Is Religion Distinctively Human?

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2002

In a recent discussion with proselytes for a locally popular religion, I was reminded by the proselytes that religion is first and primarily an act of faith. A believer in a religion should not expect a sign from his or her deity to prove the deity's existence.  Instead, he or she will know the deity exists because of an inner feeling of rightness that comes after faith is achieved.

Religion is two things: An act of faith, and a feeling that something supernatural is necessary to explain the order of the universe -- supernatural meaning: Some force is being used by some conscious entity that is beyond the basic forces that science has discovered control 99% to 100% of the universe's functioning.

The discussion started me thinking about faith and when in mankind's evolution faith would have appeared. Religious faith, like humans’ fantastic language ability, should have a beginning. When would that have been?

Now it is time to define Religious Faith.

Religious faith is the concept of believing that there is a single sentient deity -- or many deities -- that controls acts of nature. Further, it is the belief that such deities are aware of the acts of humans, and that they will change the course of natural events based on what humans do. If humans ask for intervention in the proper fashion, a proper ritual such as prayer and sacrifice, then the deity will pay attention, and acts of nature will turn in humans' favor.

As I thought about religious faith, I thought about “Where does an act of faith come from? Why is making a “leap of faith” a successful way of thinking?”

Religious thinking clearly passes the "survival of the fittest" test, but how does it do that? Religious thinking is clearly not right, in the sense of explaining how the universe works correctly, but it is clearly a way of thinking that has helped the human species succeed.

If it's not right, why is it successful? And how far back into man's prehistory does this kind of faith thinking originate?

Religion, Science and Fortune Telling

Religion, science, and fortune telling all spring from the same root desire in humanity: The desire to predict and control the future. In the early history of man, there was no difference between the three. A tribal shaman was a repository of tribal knowledge, a center of religious ritual, and a predictor of the future.

As mankind's social structure and understanding grew, these three functions split. First, the priest split from the fortune teller, then the scientist split from the priest. They split and retained influence based on the community's perception as to how good they were at predicting and controlling the future. In communities where the base of scientific knowledge is small, science does not dominate the community's decision making process. In Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome, there were scientists, but they were perceived as having similar abilities to predict and control the future as priests. A person might design a boat or decide when to harvest a crop based on science or religion of the day and do equally well.

The tug of war between science and religion starts in Western Europe with the Renaissance in the 1400's, but it takes the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1700's to show science decisively pulling ahead of religion in its ability to predict and control the material parts of the world.

Religion, science, and fortune telling are all based on man's desire to predict and control the future. All three have a root instinct, and that root instinct is detecting patterns in the world around us.

Pattern detecting

The root of science, religion, and fortune telling is detecting a pattern. If humans can detect a pattern in what at first appears to be random chaos, then they can exploit it. Discovering that food appears in certain places and at certain times is immensely valuable. Discovering that enemies appear in certain places and at certain times is equally valuable.

Many patterns are not bold, they are subtle. The Man in the Moon is an example of a subtle pattern. It is also an example of a false positive: There is no picture of a face on the moon's surface; it is put there by the human optical system, which is constantly looking for patterns.

In the hunter-gatherer world humans evolved in, false positives cause less problems than false negatives -- it is better that we get scared by a false tiger that isn't in a nearby bush than that we remain oblivious to a real one that is.

So the human thinking system errs towards seeing patterns where there aren't any, in preference to not seeing patterns where they really exist.

Religion, science, and fortune telling all spring from this desire to discover patterns.

Is pattern seeking uniquely human?

Is pattern seeking uniquely human? Hardly! It is as fundamental as life itself. Even viruses and bacteria seek patterns.

So is it likely that only humans are religious?

I think not. I think that any pattern-discerning organism will also see false positives. If an organism sees false positives and then tries to exploit them, it will be engaging in ritual. It is likely that if we study apes, whales, elephants, or other higher organisms, and we are looking for rituals, we will see them.

Are rituals the same as religion? An animal or human engages in a ritual because it desires for the world around it to "go better". Getting back to the basic requirement of the proselytes who helped me start down this train of thought: Does an animal gain an inner feeling of rightness after it gains faith and engages in a ritual?

If it has awareness, why shouldn't it?

In the case of humans, and in the case of animals, the pattern being exploited by engaging in a ritual is very subtle. Gods are capricious: Sometimes they listen and intervene favorably; many times they don't. The fact that they don't consistently intervene favorably has never been a deterrent to religious faith. I don't see much difference between the ritual and the belief that drives the ritual.

I think that religion is something man shares with animals, perhaps shares even more than tool use.

When did the first human practice a religious ritual? Perhaps long before he or she was even human.

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