A great interview with Anthropologist Lionel Tiger about the origin of religion

At Macleans. A taste:

Q: The ubiquity of belief in all human societies, you argue, means religion is rooted in our brains. You see it originating about 150,000 years ago when we were coming out of Africa, and were smart enough to contemplate death?
A: Yes, we had developed enough cortical tissue to anticipate a whole series of things about the future. The utterly astonishing one, the defining feature of religions, is the notion of an afterlife. It’s really hard to deny that this is an act of marketing genius, if you were to look at this in a cynical sense. Nobody likes to die. The idea of an afterlife, for you and for loved ones, is very attractive. It seems to me wholly improbable—what’s the evidence?—and yet it works, it just works. If you’ve got a very bad idea in your head—death—which is causing stress, and you can put another idea which is a very good one in its place, then the level of serotonin—which fights depression and anxiety and makes people feel good about themselves and others—begins to build. And you begin an organization to sustain that. Since five billion humans seem to accept that there is a heaven or reincarnation or something after death, then I have to say this is something that comforts the species.

Q: The three ways you argue that religion soothes people—socialization, ritual and belief—how do they interact with each other?
A: You can’t have belief without some sort of ritual providing regularity and reinforcement. And if you think about rituals, again they’re utterly remarkable. People gather on a Sunday and they’re told that they’re really awful, they are virtually doomed to hell, they’re sinners. However, if they perform this ritual again next week and if they accept its importance in their lives they will be saved, as it were, until next week. The Catholics have done it in a brilliant manner with the confessional, and it’s dazzling how that works. But the point is that it’s a place to go for the individual and for the group, and it unites the individual to the group in an agreeable, warm-hearted way, unlike, say, paying taxes.

Q: It’s clear how socialization works, and how ritual supports belief, but are you also saying that the nature of religious belief means it long outlasts secular imitations?
A: Yes, those fail—all of them so far. All of the great religions came into being during the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture and pastoralism—hence “the Lord is my shepherd.” Later alternatives to a religious effort to deal with, to regularize, new crises, new ways of life—Marxism was one which basically failed because it had a very poor theory of human nature—couldn’t equal religious systems. There’s no good music, the buildings are office buildings like Queen’s Park, no answers to ultimate questions. There’s no glory to it. And so religion in the churchy sense has endured.

Tiger’s observation about the inadequacy of secularism (as a competitor with religion) reminds me of an observation that G.K. Chesterton made about a century earlier:

The point of Darwinism was that the bird with the longer beak could reach worms (let us say) at the bottom of a deeper hole; that the birds who could not do so would die; and he alone would remain to found a race of long-beaked birds. . . . But the point was that the fittest did not need to struggle against the unfit. The survivor had nothing to do except to survive, when the others could not survive. He survived because he alone had the features and organs necessary for survival. And, whatever be the truth about mammoths or monkeys, that is the exact truth about the present survival of religion. It is surviving because nothing else can survive.

 Tiger’s new book is here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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