There are three quite distinct questions we can ask about human religious experience:
I detect in these two quite separate agendas. One seems to be associated with trying to allow us to cope with a world that is not always as benevolent towards us as we might wish. The other seems to have much more to do with social control in a very broad sense.
The idea that religion provides a unifying framework for the world in which we live is hardly new. Sigmund Freud, among others, supposed that religion fulfils the role of science in primitive societies. Although contemporary anthropologists have often vigorously resisted such an interpretation (mainly because they have a deep antipathy towards anything that might be taken to suggest that tribal societies are primitive, second-class or intellectually inferior to western 'scientific' ones), there is a great deal to be said for this view. One thing that most religions often explicitly do is to provide accounts of how the world came to be and how it works. These accounts (think of the creation stories in the Bible or the Rainbow Snake myths of the Australian Aborigines) often provide us with an explanation as to why the world works the way it does and, in doing so, they invariably tell us what our role in the world is. This is not to suggest that quasi-religious explanations of this kind are wrong-headed, or should be seen as somehow second-dass because they are at odds with what we now know from science. That is to miss the whole point of the exercise. The purpose of any such system (and, at this particular level, this applies to science as much as to religion) is to provide coherence to an otherwise rather confusing world.
Humans are extremely good at recognising correlations in the world. That is what allows them to function so effectively at the ecological level, whether as hunter-gatherers, pastoralists or horticulturalists. As I have detailed in my book The Trouble with Science, traditional societies are often able to prodoce phenomenological accounts of the world that are at least as good as those of modern science, and they are able to use that information very effectively in managing their economic activities. This should not surprise us, given that we are all observing the same world. However, there is a fundamental difference between knowing that something is the case in the world and knowing just why it has to be that way. The latter often has to do with the hidden structures of the way the world is constructed (the laws of physics, chemistry and biology) and is often quite opaque to us unless we have the sophisticated tools of modern science that allow us to probe beneath the surface appearance. Probing beneath the surface - which is what science busies itself with - is all very interesting, but it does not necessarily help us survive any better. Indeed, it can have the opposite effect. As the San peoples of southern Africa observe, there is no point is entering the lion's den just to see whether lion cubs' eyes are open at birth: useless knowledge costs lives. Given the rather more pressing concerns they have over day-today survival, the San hunter-gatherers would no doubt regard science in much the same way they would knowing whether the lion cub's eyes are open - an interesting, but rather trivial and pointless activity.
However, the trouble with knowledge in this form is that the human mind would soon be overwhelmed by the mass of apparently random correlations it is capable of divining in the natural world. Having a schema that makes sense of at least some of these greatly reduces the cognitive load: less has to be remembered because many of the bits and pieces can be inferred from a few basic principles that provide explanatory coherence. The point here is that it does not really matter what that schema is or how well it reflects the true underlying reality of the phenomenal world. To do the job, it simply has to make sense of the world we experience, by linking the apparently unrelated bits and pieces in a logical and internally (even if not externally) consistent way. And in some respects, the simpler and more easily understood the grand scheme, the better it is. There is little to be gained by having an explanation that is so complex or difficult to confirm that we waste valuable time on it when we could be out foraging or finding mates.
If our view of the world is a reflection of how our societies happen to be organised, as some anthropologists have argued, then that is fine so long as it provides us with a useful basis for organising our knowledge. Unlike science, religion is not necessarily intended to give us the exact answer, merely one that works for most everyday purposes. Of course, it remains true that the better our theories reflect the true underlying reality of the world, the better they will work (in terms of allowing us to predict or control the future) and the more successfol we will be in consequence in our day-to-day survival. But, as is so often the case in real life, the law of diminishing returns means that there will always be a point after which it is just not worth investing more time and effort into figuring out the underlying reality. In traditional societies, anything that does the trick will do.
Theory of mind, and the more advanced forms of cognition this underpins, allows us to step back from the brink of the world and ask why it has to be thus. Without that ability, we would not be able to do science as successfolly as we do, for science requires us to be able to ask whether it could have been otherwise, to imagine something else behind or within it. Only by taking that step can we then ask why it has to be the way it is - or, indeed, whether there is anything we can do to change it. Animals, even those as sophisticated as chimpanzees, cannot do that. Without the higher orders of intentionality, their noses are, as it were, thrust firmly up against the grindstone of experience: they cannot step back far enough to see it other than as their senses tell them it is.
