The Suspension of Disbelief and the Origin of Culture

Carl Coon

Generations from now, historians may look back on our era and marvel at the fact that so many people still literally believed in the articles of faith undergirding the major Western religions. How, they might ask, was it possible that the unbelievable could still be believed by so many at a time when so much had been learned about the material world and the nature of humankind? That some people still held to a general belief in a supreme being might be understandable, but not a blind acceptance of the historical accuracy of an ancient tale of human resurrection! And how could others believe that God actually dictated the Koran to a shepherd boy standing alone on a mountain? Absurd, our descendants will say: how could so many of our ancestors have been so silly?

I distinguish here between irrational faith and irrational behavior. There are many among us who still demonstrate that rational behavior can coexist with an underlying faith in the fable of the Resurrection. And many people in contemporary Western society who lack that conviction nevertheless behave irrationally. I’m not attempting to explain irrational behavior, nor religious faith in general for that matter. My target is those specified impossible happenings that lie at the core of the faiths professed by Christians and Muslims. Many people who adhere to one or another of these religions no longer believe in the literal accuracy of these core fables, but a lot of others still do. Why?

It may be a bit early, but I think we know enough about ourselves and about how human society evolved to hazard at least an approximate explanation for this kind of irrational faith. I’ll start with the quick version, then explain in more detail.

Archeological evidence suggests that religion as we know it began about fifty thousand years ago. Then, as now, a core element of religious belief and practice was the organized suspension of disbelief regarding specified impossible beings or happenings, which true believers insist do actually exist or did actually happen. This kind of shared belief has served as a kind of social glue, uniting groups of individuals who could then cooperate for mutual benefit. It provided the essential binder in that matrix of symbols governing human behavior that we call “culture.” People who shared the same faith shared a special bond, and everyone else was an outsider.

Religious faith has long been a central defining element of culture. Until the recent past, competition between cultural groups has been the engine driving our ancestors toward ever more complex societies, and groups that defined themselves by their culture have been the major actors in human history. But the nature of culture’s role is changing, and faith no longer serves as an essential binder to ensure cooperation within large groups of people. Most Americans, for example, believe in the separation of church and state and pay their taxes for reasons that have little if anything to do with their religious beliefs. Faith may have lost its central role as the glue holding groups together. But anything governing human behavior that has been that important for such a long time is going to have great momentum, and will hang on in the minds of countless men and women long after it has fulfilled its purpose and become dysfunctional.

Now for the more detailed argument:

An increasing body of archeological evidence points to a period that began about fifty thousand years ago that the experts call the “Middle/Upper Paleolithic Transition.” It was at that point our ancestors first began to think symbolically, in the modern sense. Before that epoch there is very little evidence, for example, of ritual burials. Stone tools were simple and changed little over many thousands of years. But once humans crossed the “symbolic threshold” we see cave paintings, ritual burials, and carvings of what may have been goddesses. We see an enormous expansion in the repertoire of tools. The conclusion many experts have reached is that the quality we know as imagination, or thinking across boundaries, first effloresced about that time.

What were our ancestors like, before that threshold was crossed? How did symbolic thinking start? These are tough questions, because no human groups or societies remain that haven’t crossed the threshold. Every primitive tribe we know anything about, whether in highland New Guinea or in Australia or in the depths of the Amazon Basin, thinks symbolically. But scientists from various disciplines have been chipping away. Here, in grossly summarized form, are some of the results:

•Encephalization, or the gradual increase in brain size relative to body mass, started a few million years ago with a basket of other changes, including erect posture and complex social adaptations.

•The first evidence of anatomically modern humans appears about 150,000 years ago. By that time, our ancestors were already evolving physical changes in the mouth and lar-ynx that enabled us to produce a much wider range of sounds than other primates.

•Language evolved slowly from some kind of “protolanguage.” The adaptive advantages that caused its evolution were mostly social, i.e., facility in language facilitated both group equilibrium and the reproductive prospects of the individual.

•We know that some parts of the human brain seem specialized for certain functions. For example, we have identified an area that serves as a language “module.” Other primates exhibit signs of having specialized compartments for certain different kinds of mental activities. Current theory posits separate modules in the brains of our remote ancestors for tool making, for perceiving social relations within the group, and for such dealings with the environment as foraging for food and avoiding predators.

It would seem plausible that our pre-threshold ancestors eventually developed a fairly broad repertoire of useful vocal signals. But this capability evolved only when it gave individuals selective advantage over other individuals in the context of the physical and social environment that then prevailed. Our remote ancestors gradually began to think in ways that were considerably more sophisticated than, say, modern chimpanzees, but this was a linear extension rather than a new way of thought. They lingered in a rut, capable of thinking in only one field at a time. Like some people I know even now, they lacked the knack of free association across boundaries, something we often call “imagination.”

