The Evolution of Religion
Then when the whole earth moves beneath our feet, and cities tumble
To the ground, hit hard, or cities badly shaken, threaten to crumble,
Is it surprising mortal men are suddenly made humble,
And are ready to believe in the awesome might and wondrous force
Of gods, the powers at the rudder of the universe?
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book 5, lines 1236–40
On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Adam and God touch fingers. To the uneducated eye it is not clear who is creating whom. We are supposed to assume God’s the one doing the creating, and much of the world thinks so. To anybody who has read the history of the ancient world, it is crystal clear by contrast that, in the words of the title of Selina O’Grady’s book on the subject, Man Created God. God is plainly an invention of the human imagination, whether in the form of Jahweh, Christ, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus or Anygod else. The religious impulse is not confined to conventional religion. It animates ghosts, horoscopes, ouija boards and Gaia; it explains all forms of superstition, from biodynamic farming to conspiracy theories to alien abduction to hero worship. It is the expression of what Daniel Dennett calls the intentional stance, the human instinct to see purpose and agency and power in every nook or cranny of the world. ‘We find human faces in the moon, armies in clouds . . . and ascribe malice and goodwill to every thing that hurts or pleases us,’ wrote David Hume in his Natural History of Religion.
The urge to impute the shape of every leaf and the time of every death to the whim of an omnipotent deity may seem to be as top– down as it gets. Yet my argument will be that this phenomenon can only be explained as an instance of cultural evolution: that all gods and all superstitions emerge from within human minds, and go through characteristic but unplanned transformations as history unfolds. Thus even the most top–down feature of human culture is actually a bottom–up, emergent phenomenon.
O’Grady vividly tells the story of how Christianity emerged in the first century AD from among a bewildering ferment of competing religious enthusiasms within the Roman empire, and was far from being the most obvious candidate to win global power. The ‘single market’ of Rome was ripe for a religious monopoly. Empires usually do become dominated by one religion to a great extent: that of Zeus in Greece, Zoroaster in Persia, Confucius in China, Buddha in the Mauryan empire, Mohamed in Arabia.
In first-century Rome, every city had scores of cults and mystery religions competing alongside each other, usually without much jealousy – only the god of the Jews refused to tolerate others. Temples to Jupiter and Baal, Atagartis and Cybele, lay one beside another. Consolidation was inevitable: just as thousands of independently owned cafés were replaced by two or three mighty chains such as Starbucks, with superior products more slickly delivered, so it was inevitable that religious chains would take over the Roman empire. Augustus did his best to pose as a god himself, but that cut little ice with the merchants of Alexandria or the peasants of Asia Minor.
In the middle of the first century, the cult of Apollonius of Tyana looked a better bet to conquer the empire. Like Jesus, Apollonius (who was younger, but overlapped) raised the dead, worked miracles, exorcised demons, preached charity, died and rose again, at least in spiritual form. Unlike Jesus, Apollonius was a famous Pythagorean intellectual known throughout the Near East. His birth had been foretold, he abjured sex, drank no wine and wore no animal skins. He was altogether more sophisticated than the Palestinian carpenter. He moved in grand circles: the dead person he raised was the child of a senator. His fame spread well beyond the Roman lands. When he arrived at Babylon, the Parthian King Vardanes greeted him as a celebrity and invited him to stay and teach for a year. He then travelled east to what is now Afghanistan and India, never to re-emerge. Long after his disappearance his cult competed with the Jewish, Zoroastrian and Christian creeds. Yet eventually it petered out.
Blame Saul of Tarsus, also known as St Paul. Whereas Apollonius had a plodding Greek chronicler as his evangelist, named Philostratus, Jesus was blessed with a peculiarly persuasive if rather eccentric Pharisee who set out to reinvent and convert the Jesus cult into a universal, rather than a Jewish, faith designed to appeal to Greeks and Romans. And St Paul was acute enough to realise that the Jesus cult could be aimed at the poor and dispossessed. Its strictures against wealth, power and polygamy were well designed to appeal to those who had little to lose. Quite how the Christians eventually (three centuries on) persuaded an emperor, Constantine, to convert to their cause remains a little mysterious, but it surely had much to do with the populist appeal of the new creed. After that, the conquest of large swathes of the planet by the Christian religion owed as much to power as to persuasion. All competing religions were ruthlessly and violently stamped out wherever possible, starting with the Emperor Theodosius.
In short, you can tell the story of the rise of Christianity without any reference to divine assistance. It was a movement like any other, a man-made cult, a cultural contagion passed from mind to mind, a natural example of cultural evolution.
The predictability of gods
Further evidence for the man-made nature of gods comes from their evolutionary history. It is a little-known fact, but gods evolve. There is a steady and gradual transformation through human history not only from polytheism to monotheism, but from gods who are touchy, foolish, randy and greedy people, who just happen to be immortal, to disembodied and virtuous spirits living in an entirely different realm and concerned mainly with virtue. Contrast the vengeful and irritable Jehovah of the Old Testament with the loving Christian God of today. Or philandering, jealous Zeus with the disembodied and pure Allah; or vengeful Hera and sweet Mary.