As beneficial as this faculty of ours is, it does not come costfree. The cost is that we are very soon forced to confront the uncomfortable fact that the world is not the easiest place in which to survive. It constantly throws at us events and circumstances that are beyond our control. We are overwhelmed by flash floods or rampaging elephants, our villages are sacked and our storehouses ransacked by human marauders from over the hill, diseases strike down our children without warning. With minds and souls as sensitive as ours, these are not events that we can easily take in our stride: the pain of losing loved ones is always intolerable. We need something to bolster us against the onslaught, to hold our spirits up just long enough to tide us over the disaster period and into the better times that must surely lie ahead. Were this not so, we would all rapidly succumb to the inevitable despondency and despair, and end by giving up on life (as some who get trapped in the depths of despair occasionally do).
An Opium for the People
There is, in addition, a rather more prosaically biological side to religious experience that has emerged only during the last decade. Many of the practices that religions enjoin on their followers are jost the kinds of activities that are likely to be good at stimulating the production of endorphins in the brain. Different religious traditions have, of course, placed different emphases on the kinds of activities that are deemed appropriate for religious observance, bot it is striking that so many have placed so much emphasis on the infliction of physical pain and/or stress. These have included fasting, dancing or other rhythmic movements (think of the rhythmic bobbing of orthodox Jews praying at the Temple wall in Jerusalem, the repetitive counting of rosary beads and similar prayer devices), flagellation and the painfol tasks imposed on pilgrims (such as walking the Stations of the Cross on one's knees or, in the Buddhist and yogic traditions, long periods sitting motionless in positions that are difficult to adopt), painful or stressful initiation rites in many tribal societies, communal singing (especially the tonally deep sustained forms that are typical of chanting, but also the lusty singing of hymns in the more evangelical traditions of Christianity), the intense rhythmically repetitive singing of the qawwali tradition in Sufi Islam, the long hours spent locked in services, the emotional rollercoaster induced by all the best charismatic preachers...The list could go on and on.
All these practices impose low but persistent levels of stress on the body, and it is precisely this kind of persistent low-level stress that is particularly effective at stimulating the production of endorphins. Unlike the neural pain-control systems (which are designed to cope with the intense kinds of sharp pain induced by actual injury), the endorphin system is specifically designed to allow us to cope with those kinds of discomfort that come from long-running stresses on the body. Marathon runners, for example, have a great deal to be thankfnl to the endorphin system for, since it is this that keeps them going through the pain and grind. Indeed, it is probably the endorphin system finally kicking in that is responsible for the 'second wind'phenomenon so familiar to long-distance runners. Regular joggers, whose insistence on a daily dose of body-bashing puts their muscles under light but repeated stress, will be familiar with their personal endorphin systems too. The frequency with which they stimulate it is such that they become addicted to jogging; when they do not get their daily jog, they experience all the usual kinds of cold turkey (albeit in mild form) that drug addicts go throngh when deprived of opiates - the edginess and irritability, the inability to settle until they have had their daily 'shot'.
Religious practices seem as though they are purposedesigned to give us that opioid kick that makes us feel so much better able to cope with the vagaries of the world and, perhaps just as important, so much more at peace with our neighbours. But it may also be the case that the endorphin production associated with these practices stimulates the immune system into greater activity, thus directly protecting the body against disease and injury. In fact, there's an interesting parallel here with the pacing often found in caged animals in zoos. Once thought to be a sign of boredom, it has now been shown to stimulate the production of endorphins. For better or for worse, it probably helps the animals cope better with the stress of confinement.
So pervasive are practices of this kind that they have sometimes come to provide the central plank on which particular sects have established their identities. The most famous of these is undoubtedly the Flagellants, a movement that was born in 1260 in the region of Perugia in Italy. Bands of 50-500 penitents marched from one village or town to another, pausing at each chorch to whip themselves with scourges in a carefully orchestrated and highly charged ceremony that attracted enormous interest as a public spectade, and which often resulted in rich and poor alike streaming to join. The infliction of what was often severe pain and even injury inevitably meant that the movement had a relatively short lifespan. Nonetheless, it experienced a major revival a century later as the Black Death swept through Europe in 1347-8 in what became a desperate but misguided attempt to banish the sickness by mass atonement for the sins that were assumed to have brought it - at least until it became apparent that the itinerant bands of penitents were actually helping to spread the plague from one town or village to another, at which point towns started to bar their gates against them.
