I reviewed this week, The Evolution of Religious Behavior. In this chapter taken from the book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures, author Nicholas Wade argues that religion spawned for humans as an evolutionary construct to ensure our survival. Having shed the hierarchical dominance structures we see in primate societies today, gods were formed to rule over man and helped us make sense of the world around us. Religion, Wade argues, is a human trait, now instinctively driven , inherited from ancestral man. This is an intriguing argument, making me curious enough to wander through it.
To start with, though we lack full knowledge of the link between our primate beginnings and our appearance on earth as humans, scientifically, the study of human genetics determines that we share a major portion of DNA with chimpanzees. Science, however, remains uncertain of when in time the shift towards a separate human-species, actually took place.
Some suggest that our species, homo-sapiens, originated in Africa 200,00 years ago. We also know the planet has existed in the universe, far longer. Relatively, it seems as though man simply appeared, almost in an instant in earth's history. Did religion appear as instantly and continue with us through every civilization of man?
Religion, Wade suggests, grew out of the need for man to make sense of the world around him and has, thereby, been with us from the beginning. Man has always needed religion, and religion has always been with man.
One scholar who supports Wade’s argument is Joseph Campbell. In his work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell discusses religion, rites and rituals across varying cultures of ancestral man. Unlike other scholars, Campbell didn’t question what was at odds within the various religions he studied. Rather, he studied the mythology, the stories of religions, seeking out what among these stories was most common and universal.
What he found was a pattern of common symbolism and metaphor, evident in all the various myths of man's religion, worship, life and faith. The stories of man, according to Campbell, with symbols common in literature and common within our religious rites, are stories meant as guides-leading us through common, necessary human transitions. Each of the stories have elements evident that are shared in common by every man.
These stories are the words of wisdom of past human cultures, according to Campbell. They were created to assist our ancestors psychologically through the transitional nature of all human change. These stories too, we're meant to nurture man through her interactions with the world around her, using story-language and structure to do so.
According to Campbell, we are each our own mythology. Our personal life story, is a continuing story of change and developing adventure. Collectively, human's find connection with one another and with the entire universe as we share our stories of where we've come from and who we are. The guiding principles in these stories, we use to govern our individual and collective lives. It is around these stories that ultimately, religions are made. In every story Campbell studied, written of man about herself-gods appear. Acting both with man as ultimate friend, and against man as a vindictive foe, a character appears in man's common stories-a character of relationship, with powers greater than herself.
Religions developed around this evolving relationship with these powers, and evolved along with us into the faiths we know today. As it is for Nicolas Wade, it is for Joseph Campbell: man's always had religion in one form or another and all point out to man, that man is not alone. All religions point towards a higher power-one we know in western culture today, as God.
The Hero's Journey in Campbell's views, defines the common patterns of human life practice that appear universally across man’s stories of history, religion and culture. This demonstrates that from our dawn as a conscious species we’ve used stories to help us make sense of our place in the world. Religion, Campbell suggests, developed to provide means to act out these stories . The stories, came first-religion, a means to an end.
The advent of religion and religious rites, connected us with our idea of God, who would help us and guide us we grew through our human existence. Collectively, through religious practice with others in human life, we are each able to hold a common reference, bonding us together with our God, our fellow man, and all that is. On the subject of myth and religion, it is with Campbell I most agree.
Another human universality unearthed with Campbell's studies is that through religious practice, man seeks to shed the shackles of being human and thereby experience fully, what it is to be alive: The rites of religious practice serve a practical purpose-to assist us through the process of human growth:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” ― Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth.
Throughout his writing and in interviews, Joseph Campbell saw the fall of religion coming as a consequence of man's failure to cherish our religions, and to universalize our guiding myths (stories).
With today’s three main religions of man clashing with one another around the world-and although it seems man needs story and some form of religion to guide us-religion today doesn't seem relevant to many of us. We can't seem to fully appreciate religion's value in building common purpose, leading ultimately to peace. Right now religion brews destructively, as a reference-point for war.
Are we hard-wired for religion, as Nicholas Wade argues? Man is certainly hard-wired with need for growth and we’re certainly hardwired with a need for understanding our place in the world through story (mythology) as Campbell suggests. Religion once acted as a means to such end. Although all myths, hold within elements of deep truth to guide humanity. Religion, it seems, has failed us in it's own task to do the same.
With the clash of religion today and all the destruction of war: perhaps we need new human stories to guide our transition as a species towards globalization. With a larger sense of a world-wide human tribe, a new religion may be by necessity, very much in order as well.
Through my life's experience, faith and story-telling of my own, mythology and religion today serves purpose: we need story-telling and rites to guide us along in a process of recovery-of this, I remain convinced.
I'm far from a scholar, but I’m certain both Nicholas Wade and Joseph Campbell would agree. I’ll leave the discussion with these words from Joseph Campbell:
"Mythology may, in a real sense, be defined as other people’s religion. And religion may, in a real sense, be understood as a popular misunderstanding of mythology."
Darren Michael Gregory 04/23/15
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