What Non-Human Primates Tell Us About Religion

In Salon, an interview with Barbara J. King, author of Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion (via Political Theory Daily Review):

Every human culture has believed in spirits, gods or some other divine being. That’s why human beings have often been called Homo religioso. Some people take this long history of belief in the otherworldly as evidence for God; doesn’t it explain why religion continues to be so pervasive? But many scientists are coming up with their own, decidedly secular, theories about the origins of faith. In fact, over the last few years, a small cottage industry made up of scientists and philosophers has devoted itself to demystifying the divine.

Take Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who has proposed that religion is a meme — an idea that evolved like a virus — that infected our ancestors and continued to spread throughout cultures. By contrast, anthropologist Pascal Boyer argues that religious belief is a quirky byproduct of a brain that evolved to detect predators and other survival needs. In this view, the brain developed a hair-trigger detection system to believe the world is full of “agents” that affect our lives. And British biologist Lewis Wolpert, with yet another theory, posits that religion developed once hominids understood cause and effect, which allowed them to make complex tools. Once they started to make causal connections, they felt compelled to explain life’s mysteries. Their brains, in essence, turned into “belief engines.”

Of course, these thinkers are either religious skeptics or outright atheists who mean to imply that we’ve been duped by evolution to believe in supernatural beings when none, in fact, exist. That’s what makes Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary, so unique. She has no desire to undermine religion. In fact, she’s been deeply influenced by the religious writers Karen Armstrong and Martin Buber. But her main insights about the origins of religion come not from researching humans’ deep history, but from observing very much alive non-human primates.