The God of Our Religion

The fact is that human beings have the impulse to find out who they are
by telling a story about how they came to be. Myth thus is the food that
feeds our sense of identity. And when we see our identity and our destiny in
relation to the unseen world – God or the dharma or the Tao or nirvana – then myth
is given an added impulse, for we imagine the invisible through the visible and
give life to our faith through symbols
– Ninian Smart
We humans crave emotional connection with others….Belongingness is a
useful shorthand term for the undeniable reality that humans of all ages,
in all societies, thrive in relation to others….How did humans go from craving
belongingness to relating in profound and deep ways to God, gods, or spirits?
– Barbara King
Native spiritual practices and Judeo-Christian traditions are
based on very different paradigms.
– Winona LaDuke

Several years ago, it occurred to me that if we are to understand the God of our religion, we must first understand religion and the role it plays in human affairs. Many people today are turning away from the so-called “formal” religions, claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” I began to wonder if the problem is not with religion itself, but with how, over the course of human history, religion has come to be understood and used within various human cultures.

Barbara King (2007), professor of anthropology at William and Mary College, summarized her research into the prehistory of human religion in her recent book, Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. As an anthropologist, King draws on her many years spent in observing the behaviors of African primates (including displays of empathy and compassion) as clues to the behaviors of our early human ancestors. She concludes that the roots of religion lie in the development of our human awareness of belonging to one another.

King says our deep desire as humans for interconnection originates in the long evolutionary history we share with other primates.  At some point, we departed from our primate ancestors, evolving to become “the spiritual ape–the ape that grew a large brain, the ape that stood up, the ape that first created art, but, above all, the ape that evolved God” (p.1)human-evolution-10176

Let me point out that my concern here is not whether or not “God” exists, but how humans have coped with their own experience of existence. King emphasizes, and our science today confirms, that at the core of that experience is interconnectedness.  King attempts to illustrate how we evolved behaviors around the experience of interconnectedness over thousands of years. King is particularly interested in the evolution of several aspects of primate and human emotional and cognitive life which she summarizes as:

  • empathy (emotional connection);
  • consciousness;
  • imagination;
  • meaning-making;
  • rule-following (p.4).

For King, all of these aspects lie at the heart of the development among Homo Sapiens of the phenomenon we now call “religion.”

All primates, including humans, come equipped with a brain and nervous system capable of developing a capacity for empathy, or emotional connection. In fact, it appears to be a capacity shared by many mammals. I recently have viewed or read several poignant examples of this in elephants, dogs, and dolphins. 42-16422136 We seem to be hard-wired to be aware of ourselves and of one another.

King sees the capacity for emotional connection, or “belongingness,” as she terms it, in primates as an essential element in the development of religion. She defines it this way : “Belongingness is mattering to someone who matters to you.”

This capacity, however, is not limited to our family members or near neighbor. We also seem on occasion to be aware of “something there” that is beyond us.  Some scholars refer to this as an experience of the “numinous.”  At other times, and this is described in all religious traditions by mystics, we become aware of this “something other” as present within us.  Today, some religious traditions  use the term “God” to name this “something there” sensed through experience. Throughout human history and all around Earth, it has had many names.

In her exploration of the evolution of religion, King also studies the human capacity for meaning-making. Over millennia, humans have used our imagination to create stories and myths that attempt to answer our questions about existence, show us how to be here with one another, and explain the “something there” of our experience. Over time, these stories and myths have evolved to take on a character that both reflects and supports our various human cultures and religions. On my shelf at home is a book called Encyclopedia of Gods: Over 2,500 Dieties of the World.  Compiled by Michael Jordan, an English broadcaster and writer, it covers a breadth of human religions and cultures beginning with the Sumerian civilization around 3,000 B.C. to the present.

Finally, King describes how in her years of observing primates she was able to notice how older generations pass on the local community’s “rules” to younger generations.  This is important for survival (for example, by indicating which plants are safe to eat) and for getting along in the community.

Today, we can speculate as to whether primates are engaging in these experiences and behaviors in exactly the same way their ancient ancestors did.  However, for humans, the story is quite different.  As millennia passed, we kept evolving new ways to approach the experience of “belongingness.”  We still have some isolated indigenous groups living on Earth who can give us insight into how early humans dealt with these issues.  We also are aware that later civilizations evolved very complex, and often, as it turns out, very unjust practices within the religions that supported their cultures.

Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist and author, describes the contrast between indigenous and Western European approaches to religion in her book, Recovering the Sacred.  LaDuke speaks clearly and forcefully of the contrast between the paradigms of Native American and Judeo-Christian religion. She offers this description of the Native American sense of belongingness:

Native American rituals are frequently based on the reaffirmation of the relationship of humans to the Creation. Many of our oral traditions tell of the place of the “little brother” (the humans) in the larger Creation…. Understanding the complexity of [our] belief systems is central to understanding the societies built on those spiritual foundations – the relationship of peoples to their sacred lands, to relatives with fins or hooves, to the plant and animal food that anchor a way of life (p.12).

LaDuke is not kind to the paradigm of the Christian religion which arrived in North America during the colonial era:

Centuries of papal bulls posited the supremacy of Christendom over all other beliefs, sanctified manifest destiny, and authorized even the most brutal practices of colonialism. Some of the most virulent and disgraceful manifestations of Christian dominance found expression in the conquest and colonization of the Americas (p.12).

It seems, then, that our question about the God of religion must be this: How did humans, who at first knew a deep experience of belongingness, empathy, and interconnectedness,  come to support religious institutions and practices focused on separation, domination, and oppression? As LaDuke notes, “…the [Catholic] church served as handmaiden to military, economic, and spiritual genocide and domination” (pp.11-12).

I take up this question in another post, for it is an essential part of the answer to the spiritual question, “How are we to be here with one another?”

King, B. (2007). Evolving God: A provocative view of the origins of religion. NY: Doubleday. [Opening quote pp. 1-3]

LaDuke, W. (2005). Recovering the sacred: The power of naming and claiming. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. [Opening quote p. 12]

Smart, N. (2000) Worldviews: Crosscultural explorations of human beliefs. [third edition]. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. [Opening quote p. 85.]

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