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Reviewing Sapiens: Getting the Origin of Religion Backwards

Photo: Santa people, by Ramjit Tudu, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: In a series, Casey Luskin is reviewing Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. This is Part 4. Look here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5, and Part 6. The full review can be found here.

I’ve been reviewing the bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and as is the case with so many other aspects of the book, when it comes to the origin of religion, Yuval Noah Harari tells the standard evolutionary story. According to this story, religion began as a form of animism among small bands of hunters and gatherers and then proceeded to polytheism and finally monotheism as group size grew with the first agricultural civilizations. At each stage, he argues, religion evolved in order to provide the glue that gave the group the cohesive unity it needed (at its given size) to cooperate and survive. 

An Evolutionary Pathway for Religion?

Here’s Harari claiming that religion starts off with animism among ancient foragers — a claim for which he admits there is very little direct evidence:

Most scholars agree that animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers. … In the animist world, objects and living things are not the only animated beings. There are also immaterial entities — the spirits of the dead, and friendly and malevolent beings, the kind that we today call demons, fairies and angels. … Animism is not a specific religion. It is a generic name for thousands of very different religions, cults and beliefs. What makes all of them ‘animist’ is this common approach to the world and to man’s place in it. … [I]t is better to be frank and admit that we have only the haziest notions about the religions of ancient foragers. We assume that they were animists, but that’s not very informative. We don’t know which spirits they prayed to, which festivals they celebrated, or which taboos they observed. Most importantly, we don’t know what stories they told. It’s one of the biggest holes in our understanding of human history. 

Sapiens, pp. 55-56

Then Harari says the next step in humanity’s religious evolution was polytheism:

The Agricultural Revolution initially had a far smaller impact on the status of other members of the animist system, such as rocks, springs, ghosts and demons. However, these too gradually lost status in favour of the new gods. As long as people lived their entire lives within limited territories of a few hundred square miles, most of their needs could be met by local spirits. But once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people needed to contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom or an entire trade basin.

The attempt to answer these needs led to the appearance of polytheistic religions (from the Greek: poly = many, theos = god). These religions understood the world to be controlled by a group of powerful gods, such as the fertility goddess, the rain god and the war god. Humans could appeal to these gods and the gods might, if they received devotions and sacrifices, deign to bring rain, victory and health. 

Sapiens, pp. 212-213

With little explanation, he finally asserts that humanity’s polytheistic religious culture at last evolved into monotheism:

With time some followers of polytheist gods became so fond of their particular patron that they … began to believe that their god was the only god, and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases, and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions, whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war. … Today most people outside East Asia adhere to one monotheist religion or another, and the global political order is built on monotheistic foundations. 

Sapiens, pp. 217-218

His main argument for the initial origin of religion is that it fostered cooperation. At each step of humanity’s religious evolution, he more or less argues that the new form of religion helped us cooperate in new and larger types of groups. I covered that in my previous post

Missing Data Points

As I noted in my previous installment, there is undoubtedly much truth that religion fosters cooperation, but Harari’s overall story ignores the possibility that humanity was designed to cooperate via shared religious beliefs. His evolutionary story about religious evolution also assumes the naturalistic viewpoint that religion evolved through various stages and was not revealed from above. No wonder Harari feels this way, since he admits his worldview that “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” As a monotheist, I’m skeptical of these accounts of religious evolution, especially since I’m accustomed to evolutionary arguments often leaving out important data points.

Recently there was a spat over a 2019 article in Nature. The article, titled “Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history,” was just retracted. It proposed that societies produce beliefs in “moralizing gods” in order to “facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies.” The article purported to survey 414 societies, and claimed to find an “association between moralizing gods and social complexity” where “moralizing gods follow — rather than precede — large increases in social complexity.” As lead author Harvey Whitehouse put it in New Scientist, the study assessed “whether religion has helped societies grow and flourish,” and basically found the answer was no: “Instead of helping foster cooperation as societies expanded, Big Gods appeared only after a society had passed a threshold in complexity corresponding to a population of around a million people.” Their study was retracted after a new paper found that their dataset was too limited. When a proper dataset was used, “the reported finding is reversed: moralizing gods precede increases in social complexity.” It seems, therefore, that belief in a just and moral God helps drive success and growth in a society. 