In Orthodox Russia, the Khlysty ('flagellators') and the Skoptzy ('mutilators') sects aimed to achieve a state of religious ecstasy throngh self-imposed physical pain. Perhaps because the Skoptzy advocated self-immolation (or, in the case of women members, removal of the breasts), this particolar offshoot was short-lived. But the Khlysty movement had a long history: having first emerged perhaps as early as the 1360S, they were still in existence as a semi‑heretical sect within the Orthodox Chorch late enough for the'mad monk'Rasputin (he of the downfall of the Romanovs fame) to come across them when he visited the monastery of Verkhoture in the 1890s. Nor are these practices confined to Christendom. Islam has its own versions in the dervish sects of the Middle East. The annual Shia rituals in honour of the martyrdom of the Imam Husain and his family at Karbala are a potent example of this tradition.* During the celebrations, lines of men rhythmically slash at their chests with knives or flagellate their bare backs with heavy whips until the blood runs, while the accompanying women weep and howl in memory of the terrible fate that befell Husain in 680 AD.
In many respects, however, these opioid effects are but the consolation prize for the masses. The real adepts have even more profound benefits to gain. Barely a decade ago, Andrew Husain was the second son of the caliph Ab (son of the Prophet Mohammed), whom the Shia regard as the rightfnl heir to the Prophet. Husain inherited the caliphate on the death of his olda brother, Hasan, but his claim was disputed and he and a party of companions were later massacred.
Newberg (a neuroscientist) and Eugene d'Aquili (an anthropologist) discovered that individuals who can achieve a heightened state of religious ecstasy (such as that achieved at the endpoint of meditation) exhibit very specific patterns of brain activation. Brain scans of individuals in this state have a greatly reduced level of activity in an area in the posterior parietal lobe of the left hemisphere (the area mainly responsible for our sense of spatial self) - and, incidentally, a great deal of generalised activity in the right hemisphere, though they made rather less of this. On the basis of this evidence, they have argued that carefully orchestrated mental practices (techniques developed by mystics in all religions) allow adepts to disengage a bundle of neurones in the posterior part of the left parietal lobe of the brain (roughly above and behind the left ear). Once these neurones are disengaged from the control of the rest of the brain, they release a series of impulses down throngh the limbic system to the hypothalamus, which then sets up a feedback loop between itself, the attention areas in the frontal cortex (which have been responsible for blocking off the parietal lobe neurone bundles) and the parietal lobe itself. As this cycle builds, it leads to the complete shut‑down of the spatial awareness bundles, generating as it does so a burst of ecstatic liberation in which we seem to be united with the Infinity of Being, often in a flash of blinding light. For obvious reasons, this bundle of neurones in the parietal lobe has been termed the'god spot'.
However, the explanation for this effect may not be quite what Newberg and d'Aquili suppose. The clue lies in the fact that the hypothalamus is involved in the circuit. The hypothalamus just happens to be an area of the brain that is particularly prominent in the opioid story: it is a major site from which endorphins are released into the brain. That burst of peacefol nothingness that comes at the point of meditation may be nothing more than a familiar opioid surge. The important point about their discoveries, however, is that these effects can be generated by mental self-stimulation by adepts. Interestingly, the experience of the mystic at this point (the soffusion of the mind with a blinding light, the sense of being at peace and at one with God, the semblance of the mind or soul leaving the body and hovering above it) are identical to those that occur in near-death experiences. The latter are thought to be the result of oxygen starvation to the brain. One likely explanation for the mystical version of these experiences is that adepts have discovered ways to induce oxygen starvation to the brain, perhaps even selectively to particular key areas within the brain.
In short, mystics have found the secret of the universe. Contrary to Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galuxy, it is not the number 4z but rather the ability to self-induce an endorphin surge. The rest of us mere mortals have to make do with more prosaic forms of physical stimulation to elicit the same kinds of effect at much lower levels of intensity.
