09-19-07, 02:37 AM #1
Primates and the Very Ancient Roots of Religion
Okay ... I am ... still unsure what to make of it all. This is one of those things where I'm going to have to read the book, and spend some time thinking about it, and then shrug it off only to finally figure out something relevant months later when talking about something seemingly irrelevant.
Confused? Don't worry.
Wisconsin Public Radio produces To the Best of Our Knowledge, a weekly program that covers diverse topics. A recent broadcast, for instance, covered in its first hour Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and jazz. The second hour was a replay of a January program about animals, including Dave Foreman (Wilderness Society, EarthFirst!, and now the Rewilding Institute) on species reintroduction; Sy Montgomery (The Good Good Pig) about her pet pig Christopher Hogwood; Patricia McConnell (For the Love of a Dog and Calling All Pets) on teaching/training dogs; and lastly, most curiously and confusingly, Barbara J. King (Evolving God) discusses the rudimentary qualities of religion as seen in great apes.
That's right. Religion and apes. Take a moment, if you need, before going on.
To quote program host Jim Fleming:
King argues that religion didn't start out as a set of beliefs; rather, it's rooted in our emotional engagement with each other, and our capacity for empathy and imagination. And those qualities ... are integral to the lives of gorillas and chimpanzees. (TTBOOK/WPR)
The episode link is an audio file (RealMedia); the segment starts right around 40:55.
BJK: We can see that way back in our past, literally millions of years ago ... we have some practices that are visible to us in the archaeological record that reflect religion, or at least the deepest roots of religion .... What I have been looking at for years ... it's very social, it's about emotional connection and social processes that I think are at the roots of religion, the very ancient roots of religion.
SP: So you're not saying that the great apes you study are religious or that they have spiritual lives, but they show behavior--certain emotional connections--that are required if you're going to develop religion?
BJK: That's right, and in fact if I speak to a group of people about that I start out by saying, "No, I'm not suggesting that apes are religious." In fact, I have to say that, because Jane Goodall ... has said, very provocatively, that she thinks chimpanzees may have an incipient sense of religious awe. For example, when she comes upon them looking at a waterfall, something in nature that is amazing to them, that they are riveted, and she's wondering what's going through their mind, and she's wondering if they may be spiritual in some sense. I think that's a fascinating idea, but that's not my approach. I don't look at apes and look for things that are religious. I look at their behavior, and specifically four different kinds of behavior, and I then relate those to the very foundation of what later became religion.
SP: What are those four kinds of behavior?
BJK: They're meaning-making, imagination, empathy, and following the rules. Together, I think they give us a sense of what religion might have started out to be. And the apes have bits and pieces of all these four things, but they don't have them together in a coherent pattern that adds up to religious behavior. (ibid)
BJK: There was a chimpanzee female named Tina who was killed by a bite to the neck, by a leopard, and she'd been living with a group of chimpanzees for quite a long time and had her family there. When her body was, kind of, there in the middle of this group, they didn't just pull at it or tug at it or go on their way or ignore it. Rather, the dominant male of the group came and sat with her body for between five and seven hours, and he kept away all the other infants from the body, and kind of protected the body from any kind of annoyance or harm, with one exception. He let through the younger brother of Tina, who was called Tarzan, a five-year old. That's the only youngster who was allowed to come forward. And the youngster sat at his sister's side, and pulled on her hand, and touched her body. And I think, again, that this is not just a random occurrence, that the dominant male was able to recognize the close emotional bond that Tina and Tarzan had, and acted on the basis of that recognition; and acted, in fact, empathically. (ibid)
Don't worry, though. Steve Paulson makes the pertinent point:
SP: Well these are fascinating behaviors, but it's still not clear why you're looking at those to try to uncover the origins of religion.
BJK: Well I think it's because it gets to this question of emotion. And I think emotion and transformation are at the heart of religion. For me, the question that you're asking turns on how I understand religion. And in that way, I want to be very careful to differentiate what we think of religion of today, in twenty-first century America, and how it evolved. I'm really talking about the earliest origins of religion, which was a social and emotional process.
SP: So you're not talking about a set of beliefs. Because I think that is how most people would think about religion.
BJK: Right. And I'm glad you said that, because it's exactly correct: I'm not talking about a set of beliefs. When I think about religion today, the words and the senses that come to my mind are things like personal relationships with the supernatural--with God--compassionate action. Not a set of things that you sit around and think about, not necessarily books or texts that you read, but some sort of action--this is very much coming from Karen Armstrong's work, who has affected me a great deal--and beginning to let go of that view that religion is about a bunch of things in our head that we have to feel and believe. So if I'm going to think about religion in today's world, as compassionate action, that's well and good. But how do you go out and look in prehistory for compassionate action? That's the real question that I face as an anthropologist. (ibid)
And so it is with religious behavior. Nature is not extraneous; we sense and respond to religious ideas for a reason, and it would be better to consider what that reason is than blindly stumbling and shouting about what God wants.
SP: ... I understand that you don't want to get caught up in modern debates over belief and even what we think about God, but isn't the core of religion the sense that there is some transcendent realm out there, something that is apart from the daily world that we experience?