Inadequate Datasets and Harari’s Claims

This problem of inadequate datasets undoubtedly plagues many of Harari’s claims about the evolutionary stages of religion. Perhaps there are some societies that progressed from animism to polytheism to monotheism. But anthropologists and missionaries have also reported finding the opposite — that some groups that practice animism today remember an earlier time when their people worshipped something closer to a monotheistic God. Though anecdotal, consider this striking account from the book Eternity in Their Hearts by missionary Don Richardson:

In 1867, a bearded Norwegian missionary named Lars Skrefsrud and his Danish colleague, a layman named Hans Børreson, found two-and-a-half million people called the Santal living in a region north of Calcutta, India. Skrefsrud soon proved himself an amazing linguist. He quickly became so fluent in Santal that people came from miles around just to hear a foreigner speak their language so well!

As soon as possible, Skrefsrud began proclaiming the gospel to the Santal. Naturally he wondered how many years it would take before Santal people, until then so far removed from Jewish or Christian influences, would even show interest in the gospel, let alone open their hearts to it.

To Skrefsrud’s utter amazement, the Santal were electrified almost at once by the gospel message. At length he heard Santal sages, including one named Kolean, exclaim, “What this stranger is saying must mean that Thakur Jiu has not forgotten us after all this time!”

Skrefsrud caught his breath in astonishment. Thakur was a Santal word meaning “genuine.” Jiu meant “god.”

The Genuine God?

Clearly, Skrefsrud was not introducing a new concept by talking about one supreme God. Santal sages politely brushed aside the terminology he had been using for God and insisted that Thakur Jiu was the right name to use. That name, obviously, had been on Santal lips for a very long time!

“How do you know about Thakur Jiu?” Skrefsrud asked (a little disappointed, perhaps).

“Our forefathers knew Him long ago,” the Santal replied, beaming.

“Very well,” Skrefsrud continued, “I have a second question. Since you know about Thakur Jiu, why don’t you worship Him instead of the sun, or worse yet, demons?”

Santal faces around him grew wistful. “That,” they responded, “is the bad news.” Then the Santal sage named Kolean stepped forward and said, “Let me tell you our story from the very beginning.”

Not only Skrefsrud, but the entire gathering of younger Santal, fell silent as Kolean, an esteemed elder, spun out a story that stirred the dust on aeons of Santal oral tradition… 

Eternity in Their Hearts, pp. 41-43

The Santal’s Own Account

Richardson then recounts the Santal’s own history of its religious evolution: starting with devotion to a monotheistic God who created humanity, followed by a rebellion against that God after which they felt “ashamed,” and eventually leading to the division of humanity and the migration of their tribe to India. During that migration:

In those days, Kolean explained, the proto-Santal, as descendants of the holy pair, still acknowledged Thakur Jiu as the genuine God. Facing this crisis, however, they lost their faith in Him and took their first step into spiritism. “The spirits of these great mountains have blocked our way,” they decided. “Come, let us bind ourselves to them by an oath, so that they will let us pass.” Then they covenanted with the “Maran Buru” (spirits of the great mountains), saying, “O, Maran Buru, if you release the pathways for us, we will practice spirit appeasement when we reach the other side.”

Skrefsrud no doubt had thought it strange that the Santal name for wicked spirits meant literally “spirits of the great mountains,” especially since there were no great mountains in the present Santal homeland. Now he understood.

“Very shortly,” Kolean continued, “they came upon a passage [the Khyber Pass?] in the direction of the rising sun.” They named that passage Bain, which means “day gate.” Thus the proto-Santal burst through onto the plains of what is now called Pakistan and India. Subsequent migrations brought them still further east to the border regions between India and the present Bangladesh, where they became the modern Santal people. 

Under bondage to their oath, and not out of love for the Maran Buru, the Santal began to practice spirit appeasement, sorcery, and even sun worship. Kolean added: “In the beginning, we did not have gods. The ancient ancestors obeyed Thakur only. After finding other gods, day by day we forgot Thakur more and more until only His name remained.”

Eternity in Their Hearts, pp. 43-44

The traditions of the Santal people thus entail an account of their own religious history that directly contradicts Harari’s evolutionary view: they started as monotheists who worshipped the one “true” God (Thakur), and only later descended into animism and spiritism. There are similar accounts of other groups in Eternity in Their Hearts: peoples that started as monotheists and later turned to other forms of religion. This also directly counters the standard materialistic narrative about the origin of religion. While far from conclusive, it shows that questions about the origin of religion are far more complex than the story that Harari presents. Religion is a highly complicated human behavior, and simplistic evolutionary narratives like those presented in Sapiens hardly do justice to the diversity and complexity of religion throughout human societies. 

Next, “Reviewing Sapiens: An Evolutionary Deconstruction of Human Rights”