Communality and the Sense of Belonging
Important as these psycho-pharmacological factors are, there are other important benefits to be derived from being involved in religious movements. People who belong to organised religious groups are also members of a community and that community may be mutually supporting in a particularly intense way. They feel that they belong. There is a considerable volume of evidence to suggest that people's ability to resist disease and to cope with life's many traumas is directly affected by the size of their social network. A large study carried out during the l950s in Newcastle, England, showed that, even in modern industrial societies like ours in Britain, children from larger extended families suffer fewer ailments and die less often than those from smaller ones.
A Solitary Candle Burning Bright
Theory of mind is crucial to the whole enterprise of religion. Religion, in its very basest form, requires us to suppose that there is a world other than the one we see, and that means second-order intentionality or theory of mind at the very least. Since even the apes can only just aspire to that, it means that religion is unlikely to be found outside the immediate zoological family to which we belong. But I suspect that religion is actually more cognitively demanding than this.
In order to be able to engage in religious activities, I have to believe that there is a parallel world occupied by beings who have intentions that can be influenced by my prayers. In other words, I believe  that there are gods who intend  to influence my future. If these beings have intentions that I am unable to influence, then religion has no role to play: such beings are little different to the raging floods or erupting volcanoes that unexpectedly engulf us. A religion, if it is to have any real value, has to be able to influence the future for us.
But, second-order intentionality is not really enough to drive a metaphysical belief. If religion is to have any usefol purpose, then these gods must be able to understand what I want. So it seems likely that religion must presuppose third-order intentionality: I believe  that there are gods who can be persuaded to understand  what I really desire  and who, having done so, will act on my behal£
This, I think, is enough to explain the evolution of a religious sense - to provide the cognitive underpinnings for the personal sense of religion, my own particular beliefs and transcendental experiences. However, it is stil1 not enough to explain the communal sense of religion, the large-scale phenomena of rituals and public commitment that are so central a part of religion as we practise it. Religion in its human form is nothing if it is not a social activity: we come together in common rituals and beliefs to form a community. To achieve that, I need at least fourth- (and maybe even fifth-) order intentionality: I suppose  that you think  that I believe  that there are gods who intend  to influence our futures (because they understand our desires ?). Unless and until we come together in this way, we do not have religion, only personal belief. It is shared belief that makes religion what it is.
That being so, then it is perhaps obvious why humans - and only humans - seem to have religious systems. Only humans can aspire to fourth-order intentionality as a matter of course. More interestingly, only some humans can aspire to fifth- and sixth-order intentionality, which may explain why, among humans, only a relatively small number of individuals are successful religious leaders. Religious leaders, like good novelists, are a rare breed.
Dead Men's Tales
We are left, then, with one last question: when did religion first appear in human history? The short answer is that we have absolutely no idea. But some strands of evidence can perhaps give us some pointers.
We know that all living human societies have some form of religion, and this suggests that it is a common feature of the way the human mind is designed rather than something that, by some remarkable coincidence, has spontaneously evolved to have exactly the same form on a number of separate occasions in a number of different places. This suggests, in turn, that it has a modestly ancient origin that has little to do with the cultural diversity that has emerged in the last 30,000 years since the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution.
Our problem is to know how to recognise the signature of religious belief in the archaeological record. After all, without knowing the oral history of Christianity, we would be unable to interpret the significance of crosses or chalices in Ghristian iconography. As with the problem of defining culture in animals, one solution is to look for phenomena that do not have any obvious functional use. The trouble is that most of these are also likely to have everyday uses and separating the everyday from the ritual may be tricky at this remove. Are Venus figures (those extraordinary Michelin-tyre female figurines that appear in the European archaeological record from about 30,000 years ago) fertility symbols (as some have assumed), images of goddesses, or just entertaining decorative art (the prehistoric equivalent of pin-ups)? There is, however, one facet of human behaviour that does provide us with evidence for belief in an afterlife, since it has one very concrete and relatively unmistakable form - burial.
