One of the first things that the author of 2002’s Religion Explained had to address is the fact that everyone thinks they have the “explanation” for religion. Unlike quantum physics, or even population genetics, people think they “get” religion, and have a pretty good intuition and understanding of the phenomenon without any scholarly inquiry. Most people grew up religious, and know plenty of religious people. Naturally everyone has a theory to sell you informed by their experiences. This is clear in the comments of this weblog where people start with an assumed definition of religion, and then proceed to enter into a chain of reasoning with their axiomatic definition in mind, totally oblivious to the possibility that there might be a diversity of opinions as to the important aspects of religious phenomenon. This causes a problem when people begin at different starting points. Religion is obviously important. That is why Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations used it to delimit civilizations. Religion is also expansive.
In modern times the expansiveness can be a problem in terms of getting definitions right in any sort of conversation about the topic. On the one hand adherents of “higher religions” often dismiss supernatural beliefs outside of the purview of their organized systems as “superstition,” constraining the space of possibilities to an absurdly narrow set (this can be taken to extremes when narrow sects define all religions outside of their umbrella as “cults”). At the other extreme there are others who wish to include “political religion” more wholeheartedly in the discussion. In my opinion doing so makes it difficult to discuss religious phenomena in a historical context, as political religion is relatively novel and recent. As a phenomenon with many features it is not surprising that there are many other traits which resemble religion, but this logic rapidly leads to loss of any intelligible specificity. Therefore as a necessary precondition I tend to assume that religion must have supernatural agents at their heart. Basically, gods. But, all the accoutrements of organized “higher” religions, which crystallized in the period between 600 BC and 600 AD (from Buddhism to Islam), are not necessary to understand religion. In fact, as outlined in books such as Theological Incorrectness, taking the claims of organized world religions at face value can mislead in terms of the beliefs and behaviors of the mass of the rank and file, whose spiritual world is still strongly shaped by the same cognitive parameters one finds in primal “animistic” faiths. Summa Theologica is not only impenetrable to the vast number of believers, but it is totally irrelevant. And yet the concerns of intellectuals loom large in any attempt to understand the nature of higher religions, because they tend to occupy positions of power, prestige, and prominence. And importantly, they are the ones writing down the history of their faith.
It is useful then to differentiate between religion in the generality, which likely has deep evolutionary roots in our species. This is characterized by modal intuitions about the supernatural nature of the world. A universe of spirits, gods, and unseen forces. Then there are the complex processed cultural units of production and consumption which are the “world religions” of the past few thousand years, which have achieved a sort of stable oligopoly power over the loyalties of the vast majority of the world’s population. They are not inchoate and organic, bottom up reifications of the foam of cognitive process, perhaps co-opted toward functional or aesthetic purposes. Rather, world religions are clearly products of complex post-Neolithic agricultural societies which exhibit niche specialization and social stratification. They are the end, not the beginning. A complex melange of distinct cultural threads brought together into one unit of consumption for the masses and the elites, which binds society together into an organic whole. Think of the world religions as the Soylent of their era.
The historical context of this is well known, all the way back to Karl Jaspers. Over two thousand years ago the ideas which we would later term philosophy arose in the eastern Mediterranean, in northern India, and northern China. They were absorbed by various organized religions in each locale. The complex social-political order of those years also persist in the institutional and bureaucratic outline of these religious organizations. Ergo, the Roman Catholic Church is the shadow of the Roman Empire. The Sangha probably reflects the corporate nature of South Asian society even at that early time. Though some set of elite practitioners of these religions tended toward philosophical rationalism, others were attracted toward mystical movements which elevate the existential and esoteric elements of religious experience. Both mystical and rational variants of religion exhibit a commonality in that they are patronized by elites with leisure to spare upon introspection or reflection. Formal liturgical traditions co-opt the human propensity for heightened emotional arousal in collective group contexts to ritualize subordination and submission to central authorities, which serve as the axis mundi which binds the divine to the world and proxies for the gods.
This only scratches the surface of the phenomenon in question. And these are not academic matters; religion is a powerful force in the world around us. This is why studies such as this in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia, are heartening to see. The importance is not the topic of study, or even the conclusion, but the methods. Using phylogenetic techniques the authors get a crisper understanding of the dynamics. Even if one quibbles with their conclusions one can at least grapple with it formally. Nature has a good piece surveying the response, though please ignore the hyperbole in the title!
The gist of this conclusion to me seems to be similar to the one in relation to lactase persistence: cultural and social change set the preconditions for evolutionary change, evolutionary change did not trigger cultural and social change. Complex multi-ethnic expansive societies arose somewhat over 2,000 years ago. The world religions developed in this environment as natural adaptations, which allowed for these societies to persist over time and space in a manner that was recognizable. The diffuse world of gods and spirits were distilled down to the portable essence which would serve to bind and tie diverse peoples together (in practice for much of history this only applied to the elites, as the populace still retained what basically could be termed folk paganism). The verbal models supplemented by formalism is probably what is needed to truly gain a deep insight into the nature of a phenomenon as slippery by ubiquitous as religion.