Did civilization begin with the desire to worship?

Jesus said we don't live by bread alone, but we don't believe a lot of what Jesus said. A recent article in National Geographic suggests he might be right on this one.

Excavation of a nearly 12,000-year-old site in Turkey is leading some scholars to imagine that religion might have come before agriculture, possibly overturning the current dogma that religion arose in order to keep the growing populations afforded by agriculture from quarreling. Could our hunger for relationship with the divine be deeper and more culturally productive than our hunger for grain?

Explaining the evolutionary advantage that accounts for the near-universal religious impulse in humanity has been a difficult challenge for those who wish to assert that bread making is the basis of our existence. How could we as a species establish such dominance on planet earth when we perpetually expended what looks to our contemporary standards as inordinate amounts of scarce resources on religious activity? Wouldn't these ancient inhabitants of modern Turkey have been further along devoting their best minds and resources to improving hunting technology rather than carving figures and standing up stones?

Our way of thinking assumes that some ancient, pragmatic, atheistic tribe should have outperformed their religious competitors, who spent their days building elaborate religious sites, performing sacrifices and employing priests. The superior tribe would be expending their scarce resources building a better spear rather than spending time trying to connect with the great power in the sky. All evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

Why is it that nearly every religion employs fasting as a means of relating to the transcendent? Should we retranslate another of Jesus' famous sayings as "you can't serve both God and food stuffs?"

David Bentley Hart says this about we moderns in his book, "Atheist Delusions."

"To be entirely modern (which very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. This is not to say it is to have no beliefs: the truly modern person may believe in almost anything, or even perhaps in everything, so long as all these beliefs rest securely upon a more fundamental and radical faith in the nothing - or, better, in nothingness as such. Modernity's highest ideal - its special understanding of personal autonomy - requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose."

What does it say about our civilization if we discover that the ground of civilization is in fact the religious impulse? Evidence again and again seems to indicate that the human being is not the thinking animal, or the tool-making animal, or the rational animal, but rather the worshiping animal.

Augustine was right: our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. The restlessness of our hearts, it seems, is what makes us the civilization-building animal.

Paul Vander Klay is the pastor of a church in Sacramento, Calif. Read more on his blog and Twitter.

Comments (3)

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Interesting. I'd never thought about the implications of "faith" coming before agriculture. Not sure this finding entirely substantiates that we are a worshipping animal, but it does raise some great questions.
To say that the "religious impulse" was THE foundation of civilization seems as speculative as any other offering on the subject. But why does everything we say or do have to imbue our specied with some evolutionary advantage? Maybe its a random side effect. Or, maybe we have a religious impulse because there is a God who made all that is, seen and unseen.
In a sort of parallel way, the work of Jonathan Haidt echoes this, particularly the work around "tribal moral communities." As he explains:

We humans qualify as being ultrasocial. We live
together in very large groups of hundreds or thousands or millions, with
a massive division of labor and a willingness to sacrifice for the
group. But how do we do it? What's our trick? Clearly we don't suppress
breeding and concentrate it in one queen or one breeding couple.
Our trick is very different, Our evolved
trick is our ability to forge a team by circling around sacred objects
& principles.


Religion -- the sacred -- links human society and causes it to flourish, both anthropologically, and as Haidt goes on to elaborate, in academic circles as well. In a social psychological sort of way he confirms Augustine's observation.

 

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