The earliest uncontroversial evidence for deliberate burials comes from two Cro-Magnon sites at Predmosti and Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, both dated to around 25'000 years ago. In one, two young men and a young woman were buried together, while in the other as many as eighteen individuals had been buried in a large pit covered by mammoth bones and limestone slabs. The Sungir site in Russia (dated to around zz,ooo years ago) boasts the skeletons of two children placed head to head. One was covered in around sooo beads whose positioning strongly suggests that they were part of the clothing the child had been buried in.
Ifg relogion requires fourth-order intentionality, then it might have coincided with the rise of language which seems to have appeared at this point. This is probably not too surprising, because the communal nature of religion depends on language: language is needed to explain the religious system so as to persuade others to adopt it, so it would have had to be in place before it could be used to create religion. Fifth-order intentionality, however, did not appear until much later, being associated with anatomically modern humans (the Cro-Magnons and modern humans). If fifth-order is needed to sustain religion as a communal enterprise, then in all likelihood it probably dates back only 200'000 years at most. It may be no accident that this seems to be the same time frame for the appearance of full grammatical language (at least in so far as the evidence for 'genes' for grammar can tell us anything). Full grammatically structured language is essential for the transmission of the metaphysical concepts that necessarily underpin transcendental religious beliefs.
There is, however, an interesting question hovering quietly in the background: the later Neanderthal populations had brains as large (or even larger) than ours and if the logic of this argument holds, then we might expect religion to have been a feature of their lives too. There are three possible positions we can take, though we cannot really decide between them on the evidence we have at present. One is that, if large brain size (and hence fifth-order intentionality) evolved independently among the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons, then both sub-species may have evolved a religious approach to life independently of each other. Alternatively, since religion essentially represents a software and not a hardware change, it is possible that despite the possession of fifth-order intentionality, the Neanderthals failed to develop religion, at least in some of its key social aspects. Religion would thus have been a serendipitous cultural invention of one particular (and unusually thoughtful?) anatomically modern human somewhere on an African plain. That would fit well with our experience of how new religions or sects arise. But religion has the interesting capacity to spread like wildfire through a population, so once it had appeared as a kind of cultural mutation somewhere, then its spread through neighbouring (and eventually far distant) communities would have been very rapid. The third possibility is that the Neanderthal brain was organised in a different way from that of modern humans, so that althongh they had a larger total brain volume than modern humans, much of this extra volume was in the visual areas at the back of the brain (hence the famous Neanderthal 'bun') with proportionately less in the frontal lobe. If they did indeed have a smaller frontal lobe, then their achievable levels of intentionality would have been lower - perhaps low enough to preclude the development of full-blown communal religion.
The last possibility might provide an explanation for that most vexing of all archaeological conundrums: why, despite the fact that they had previously been so successfol, did the Neanderthals die out so rapidly after the arrival of the Cro-Magnons in Europe? One answer might be the added power that religion as a coercive force gave to Cro-Magnon groups, allowing them to act more cohesively and effectively at the socio-political level when forced into ecological competition with Neanderthals. Without religion as a device for bonding social groups, they may have been no match for the invaders from Africa who were our direct ancestors.
The Shaman's Vision
We are apt to think of religion in terms of the great international organised religions of the modern world (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Shinto, Islam, Judaism and Christianity) or the great religions of the historical past (the sunworship of the Aztecs and Incas, the pantheism of Greek and Roman classical state religion, the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia - probably the oldest organised religion in the world, placed on a firm footing by its first prophet Zarathustra around 1200 BC, and now represented mainly by the Parsees of western India). One way or another, all of these are characterised by philosophically sophisticated systems of thought, international structures of bureaucracy and highly organised forms of worship, often in specially constructed (and, in many cases, lavishly ornamented) buildings. But it has not always been thus. Perhaps the fact that, within these great religions of the world, new movements are constantly being born in people's houses, in open fields, or in village halls, should remind us that religion has an intimacy tbat stems, not from the political hierarchies of priests, bishops, presbyters and popes, but from the intimacies of personal relationships between small groups of people.
