation and expansion of earlier spiritual belief forms.  The stories are more sophisticated with more degrees of separation for the creation of ‘logic’ of causation.  Its no longer the God of Wind that is mad at the village for not doing x, y or z but the unified God who did not like how we sinned and used the wind to punish us.  Here we understand the natural force of wind and may even understand what ordinarily causes it but we also make it a tool of destruction and punishment by a more abstract being who is invisible.   The rules are rigid and other religions are not acceptable.

Stage 4: Ages 12 and up: Operational: This stage lasts for a long time, a life time in fact. Therefore, its evolution enjoys more time and is drawn out with slower roll out of characteristics. Here we begin to appreciate others’ perspectives, think very abstractly and multi-dimensionally, we can begin to be hypothetical and counterfactual, develop meta-cognition—the ability to apply concepts learned in one context to other contexts and situations, and use broader and more flexible logic. We begin to see shades of gray. 

It is my belief that evolutionarily we re at the early points of this stage of human development and in the next fifty to a hundred years we rapidly evolve through it. As such, I believe we have come to a point in our evolution where a new religious construct is necessary to match our evolutionary trajectory. To do so we have to first step away from the word religion as it has been fixed for the past 2000 years to signify a particular set of characteristics. It is true that many current religions remain stuck in stages 2 and 3 of Piaget’s development and since they dogmatically retain the word religion, for a new construct to succeed it must identify with a different name. That is why Divinity is my choice. So this proposal is a view of divinity and not a religion.

The anthropology of human evolution, its tools, cultures, languages, and practices in relation to the changes in diet and brain development is fascinating and well worth exploration.  In particular reading about the evolution of creativity in humans has a direct influence in our current state of humanity. This topic sill make a good book someday but its beyond the scope of this blog.

Focusing on the topic at hand, as humans have cognitively evolved religious beliefs and practices have as well. To summarize, we have spent millennia in the first three stages of cognitive and, by extension, religious development. At the beginning we lived in very small groups and our world consisted of our village and perhaps the next one over.  We thought of what was immediately before us, dealt with daily challenges and, therefore, our religions were highly objectified and localized. We prayed for rain, for crops to grow healthy, to ward off disaster, and tried to appease that which we could not control. We sacrificed virgins to the volcano gods to spare us from their wrath and gave offerings to various gods each of whom had a specialty.  And we were terrified when we had to leave our village because that’s where our gods lived. We were without protection outside of our geographic territory.

In my next post I will explore some neurobiological concepts related to religious beliefs.