Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What African Apes Tell Us About God

In an age when science continues to provide impressively powerful explanations of natural phenomena, it is tempting for many to view the scientific method as having a kind of omnipotence. But it is probably true that most persons who are alive today, including most scientists, still perceive the inherent limits of science, remaining unmoved by popular forms of disenchanting scientific reductionism. However, because there is no denying that science provides us with genuinely illuminating insights into the nature of religion, religious scholars must deeply engage in the scientific study of religion, perhaps now more than ever. In her book Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion, the contemporary biological anthropologist Barbara King models a sensitive engagement with evolutionary science and the academic study of religion without succumbing to the illusion that science provides the entire religious picture. In the rest of the post, I will briefly explain King’s theory of religion and argue that she provides us with a convincing alternative to more problematic evolutionary approaches to religion.

King studies the phenomenon of religion as a very sympathetic outsider, in sharp contrast to the so-called ‘New Atheists’ like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins who attempt to provide a thoroughgoing scientific and reductionistic explanation. Although King claims that she is an agnostic about the existence of god or gods numerous times throughout her book, her ultimate conclusions about the origins of religion rightly steer clear of any form of sharp reductionism – despite the fact that she argues, similar to many atheists, that the evolutionary perspective provides one of the most important methods for understanding religion. Indeed, she strongly argues against the “tunnel-vision” of gene-centered scientific approaches to the study of religion that are employed by the New Atheists in favor of a more relational, or social theory of religion:

"Too many modern evolutionary accounts of religion have lost a nuanced sense of what it means to be wholly social beings. In many theories, a “sexy” reductionism is visible, that is, a relegating of the social dimension to a mere variable, coupled with an inflation of the power of genes…"

Barbara King, College of William & Mary
Because of her rejection of reductionism, King’s fascinating and innovative anthropological theory is quite friendly to religions, leaving open the possibility for authentic religious experiences of the sacred and truth claims from a wide variety of traditions. Indeed, she frequently quotes with approval the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, as well as the religious historian Karen Armstrong, who describes herself as a mystical “freelance monotheist.” Furthermore, she concludes the book with a discussion of the positive relationship between science and religion by agreeing with the basic methodology of the Roman Catholic scientific theologian John Haught, who describes himself as a non-reductive evolutionary theist.

Clifford Geertz
Not only does King move beyond reductionism, she also rightly rejects the more narrow, essentialist definitions of religion that tend to plague the writings of the New Atheists. Instead, King largely seems to endorse the more subtle definition of religion provided by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who argues that religion is “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” With Geertz (and against Daniel Dennett), King argues that religion cannot be defined by beliefs in supernatural beings, nor is it even more broadly about particular beliefs in general. Instead, she understands religion to be first and foremost about human emotion and social expression (or practices). She even goes so far as to argue that to a great extent, “religion is emotion”, and as such, an evolutionary approach to religion must attempt to explain the emotional life of hominids.

While King’s anthropological theory of religion is rooted in some speculation that might be debated by specialists in her field, I would argue that it nevertheless provides a plausible, quite persuasive view of the origins of religion. Her theory does not so much try to explain religion in a comprehensive fashion like many other theorists of religion attempt to do, but instead to provide important insights into religious origins that should supplement other approaches to the study of religion. King herself is not under the illusion that she is truly providing a comprehensive explanation of religion – she ultimately leaves much of it to the mysteries of the universe. She explains, “I do not believe that science can ‘explain’ religion…[but] I do believe that science can explain something meaningful about the evolution of the religious imagination.” At the same time, she still argues that her evolutionary theory of “belongingness” provides a necessary foundation for the wider study of religion: “belongingness [is] one aspect of religiousness, an aspect so essential that the human religious imagination could not have evolved without it.” King defines belongingness as “the undeniable reality that humans of all ages in all societies, thrive in relation to others.” But how does this notion of belongingness illuminate our understanding of religion?

At the center of King’s argument about the origins of religion is her assertion that the human religious impulse is rooted in their social and emotional connections – that is, belongingness. It is primarily through belongingness, in deep connection with others, that human existence undergoes transformation. Relying on more than two decades of her own studies on ape and monkey behavior in Africa and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, she argues that these relational connections between humans can be traced back millions of years to our African ape ancestors. King claims that the social behavior of African apes, which includes empathy, meaning-making, rule-following, imagination, and consciousness, provided the essential social foundations for religion to emerge in human culture much later on in the course of evolution. Although King’s emphasis on social interactions for her theory of religion is similar to many sociological theories of religion (such as that of Emile Durkheim), she moves beyond them by starting “the evolutionary clock earlier” to study the emotional lives of apes. In a sense then, King is following up on the speculations of the famous primatologist Jane Goodall, who thought that chimpanzees “may have an incipient sense of religious awe.”
Jane Goodall
Moving from apes to humans (the “spiritual ape”), she argues that the sense of belongingness that humans share with their ape ancestors was transformed as our human ancestors’ way of life shifted. Especially with changes in their environment and developments in the human brain, human creativity increased and more complex forms of language and culture emerged. Symbols, art, and rituals facilitated new ways of making sense of the world for humans and more nuanced forms of belongingness. Ultimately, all of this resulted in the expansion of the universal human need (not merely desire) for belongingness beyond human relationships in the family and immediate group to a more transcendent space or realm. As King concludes, “The human religious imagination developed in ever widening circles of engagement from immediate social companions, to members of a larger group, then across groups, and, eventually, to a wholly other dimension, the realm of sacred beings.” The human quest for the sacred is a search for deeper meaning beyond our immediate social relations. In other words, religion is about seeking a meaningful, emotional relationship with the sacred. In this sense, humans evolved god. And of course, for King, there is no way to know if god actually exists – how much god, gods, or spirits are human creations or discoveries – but there are good reasons to affirm the reality and even meaningfulness of religious experience.

King has provided us with a nuanced and reasonably persuasive study of the origins of religion from within a particular field of study, with its inevitably limited perspective. Some of her points about the social behavior of apes are probably debatable, especially if one is familiar with the fields of primatology and anthropology. However, for those who do not have more than a general understanding of those fields, my sense is that King, who has studied apes more than most it seems, provides a compelling argument about the evolution of religion. Again, her theory does not provide a full explanation of religion, nor is it intended to. But if she is right in her overall argument – and I detect no serious weaknesses (even if as a theologian I would want to push further) – than King makes a strong case that belongingness, and not merely genes, is a necessary concept to include in our ongoing study of the evolution of religion. Part of the significance of her effort is that she makes the evolutionary study of religion a live option for religious and spiritual persons, not merely for skeptics and atheists. This was in fact her motivation for writing the book: “…science can do better…[it] can look head-on at humanity’s hunger for the sacred, a hunger that is far more than a mere offshoot of the workings of our genes or brains and far more than an illusion akin to a Chinese teapot orbiting the sun.”

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