And it was thus, perhaps, that religion first started among the roving bands of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The nearest that we can come to this are the traditional religions of living hunter-gatherers and other small-scale tribal peoples. Among the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa, religion is expressed in belief systems about the hidden spirit world and in the rituals of the trance dances that give humans access to that world. There are no priests, even though some individuals may be regarded as particalarly adept at the business of communicating with the spirit world. We can perhaps use the term shaman to refer to these individuals, even though strictly speaking this term is associated with the particular set of beliefs and rituals of the Siberian peoples whose term this is. In at least some cases, these tribal religions do not even seem to have the concept of an afterlife to which we go when we die. This seems to be true not only of the !Kung San hunter‑gatherers of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa, but also of the Masai pastoralists of East Africa.
David Lewis-Williams, a South African archaeologist, has argued that there is good evidence for believing that shamanism was the original form of religion among prehistoric humans. One line of evidence is the ubiquity in all human societies of the ability to enter trance states - sometimes induced by music and dance, sometimes by special meditative practices, but occasionally even by the use of psychotropic drugs like the mescaline favoured by the Mexicans. Another reason why Lewis-Williams thinks that shamanism may be the primordial form of religion is the fact that many of the abstract elements in prehistoric cave paintings, as well as the rock art of contemporary hunter-gatherers in southern Africa and Australia, involved patterns of dots, grids, zigzags and meandering lines that bear an uncanny resemblance to the experiences described by people who take hallucinogens during scientific experiments. They experience pinpoints of light or lines that flicker and pulsate with an intensity and brilliance that leaves the mind overwhelmed by the experience. In the final stages of these experiences, and especially so in cultures that are predisposed to see the world this way, individuals may feel themselves floating outside their own bodies, sometimes even turning into a specific animal or mythical form. In deistic coltures like the Christian tradition, those who enter trances may feel that they are gradually being absorbed into the godhead itself.
Lewis-Williams argues that it is these experiences that the rock artists are trying to capture. When the San rock art of southern Africa shows humans, it often shows them in lines, frequently carrying sticks. These have been mistaken for lines of men out hunting or, perhaps, going into battle carrying spears. Lewis-Williams suggests that they may in fact be depictions of trance dances. One reason for thinking this is that there are sometimes groups of women (evident by their breasts or the aprons or leather skirts they are wearing) in the background, or even intermingled in the line of men itself. A second reason is the presence of therianthropes (human figures with animal heads). These hardly seem relevant to hunting magic, let alone battles, but they do seem to be a common feature of trance states. In addition, sometimes the male figures have what are either sticks or blood coming out of their noses, much as the noses of San trance dancers drip blood at the height of their dance when they finally enter into a trance state.
This expression of a world-beyond-the-world that, in reality, lies within one's very head carries enormous potency. It is not difficult to see how it might have originated from the accidental experiences of a few individuals engaged in communal bonding activities made possible by music and dance. Being able to master these experiences, to bring them on at will, and then to lead others through them provides adepts with enormous charisma and power. The experiences they involve have the frisson of fear that is inevitably associated with the unknown that is beyond control. Being led through them by an adept creates a sense of excitement tinged with that essential degree of confidence that one will survive the danger. This is a powerful and heady mix, more than enongh to turn a man's mind.
But the very seeds of that situation already contain within it the basis for developing institutional religions. The shaman becomes a holy man or woman, someone with magical powers who is able to control this world as well as the world beyond, someone who can work miracles on behalf of the earth-bound, provide comfort to the living and speed the dead on their way to whatever lies beyond. We are only a step away from priests and hierarchies, and the paraphernalia of institutions.
In terms of the origins of religion, however, the story that I have sketched out here suggests that the earliest stages may well have been very personal and intimate. Perhaps they were brought on by music and dance (in which case, they might well predate the appearance of Homo supiens, though it seems very unlikely that they would go all the way back to the origins of Homo erectus two million years ago). Their efficacy in social bonding (generated by the surges in endorphins brought on by trances) is likely to have been their starting point - a purely chemical effect that helped to bond large dispersed huntergatherer groups. Only much later would the intellectual advantages of religion have become evident. Their role in stabilising the universe, providing a unifying set of coltural beliefs to provide a flagstaff around which group members could nail their individual colours - and, eventually, a means of enforcing adherence to the group's norms of behaviour - would all have emerged much later.
This must have been so because, when you analyse its cognitive demands as we have done, fully social religion minimally requires fourth-order intentionality (to understand it) and perhaps fifth-order to create it. Religion as we know it in its communal form could not have evolved before humans acquired fifth-order intentionality (which appears only with anatomically modern humans around 200'000 years ago) and language (which evolved some time between 500,000 and 200'000 years ago).