This period lasted a long time, one hundred thousand years or more. Eventually, fifty thousand years ago, people began to think symbolically. This was an enormous advance. It enabled our now fully human ancestors to cope much more efficiently with the eternal problems of getting enough food, selecting the most suitable mate, and protecting themselves and their young. Weapons and tools could now be shaped according to designs dreamed up in the minds of the men and women who needed them. It was no longer just a matter of copying what had always been done. Probably even more important, people could manage their relations with other people on a new level of sophistication. Chimpanzees groom each other to develop and cement alliances; people now could employ flattery, promise future rewards, and judge the suitability of potential mates on the basis of a new and more complex array of verbal signals. The ability to think symbolically introduced new capabilities for cooperation. Previously, the size of socially coherent groups had always been limited to a number small enough so that everyone in it could recognize everyone else on sight. No one had any problems telling who was “one of us” and who was a stranger. Such groups normally had to consist of about 150 individuals, or fewer. This sense of in-group versus out-group based on physical recognition was deeply ingrained. As recent studies have demonstrated, it remains part of our modern human genetic inheritance. It’s a question of trust and behaving decently to your neighbors in the expectation that they will reciprocate. In a group where everyone knows everyone, it’s easy to build up this trust, since people who accept the benefits of group cooperation without doing their share will be exposed quite soon. When the group gets much larger, though, such “cheaters” can exploit trusting neighbors for a while, then move on to a new group where they aren’t yet known.

Culture, in the form of an agreed set of rules for behavior, broke through that upper limit of about 150. It solved the recognition problem by having all members of the extended group dress alike, speak in the same accent, and pray in the same manner. It solved the cheater problem by introducing rules that would forbid cheating and require anyone detecting a cheater to sound the alarm and enforce punishment. And with the concept of the “in-group” expandable to previously undreamed-of numbers, it opened up new horizons for groups to cooperate in ways that benefited everybody. First there were big hunts that virtually wiped out the mammoths of Siberia; then came the pyramids; and most recently, a man on the moon. Literally, humanity took off on a new trajectory, and the sky was (and remains) the limit.

It seems obvious in retrospect that a large group of individuals who could maintain a measure of internal equilibrium and stand united against other groups, as well as environmental crises, had a competitive advantage vis-à-vis smaller groups with less internal cohesion. The historical record is concerned largely with competition between ever larger and more efficient groups (see my book, Culture Wars and the Global Village). But we have an important conceptual problem here. Selective advantage can explain the success of larger and more cohesive groups once they were up and running, but it cannot explain why or how they got started in the first place. In nature there is no preconceived plan, no purpose. All we have is a group of individuals who adapt with varying degrees of success to specific aspects of the immediate environment. We cannot say, therefore, that large groups are stronger and therefore large groups were born. The best we can do is look at the specific circumstances prevailing fifty thousand years ago and reason as best we can about why people started to think symbolically and how that encouraged them to develop the in-group concept on a larger scale than previously.

It’s difficult to determine exactly why some people made the jump to intermodular thinking and started what soon became a universal movement into symbolism. We can regard the roughly one hundred thousand years between the first appearance of anatomically modern humans and the symbolic breakthrough as a kind of gestation period marking a slow buildup in mental capabilities. Progress was extremely slow. But when the change did happen, what was the spark that set it off?

A plausible theory is that the spark was lit by schizophrenics. One of my sons, regrettably, suffered from acute schizophrenia and his disjointed ramblings were so transmodular as to be mostly incoherent. But at times he made enough sense to seem to be uttering profundities that gave the impression he was revealing hitherto inaccessible wonders. Some of his peers actually hung on his words and professed to achieve a certain enlightenment from them. My sense is that, if he had been born fifty thousand years ago, he might have been worshiped. Unfortunately, he was born too late for that, and a bit too early for the medical breakthroughs now leading to better understanding and a possible cure of his condition.

Whatever the precise nature of the spark, one result was an interest in what we now call the “supernatural.” A shaman who may have been a mild schizophrenic may have babbled about a powerful creature, half horse and half man, and started a cult of worshipers of a god in this form possessed of powers to make wishes come true. These worshipers might quite naturally come to identify themselves by their “faith” in this particular supernatural entity and regard all those who did not share this particular suspension of disbelief as outsiders and even as potential enemies. As generations passed, sexual selection probably helped solidify the group’s “faith,” in that believers of both sexes tended to reject nonbelievers as mates. When conflicts arose with outside groups, a passionate belief in the magical powers of their deity to support them would lend them strength in battle. When they prevailed, oral history would record and embellish their deity’s achievement. If they lost, that unfortunate fact would soon be forgotten.

It doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate from the half-horse faith to the Old Testament, and from there right up to modern times. I do not, however, want to suggest that there has been a steady, linear progression. The historical record suggests a much more complicated pattern. Take the rise of Islam in the latter part of the first millennium c.e. A new belief, based on a new and miraculous text, inspired its believers to accomplish extraordinary feats of conquest and expansion. The emergence of a bewildering variety of sects within the world of Islam, mostly during this period, shows how the process can operate on several levels at the same time. The static, rigid adherence to ancient doctrine that characterizes much of contemporary Islam can perhaps be taken as typical of the penultimate phase of such a religion, one that precedes its ultimate collapse.

How many times, in how many places, did an explosion of faith-based energy occur in prehistoric times? And what happened to the new faiths as they first inspired those who believed, then gradually lost their initial force? We shall probably never know, but we can be fairly certain that the prehistoric record of the rise and fall of specific faiths was dramatic, complex, and vitally important to the people concerned.

This analysis only provides a piece of an evolutionary explanation for religious faith. It doesn’t explain ritual, and it glosses lightly over such key items as promised rewards and punishments (heaven and hell). But the piece of the puzzle we’ve looked at here is central. Christianity has successfully co-opted the loyalty of untold millions of followers for two millennia; it must have something going for it. The conviction that Jesus achieved life after death has from the beginning been the linchpin of a religious code that sustained true believers in less secure and informed times. Absent that particular article of faith, I doubt whether Christianity would have endured as long as it has, or whether there would be nearly as many true believers today.

But sentimentality, nostalgia, and respect for past greatness are insufficient reasons for our continuing to hold to the old beliefs. They can now be seen for what they are, manmade fairy tales that survived because they helped solidify group cohesion. Society is becoming organized on a global scale, and the old culture-based organizing principles are becoming subsumed in a new and more inclusive global ethic. Many of the present elements of insecurity in this transitional age come from conflicts of the old-fashioned nature, between adherents of different faiths. The people who are most concerned with piloting humanity into new and safer waters are precisely those who have abandoned the old suspensions of disbelief in favor of a worldview based on science.

To complete this analysis, here are a couple of further thoughts.

What was humanity up to between the Middle/Upper Paleolithic Transition breakthrough fifty thousand years ago and the dawn of agriculture about ten thousand years ago? Why were our ancestors still grouped for so many millennia in hunter-gatherer bands when they had developed mental habits permitting cooperation on a much grander scale? One factor was climate. Climatic swings were severe until about ten thousand years ago, when what we call the Holocene era replaced the Pleistocene. During the Pleistocene, tropical as well as higher latitudes were affected by abrupt swings in temperature and rainfall, causing recurrent floods, droughts, windstorms, and the like. By comparison, the climate during the last ten thousand years (the Holocene) has been relatively stable. It is probably not a coincidence that, when the weather settled down, so did our ancestors.

And what of the future? Is it possible our descendants will undergo another mental metamorphosis as profound as the symbolic breakthrough fifty thousand years ago? It seems to me that some such change is working its way through our global society right now. As the old gods recede, a new sense of the unity of all humanity is taking hold. Globalization, the Internet, and many other profound changes, all interrelated, are creating new problems of a global nature, even as they offer benefits that couldn’t even be imagined a hundred years ago.

Perhaps an understanding of why faith started, and how it helped our ancestors so much, can help us manage the present difficult transition period. Such understanding can lead not only to a more benign view of the phenomenon, but to a more intelligent strategy for giving it an honest burial, now that its time has passed.

The gods of our forefathers have a distinguished past, an uncertain present, and very little future.


1. During the last couple of years or so, several new books have been published that reflect an unprecedented interest in the evolutionary basis of human behavior in general, and the origins of culture in particular. In the interest of brevity I shall cite only two here; their bibliographies can lead the reader to many more sources. The book that most directly and exhaus-tively addresses the issues in this essay is The Prehistory of the Mind by Steven Mithen (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996). A series of stimulating essays is presented in The Evolution of Culture, edited by Robin Dunbar, Chris Knight, and Camilla Power (Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1999). Readers interested in a readable short article on the Middle/Upper Paleolithic Transition might also refer to an interview with Harvard Professor Ofer Bar-Yosef in the September-October 2001 edition of Harvard magazine.


Carl Coon is a retired foreign service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nepal from 1981 to 1984. He is the author of Culture Wars and the Global Village (Prometheus, 2002).

Carl Coon

Carl Coon is a retired foreign service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nepal from 1981 to 1984. He is the author of Culture Wars and the Global Village (Prometheus, 2002).

Generations from now, historians may look back on our era and marvel at the fact that so many people still literally believed in the articles of faith undergirding the major Western religions. How, they might ask, was it possible that the unbelievable could still be believed by so many at a time when so much …

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