The Story of a Creature with Peculiar Habits

Armin W. Geertz

I am often asked if humans need religious belief. My standard answer is, “No, just look at how we manage to live meaningful and moral lives in Denmark.” But there is more to the story, because we evidentl y needed it to become what we are. This might not be what fellow atheists are willing to admit, but hear me out anyway.

In a new book I coauthored with Jonathan H. Turner, Alexandra Maryanski, and Anders Klostergaard Petersen titled The Emergence and Evolution of Religion: By Means of Natural Selection (Routledge, 2017), we argue that religious behavior was almost inevitable because religion emerged from many cognitive, emotional, and behavioral propensities that were hard-wired for millions of years into the neurology of higher mammals, higher primates, great apes, and hominins. We do not accept the claim that religion emerged from a narrow set of cognitive propensities appearing during the late Pleistocene, which many evolutionary psychologists and cognitive scientists of religion claim. By the way, as an aside, I am a cognitive scientist of religion (CSR) but hold the somewhat maverick view (which I never tire of repeating to the irritation of my CSR colleagues) that being full-blooded biological and cultural beings (“biocultural” for short), it is inconceivable that human cognition is mainly about mental representations following logico-mathematical rules, as many cognitivists hold. In fact, mental representations are only the tip of an iceberg consisting more fundamentally of brain, body, emotion, culture, and social relations in a tangled web of causalities. On the other hand, purely biological explanations are not enough either. What we call “Darwinian natural selection,” in other words the Modern Synthesis, is not sufficient. Even though Darwinian selection pressures continue, they produced humans as evolved great apes with unique capacities. These evolved great apes have developed sociocultural phenomena and institutions, which we call human “superorganisms,” that are teleological but that also exert selection pressures on individuals. Social organizations exert pressures on individuals because people are socialized, occupy status positions, play roles, and live in environments that are determined by the cultural codes and values of conspecifics.

Now, what propensities are we talking about that made religion “almost inevitable”? Believe it or not, we share a surprising number of propensities with our great ape cousins. The evidence seems to indicate that apes have the following impressive list of propensities: reading of face and eyes, imitation of facial gestures revealing emotions, capacities for empathy and role-taking, rhythmic interaction, collective emotional effervescence, ritual behaviors, reciprocity, calculations of justice, seeing self as object, capacities to make causal attributions, weak hierarchies with a reckoning of status and roles, hunting and gathering behavioral propensities, and male friendships and fellowships (see chapter five in our book). All of these propensities are crucial to the evolution of the hominin line.

With “ritual behaviors,” I am sure that readers can see where this is going. We are not claiming, however, that apes perform religious ceremonies. We are simply noting the fact that they perform repetitive behaviors not directly related to dietary needs. They evince meeting and parting behaviors (hugs, touching, vocalizations). But they also participate in what primatologists call “carnival” behaviors. These are behaviors that are highly emotional, with loud pant-hooting, entrainment,1 and beating on hollow logs. It is assumed that these behaviors increase group solidarity. Apes also perform what seem to be ritual-like behaviors toward certain objects. Besides the famous “waterfall dance” that Jane Goodall reported in free-ranging chimpanzees and similar behaviors reported by other primatologists, there is the recent discovery of chimpanzee stone-throwing at specific trees and filling the gaps in trees with stones. The behavior is stereotypical and accompanied by swaying, vocalizing, screaming, and drumming while throwing the rocks. Our argument is that with a larger neocortex and stronger emotional capacities, humans developed these propensities into religious behavior.

We are not claiming a direct jump from ape to human. As I like to remind our religious critics, we did not descend from the apes but rather from a common ancestor. That point seems to mollify critics, although I don’t know why; we are so ape-like that the point seems moot.

There are two crucial elements that I haven’t mentioned yet. The first is symbolic competence, and the second is emotional identification with a symbol. Symbolic competence, taken in the Peircian sense, is the ability to conceive of higher-order relations that are not directly related to the phenomenal world—language, for example, or the ability to imagine virtual worlds. As the biosemiotician and neuropsychologist Terrance Deacon argued, we are a symbolic species in a deeply physical sense. This is, he argues, because symbolic competence drove the physical evolution of the brain. This ability seems to have arisen in the transition between the Australopithecenes and the first Homo habilis some 2.5 million years ago. Symbolic competence seems to have arisen in connection with the use of tools, which requires not only an increase in working memory capacity but also a wider range of cognitive procedures, called “cognigrams” by archaeologist Miriam Noël Haidle. This transition also marks the gradual transition from forest to savanna. And, note, this occurred before the dramatic expansion of the cortex in later species.