As remarkable as our achievements in the arts and sciences may be, it is hard to escape the conclusion that religion is the one phenomenon in which we humans really are different in some qualitative sense from our ape cousins. In most other respects, we can argue a convincing case for humans just being apes on a grander scale. But religion represents a genuine shift of gear into a new dimension that raises us into another world above and beyond the experiences of our ape cousins. That will, no doubt, bring comfort to some. But it is, in the end, something of a double-edged sword. Religion has also been the source of some of our worst nightmares.
The eighteenth-century French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes leit us with a legacy that has not been easy to shake off. In a deliberate attempt to prove the existence of God, he reinforced the gulf between animals and ourselves. Not only did he thereby provide a legitimacy for how we mistreat the rest of the planet, but he also left us with an excessively inflated view of ourselves. Of course, Descartes was surely right to emphasise just how different humans are from other animals. We genuinely are different, not least in several key psychological respects. It is these differences that have allowed us to evolve that handful of features - language, culture, religion and science - that really do mark us off from the other animals with whom we have been privileged to share so much of our history. Those features allow us to have an extraordinarily rich mental life that is, so far as we can tell, genninely unique.
Yet we should, at the same time, see these seemingly remarkable phenomena in proper perspective. Examined dose up, they are simply the emergent properties of some very basic biological and psychological processes that we share with most of our cousins among the primates. The difference is simply the scale on which we can exercise these capacities.
Accidents of history placed exacting demands on our predecessors. Many of their contemporaries failed to meet those challenges and left no descendants, but the few that did sent our history spinning down unexpected channels at key moments. Their responses to the exigencies of the moment in those desperate battles to survive and reproduce successfully were as much a part of their primate biology as anything their ancestors had ever done before them. We can, perhaps, pinpoint in time the moment when any one component of our nature first appeared. Yet, there was no one point at which we can say that 'this was when we were set apart, no grand moment of conversion on the road to Damascus that made the non-human suddenly human. Rather, what we see is the gradual accomulation of those key components one by one, each a response to some unique circumstance, some particolar challenge, but each paving the way for the next in the long sequence that, ultimately, led us to where we now are.
History has handed us a rare and privileged plate. Honesty would have us accept that we have sometimes used those remarkable capacities for anything but benign purposes. Religion, no less than anything else, has had a particularly black history. Yet it might be wrong to conclude from this that we must do away with religion altogether. We should not, in our haste, overlook the important role religion has played in human affairs, helping to bond communities and so enabling them to meet the challenges that the planet has thrown at them. Even today, its contribution to human psychological wellbeing is probably suffficient to raise serious questions about whether the human race could do without it.
In a rational humanistic world, such as that which Descartes himself set in train, our natural response must be to wean ourselves off the drug that religion ultimately is. But to succeed in this, we will need to find something in the social sphere to replace it. As Robert Putnam has pointed out in his book Bowling Alone, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that well integrated communities (and this means ones that are internally well connected and have a sense of communal belonging, often generated by active social and religious institutions) suffer from less antisocial behaviour and crime - no doubt in part because of internal policing, but also partlybecause of the sense of obligation and community that adherence to common values and beliefs engenders. The problem for the contemporary rationalist is how to recreate this sense of community without resorting to the mechanism of religion, because religion works its will most effectively when we abandon rational thought and surrender ourselves to the mysterious and the ineffable.
We are, you might say, an oddly mixed-up species, an evolutionary Heath-Robinson of a job. But then, as evolutionary biologists are never slow to point out, that is what evolution is all about: evolution does not set out to produce engineering perfection, but rather simply adapts what is already there to do a novel job as best it can when the need arises. Nor does evolution come for free: any change in design that bears a benefit inevitably incurs a cost. The processes of evolution simply lead to where the benefits of any given change outweigh the costs. So it is that we are a hotch-potch of things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but which, with hindsight, might perhaps have been done better or differently. In that respect, we are no different from any of the other species that has ever lived. Our challenge, as it has always been, is to live with our imperfections, yet leave the world a better place than we found it.