BJK: Oh, yes, most definitely. But the emotional connection to that transcendent realm is what I am talking about and looking for, rather than a mental, rational thinking-up or formulating of beliefs about such a realm. So in other words, again to go back to that term that's so important to me, embodied. It's an embodied religion. Your whole way of being, your whole way of becoming and living in the world is about the seamless connection between one world and another. So it's a sense-based religion, and an emotion-based religion. (ibid)
For instance, I always reach back to the "fire god". Early gods rose inspired by awe and wrought in ignorance. Place the stones in a circle, contain the fire; this seems a practical thing to the modern human, but our prehistoric relationship to fire was one of intuition and discovery. Our mastery of fire is so important to our species that we write myths about it. That the transformation of something so awesome as fire into something an organism could contain, manipulate, and engage, should impress its way into human legend should not be surprising. We still attempt to do and achieve things that are beyond our expression; we're just better at pretending around our ignorance.
Barbara King, however, is reaching well beyond the fire gods. I am awestruck by the potential implications of such theories.
And, of course, my esteem for primates is in the process of raising itself; I don't know how that's going to turn out.
But take some time with this. I'll be searching out the book, and if all goes well, be able to give some thoughts on the subject at some point in the near future. This is one of those really cool things, though, that has the potential to radically alter the terms and boundaries of theological and religious discussion. I feel lucky, at least, to have the chance to think about these things. It's been thousands of years, and now that it's here, relatively few of us will get the chance, and even fewer will take it up.
Really ... this is so cool ....
Wisconsin Public Radio. "Animal Crossings". To the Best of Our Knowledge. January 21, 2007. See http://www.wpr.org/book/070121a.html
• Wisconsin Public Radio: http://www.wpr.org
• To the Best of Our Knowledge: http://ttbook.org
• Audio link (RealMedia): http://broadcast.uwex.edu:8080/ramge.../bok070909b.rm
Last edited by Tiassa; 09-19-07 at 02:39 AM. Reason: Because
09-19-07, 02:43 AM #2
well we got the ruler gorilla...the tribe's leader...as one sole ruler of our world...hence the idea of God...the sole ruler of our world...
09-19-07, 03:28 AM #3
I have long believed that what separates humans from other animals has it's core in imagination, abstract thought, assigning meaning and an emotional connection to the world - all of which are the basic ingredients in religion or religious capacitity.
It seems almost self-evident to me that any animal with such traits would develop religion.
What I didn't see in your transcription, however, is anything to suggest that the great apes have these traits - perhaps she was convincing of this, but not from what I can see above.
Sure they appear to experience emotion, but so do dolphins, elephants, dogs - hell even crows - but that's only one part of the puzzle.
Capacity for abstract thought is an intergral piece, and one which I have yet to see evidence for in great apes.
Did she make this case?
09-19-07, 03:31 AM #4
My first impression is that this smacks of anthropomorphism.
Are you convinced that is not what it is?
09-19-07, 03:37 AM #5
09-19-07, 03:43 AM #6
09-19-07, 04:04 AM #7
When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Masson has an introduction where he tracks this change in the scientific community. 40 years ago, even, it could end your career for antho....etc. Now it is commonplace. Scientists have come around to the common man and woman who knew this all along.
09-19-07, 04:12 AM #8
Anthropomorphism is falsely attributing uniquely human characteristics to non human entities or inanimate objects.
Simple recognition of the capacity for emotion in animals is not anthropomorphism, as this is obviously not a uniquely human trait.
Recognizing traits common between humans and other animals is not anthropomorphism, seeing what is not there is.
Anthropomorphism, by definition, is bad science.
09-19-07, 04:17 AM #9
09-19-07, 07:45 AM #10
09-19-07, 07:50 AM #11
What do you mean by the term?
09-19-07, 07:58 AM #12
I strongly believe that what is behind the religions of humans today...is an evolution of that which we mimick around us, especially things that are alive, however with more consciousness and self understanding developing as a result of higher intelligence...this mimicry of outside secedes. Polytheism seceded to monotheism and than to atheism. And before Polytheism existed simple mimicry of life phenomena...fear drove beliefs. If this mimicry what antromorphism is, than that is what it is.
09-19-07, 10:01 AM #13
The substantial presence of empathy, abstract thought, language, forethought and the like, within the great apes is well established. All of these facilities are less pronounced than in humans but more pronounced, for example, than within sheep.
What I found novel about the thesis was the notion that the roots of religion lay within our capacity for empathy and imagination. Just as these are more developed within man, so it seems logical that the religious impulse would show a similarly greater development.
Last edited by Ophiolite; 09-19-07 at 10:11 AM.
09-19-07, 10:04 AM #14
09-19-07, 10:12 AM #15
You mean more ape like?
Last edited by Ophiolite; 09-19-07 at 10:12 AM. Reason: Added smiley
09-19-07, 10:14 AM #16
09-19-07, 11:10 AM #17Originally Posted by S.A.M.
09-19-07, 11:13 AM #18
09-19-07, 11:22 AM #19
Apes are very emphatic. It's their favourite hobby to try to find out what the other is thinking.
So are all humans. It's what is hardwired in their brain. Without empathy you are lost in a complex social group, unless the social group operates on a strict set of hardwired rules such as ants.
You need empathy to guide your own actions because your own actions are dependent on others.
it is rather silly in my opinion to try to differentiate between theists and atheists regarding the possession of empathy.
Empathy doesn't mean the same as altruism.
09-19-07, 11:24 AM #20