This brings me to the second point: emotional identification. We share a problem with the great apes: they do not have strict social hierarchies like baboons do. They have what Alexandra Maryanski terms a sense of the “community complex,” which is a sense of self in relation to a relatively large number of conspecifics in a forest territory. This sense of community is not in itself sufficient for a group of noisy and emotional apes to survive in the savanna. It seems that there were selection pressures on hominins to increase solidarity and develop more permanent groups. How did this happen?—for happen it did!

Maryanski performed a cladistic analysis of the relative sizes of brain areas in chimpanzees and humans in relation to the little furry Tenrecinae, a rodent-like arboreal insectivore very much like the original insectivore that initiated the primate order 63 million years ago in Africa. Among her findings is that humans have about twice the size of emotional areas in comparison to chimpanzees. Our argument here, following the work of Jonathan Turner, is that the expansion of the emotional areas through several million years gave the first humans a wider palette of emotions allowing for such emotions and feelings as love, awe, and delight. But they also allowed the emergence of guilt and shame, two powerful societal mechanisms.

Together with symbolic competence, humans were able to symbolize the group and find attachment, identity, and emotional satisfaction in significant symbols while disciplining themselves through guilt and shame. Following French sociologist Émile Durkheim, regular rituals that hunter-gatherers perform in relation to a totem (a symbol of the group in connection with a supernatural entity) create collective effervescence, which increases and renews a sense of social solidarity. This is the reason we argue that the evolution of religious behavior was “almost inevitable.”

Perceptive readers might ask: Why the connection with a “supernatural entity”? To answer that question we need to take a closer look at our brain. This is where our lab—the Religion, Cognition and Culture Research Unit in Aarhus, Denmark—comes in. We have performed fMRI
and other experiments, as well as fieldwork, to study how the brain reacts to ritual manipulation of the body. Our point of departure is the current neurological paradigm that understands the brain not as a passive receptor of impulses but as a creative and active, predictive organ. In other words, the brain fills in the gaps that our senses give us in order to make sense of the world based on expectations. These expectations come from prior experience, and they can be biological as well as cultural. There are countless examples of how cultural expectations override our senses. This is what religious rituals and ideas do. They override the senses. You would be astonished to learn what people do to themselves and to others in the name of religion. And I am not talking about terrorists here.

Imagine what it’s like to have a bad headache or stomachache and sit in an overcrowded, overheated hut in the dark with the whole community, listening to a shaman who wants to heal you by screaming in your ear or hitting you on the head, as is done among some Native American tribes on the Northwest Coast of America. Or, imagine piercing yourself like the Hindus on Mauritius with big hooks in the chest or a metal spit through your tongue and cheeks, after which you carry a 25-kilogram bamboo structure on your shoulders while walking barefoot on an asphalt road in 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) weather. Or how about the Buddhist nuns in Nepal who walk a long circuit for hours in freezing weather wearing wet sheets in order to show that they can generate psychic heat that dries the sheets?

What in the world is going on? Are these people mad? A large number of theories try to explain this sort of behavior, but unfortunately there is yet no consensus on the matter. One thing is certain, however: they produce changes in perception for the participants and can also influence spectators toward more prosocial behavior—at least for a limited period of time. These perceptual changes are based on stimulating or suppressing our nervous system and the expectations of the brain. The more you exhaust your cognitive resources—or the more you reduce the reliability of the senses—the more dominant the brain’s expectations become. In religious contexts, these expectations are already present as models of behavior. Neuropsychologist Merlin Donald calls religious systems powerful “cognitive governance systems.” They provide models that individuals draw on to develop identities and personalities and to find meaning in life and the world.

We have conducted experiments in the scanner, in the lab, and in deprivation chambers with religious people who reported to us that they felt the presence of God. The nonreligious subjects just experienced weird stuff. In a variation of the so-called “God Helmet” study, we showed that you do not need electromagnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes to produce “sensed presence” experiences, as Michael Persinger has claimed. All you need to do is suggest to participants that this might happen while wearing the helmet in a deprivation chamber. Now, what does that tell us about the brain and human psychology?

