Do Humans Have a ‘Religion Instinct’?

Our embodiment was responding to environmental pressures (biological and cultural) to flourish. Many of these developments occurred as nature pressured our ape line to become more social, and the unprecedented numbers of members living together in close proximity. Social cohesion had to be maintained and promoted, but the tried-and-true method of grooming was no longer possible because it was time-prohibitive. Certain rituals, like dancing, were capable of producing the same pharmacological effects in its practitioners, and hunter-gatherers eventually began to practice them with more regularity, especially as their group sizes grew. Eventually hunter-gatherers set down roots in permanent settlements, which required even more prosocial behavior management to alleviate the stresses of group living. Given the human brain’s evolved ability for agency detection and intuitive morality, quasi-formal religion quite naturally emerged. These seeds became institutionalized throughout the Neolithic Revolution, which laid the groundwork for the so-called Axial Age to occur. The major ideas of this period — from Confucianism to Judaism and Ancient Greek philosophy — are still with us today. At least that’s one way to tell the story.

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