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|
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.”
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.”