There is an interesting and growing literature on perception, misperception, illusion, confabulation, deceit, delusion, misdirection, bias, and just plain pig-headedness. These in-grown tendencies of ours have been manipulated again and again through the ages by ritual specialists, healers, and stage magicians. Healers do this to stimulate the placebo effect. In fact, scholars call alternative healing “placebo dramas.” In other words, patients react according to clearly defined propensities and biases that can, at least subjectively, relieve certain kinds of maladies in a large number of cases.

We clearly have brains prone to tricks and (don’t get me wrong here) superstition. By the latter, I mean a kind of supersense, a kind of sensitivity to the non-material, spiritual or supernatural—the kind of experience that raises the hair on your arms, neck, or head. We are, in other words, easily spooked just like other animals, only worse. It is so ingrained in us that even atheists have to actively eradicate it if they can. You could also call it magical thinking based on things that seem to be contagious or look like something else, for example, the voodoo doll that looks like a person you want to harm.

Now imagine the first humans moving permanently out into the savanna in small hunter-gatherer groups. They live in an environment animated by humans and other creatures, some of which are dangerous. They communicate with each other and the world through nervous systems geared to certain proclivities. They perceive what their brains and traditions allow them to perceive. They are completely dependent on each other and have learned to manipulate each other’s internal emotions and states through a variety of physical and emotional techniques. They meet regularly with other groups and celebrate their religious rituals. These are social affairs where alliances, marriages, and competitions occur. These interactions fulfill emotional and behavioral needs, all of which are conceived in terms of the natural and supernatural world.

With the invention of agriculture and the rise of city-states, religions arose to deal with the selective pressures caused by large populations within confined areas with restricted resources. Here we find the first hierarchical social and political systems, which clearly favor the elite and powerful and shamelessly abuse lesser groups. Religion is right along in there, maintaining the status quo through dramatic ritual sacrifices, pompous ceremonies, and processions and monopolizing scriptural traditions and education. They legitimate polities and the conquest and control of conquered populations. In larger societies, cult units often compete for resources in a kind of organizational ecology.

One social system after another is replaced, either peacefully or by violence caused internally or externally, but again favoring the emotional need-states of some people but not others. And religious institutions play along, like a fencer, feinting and striking, sometimes supporting, sometimes revolting against the polity. Religions can develop into powers of their own, suppressing and persecuting those who think or act differently.

This whole evolutionary process is what we mean by selection pressures on superorganisms. They are societal and population-level selection pressures to produce regulatory mechanisms and to develop corporate units to compete for resources, selection pressures on polities through geopolitical warfare, and selection pressures on institutional change due to internal conflict. These kinds of selection pressures are natural, but they occur for teleological actors and systems that create various sociocultural phenotypes, which in turn provide further selection pressure on corporate units. Religious systems are deeply involved in all of these various behavioral levels, for good or bad.

Through the manipulation and use of our emotional need-states, religious thought and behavior helped make us what we are. Today, we are in the fortunate position that suppressive regimes are slowly being replaced by more democratic and equality-based societies. Better economic opportunities and the difficult-to-regulate World Wide Web allow us to nurture and stimulate our original “hang loose” simian sociality, connecting with community complexes while retaining individual freedom. It has its strengths and weaknesses, of course. There is also a tendency to become tribal again. Certainly this is the goal of fundamentalists and authoritarian leaders of all persuasions. And nation-states as well as individuals have learned how to turn the Internet into a weapon of suppression.

But that, dear readers, is a story for another day.



  1. Behavior in which organisms synchronize their movements to an external rhythm. Eds.

Armin W. Geertz

Armin W. Geertz is Jens Christian Skou Senior Fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies and professor in the History of Religions at the Department of the Study of Religion, Aarhus University, Denmark. He conducted fieldwork among the Hopi Tribe in Arizona and specializes in the religions and cultures of Indigenous peoples. He was cofounder of the Religion, Cognition, and Culture Research Unit and MINDLab at Aarhus University and cofounder and former president of the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion. He is currently editor of the Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion. He has published extensively on the cognitive science of religion and on religion and evolution.

The roots of religious behavior may lie deeper than many cognitive scholars of religion think.

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