Did religion make us who we are?

More material from our friend Jack Hudson, who apparently read my previous post. He comments,
While atheists are certainly free to say they they believe in science and art and poetry and love and marriage and family – and I believe it’s true – those aspects of human life invariably seem to have originated from religious belief. To the extent that the atheists enjoy those aspects of human life they are enjoying the fruits of the labors of others and are mere hangers-on to that which they were given by those who came before them. There is no evidence non-religious creatures could have given us the experiences that make us human.
Now, Jack's making two rather contentious propositions here:
  1. Science, art, poetry, love, marriage, and family originated from religious belief
  2. There is no evidence that if we didn't have religion, we would still have those things
While it's related to the first proposition, (2) is in some respects a tautology. Since the beginning of humanity, if a starting point can really even be discerned, we've taken to mythology and superstition. "Religion" as it's known today is a relatively recent invention; for the first 190,000 years or so of human existence, we lived as indigenous tribes whose primitive religions were probably similar to modern indigenous tribes. But we can't rewind the clock and make belief in supernatural things, whether it's ancestral spirits or animism or modern Western monotheism, not be a part of humanity's existence.

I'll come back to (2) in a moment, but first, proposition (1). In his first proposition, Jack simply confuses correlation with causality. He doesn't actually give us any evidence that religion caused us to have music, art, science, love, etc. He simply says that we're religious, and we have those things, and it's impossible to know if we could have those things without it. Humans have always been 'religious' in the broadest, most diluted and nebulous sense of the word. But we haven't always had art, poetry, marriage and science. If religion gave us science, for example, why didn't science emerge 160,000 years ago? But okay, I'll be generous and amend the definition of religion to mean something more like Hinduism and Judaism, which both originated some 5,000-7,000 years ago – still very late in the 200,000 years of human existence, but which have survived in some form until today. Even then, science was late to the party, developing in fits and spurts over the last 2,000 years but not really becoming the modern empirical science we know and love today until the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.

So what's the evidence here that science originated from religious belief? That some important scientists, like Copernicus and Galileo, happened to have religious beliefs? This doesn't demonstrate that their religious beliefs caused them to pursue science. And even if it could be shown that some people were motivated by their religious beliefs to pursue science, this doesn't demonstrate that the pursuit of scientific thought requires a religious motive. The large number of nonbelieving scientists today proves that to be false.

This raises an interesting dichotomy, if Jack's proposition were to be believed. Art and music are very old. An article in Scientific American a few months back examined an indigenous culture that lived on the Southern tip of Africa some 160,000 years, and archeologists found evidence of face or body painting. How old is music? Well, according to Wikipedia,
It is possible that the first musical instrument was the human voice itself, which can make a vast array of sounds, from singing, humming and whistling through to clicking, coughing and yawning. (See Darwin's Origin of Species on music & speech.) The oldest known Neanderthal hyoid bone with the modern human form has been dated to be 60,000 years old,[11] predating the oldest known bone flute by 25,000 years; but since both artifacts are unique the true chronology may date back much further.
Here's the question: if these things are caused by religion, and not merely correlated, then why the disparity? Why would art be seen around 160,000 years ago (it could be even older), and science only within the last few hundred years?

Lots of evidence that we don't need religion

We can move on to proposition (2), and examine some evidence that love, poetry, marriage, science, and art are all things that are not dependent on religious belief. Turns out there's plenty of it. We can take our evidence from several fields of science, including anthropology, primatology, neurology and evolutionary biology. I'll just go down the list:

1. Science
Neurology gives us some pretty powerful evidence that we don't need religious belief to have science, through the advent of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), in which powerful magnets are used to selectively de-activate certain parts of the brain. While religious beliefs and experiences encompass several parts of the brain, acts of praying, meditating, and ecstatic religious experiences all seem to heavily involve the frontal lobe [1, 2, 3]. So what happens if we just switch off the frontal lobe?

TMS shows that we can selectively de-activate various parts of the brain, such as the frontal lobe, and other functions not only remain intact but may actually be enhanced. One neurologist has hypothesized that by disabling certain parts of the brain, "savant" characteristic may emerge – much like in certain cases of autism or even in documented cases of  "acquired savants" who experience phenomenal increases in cognitive abilities after suffering head trauma [4, 5 ].

In other words, the parts of the brain that are used for rational thinking, mathematics, etc., function perfectly well – and possibly even better – without being dependent on religious beliefs or experiences.

2. Art, Music, and poetry

I'm going to leave poetry out, for the simple reason that poetry requires language, and we're the only animal that has it (it's worth noting, though, that the oldest known poem was a love story that had little to do with religious beliefs) But art and music have roots in our evolutionary history, and it's never more obvious than when our evolutionary cousins – the modern great apes like bonobos and chimpanzees – create art and music. It's also been established that primates show similar preferences for musical intervals that humans do [6]. Obviously non-human primates lack the spatial reasoning and fine motor skills of us humans so we wouldn't expect art or music from chimps to be as complex as our own, but science shows that the basic neurology of art and music is not uniquely human. It's embedded in our evolutionary biology, not imbued to us as a byproduct of religious beliefs.

3. Love and marriage

I feel like the contention that religion gave humanity love is so patently and obviously ridiculous a claim that it's hardly worth the keystrokes to debunk it. There's ample evidence of love, altruism, empathy and compassion in primates. Frans de Waal has documented much of this extensively in books like Our Inner Ape and his latest, The Age of Empathy.

The institution of marriage, though, seems like a relevant topic since primates don't have such complex sociocultural norms. But while the ritual of marriage is generally performed in a religious setting (Buddhist marriages being a modern exception [7]), the question is a chicken-and-egg sort of thing. Is marriage a religious institution that's reigning in our destructive animalistic tendencies, or are we naturally inclined to desire strong pair-bonding?

Let's first define what marriage is. Because if we're talking about monogamous marriages, that's a relatively narrow tradition. From Sex: A Man's Guide, published by Men's Health:
Zoologist Desmond Morris argued in his 1967 book The Naked Ape that the whole point of human sexuality was “to strengthen the pair-bond and maintain the family unit.” But more recently, reports from the scientific front haven’t been quite so encouraging. It turns out that lots of birds fool around (at least 40 percent of indigo buntings get a little on the side, researchers report). And anthropologists have found that nearly 1,000 of the 1,154 past and present human societies ever studied have allowed men to have more than one wife.
It's well known that polygamy was sanctioned and practiced extensively in the Old Testament, and it's still practiced today by a few religious sects. So the tradition of monogamous marriage, in which we have a romantic ideal of one man and one wife, is more rare and more recent addition – the result of which is an impressively high incidence of infidelity [8].

It seems that while we do, as Desmond Morris argued in The Naked Ape, have a tendency to favor strong pair-bonding which may manifest in monogamous relationships, we're not very good at actually being with one partner for our entire lives. One of the important implications of sociobiology is that sociocultural norms don't stick if we're not hard-wired for them. So it seems that we're hard-wired enough for pair-bonding to make monogamous marriages work some of the time, but we're also driven by our genes so strongly that we find it difficult to consistently adhere to such a stringent sociocultural norm and if the pair-bond in a monogamous marriage is weakened, it's a safe bet we'll find another pair-bond outside of it.

Closing thoughts

In a recent pair of posts called The Human Longing for God (part 1, part 2), I discussed the origins and nature of religious thought. As long as we grant an extremely broad, nebulous definition of "religion", it's something that's been with us for a long time. But to suggest that without it we would not have love, science, art, music, poetry or even marriage is preposterous and demonstrably false. There are plenty of things we might not have without religion, but our humanity is not one of them. 


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