The gods in hunter-gatherer societies manage without priests, and have little in the way of consistent doctrine. The gods of early settled societies, though organised, codified and served by specialised personnel with rituals, were (in the words of Nicolas Baumard and Pascal Boyer) ‘construed as unencumbered with moral conscience and uninterested in human morality’. This moral indifference characterised the gods of Sumer, Akkad, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Aztec, Mayan and Inca empires, and ancient China and India.
Only much later, in certain parts of the world – apparently those places where sufficiently high living standards caused some people to yearn, like hippies, for ascetic purity and higher ideals – did the gods suddenly become concerned with moral prescription. Priests discovered that demanding ascetic self-sacrifice induced greater loyalty. Sometimes the switch happened through a reformation, as in Judaism and Hinduism; more often through the emergence of a new and morally prescriptive god cult, as in Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam. These moral gods proved very jealous, and more or less elbowed aside not only the morally neutral religions, but those moral codes that lacked superstitious belief, such as Pythagorism, Confucianism and stoicism. Remarkably, they all seem to recommend some version of the golden rule – do as you would be done by – as illustrated by precepts of Buddhism, Judaism, Jainism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam. They thrived, argue Baumard and Boyer, by appealing to human instincts for reciprocity and fairness – by emphasising proportionality between deeds and supernatural rewards, between sins and penance. In other words, gods evolved by adapting themselves to certain aspects of human nature, the environment in which they found themselves. They were doubly man-made, unconsciously as well as consciously: human-evolved as well as human-invented.
Just as Rome was ripe for Christianity, the same is true of Arabia and Islam. The vast Arab empire was bound to spawn a universal religion of its own, and probably one that was jealous of others, but that it should be Mohamed’s version that would win the prize was far from inevitable. (Religion is predictable; religions are not.) Yet in this case, we are assured, it happened the other way round: a religion spawned an empire. In AD 610 Mohamed received the Koran from an angel, while living in a pagan desert town called Mecca, which was a thriving crossroads of the caravan trade, and he went on to win a remarkable battle with divine assistance and conquer Arabia. As is often said, we know a great deal more about the biography of Mohamed than we know of the life of other religious founders.
The evolution of the prophet
Or do we? In fact, every one of those biographical facts is doubtful. Except for one brief Christian reference to a Saracen prophet in the 630s, nothing was written down about the life of Mohamed during his lifetime, the first public mention in the Muslim world coming in 690. The detailed biographies were all written two centuries after he died. And what historians can reconstruct about late antiquity in the Near East tells us that Mecca was not a major centre of trade, indeed it is not mentioned till 741. Clearly, too, the Koran was written down not in a pagan society, but in a thoroughly monotheistic one – it has huge amounts of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian lore in it. The Virgin Mary features more frequently in the Koran than in the New Testament; as do a few concepts shared with the long-lost Dead Sea scrolls, which would have been obscure in the 600s, and must have been passed down from older traditions. The Koran is too full of details about Jewish and Christian literature to have been a compilation of notions picked up by a trader, let alone one from a pagan and largely illiterate society.
Indeed, there is nothing to tie the life of the Koran’s compiler to the middle of the Arabian Peninsula at all, but lots to tie it to the fringes of Palestine and the Jordan valley: names of tribes, identification of places and mentions of cattle, olives and other creatures and plants not found in the Arabian desert. The story of Lot, Sodom and the pillars of salt is mentioned in the Koran in a way that implies it happened locally – and it almost certainly refers to salt features found close to the Dead Sea. The northern part of Arabia, just outside the bounds of the Roman empire, had long been a fertile breeding ground for exiled Jewish and Christian heresies, each drawing on different traditions and some with an admixture of Zoroastrianism from Persia. It is here, many scholars now suggest, that the Koran is actually set.
The traditional alternative requires, of course, a leap of faith. As the historian Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword, has put it: ‘Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city devoid of any largescale Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert. How else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully-fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle?’
To those who do not accept miracles it seems more likely that the Koran is almost certainly a compilation of old texts, not a new document in the seventh century. It is like a lake into which many streams flowed, a work of art that emerged from centuries of monotheistic fusions and debates, before taking its final form in the hands of a prophet in an expanding empire of newly unified Arabs pushing aside the ancient powers of Rome and Sassanid Persia. It is, in Tom Holland’s vivid words, a bloom from the seedbed of antiquity, not a guillotine dropped on the neck of antiquity. It contains bits of Roman imperial propaganda, stories of Christian saints, remnants of Gnostic gospels and parts of ancient Jewish tracts.
Holland goes on to speculate about how the Arab civilisation arose, and minted its new religion as it did so. The (bubonic) plague of Justinian in AD 541 devastated the cities of the (Byzantine) Roman and Persian empires, but left the nomads on the southern fringes of both empires relatively unscathed. Nomads have fewer flea-infested rats in their tents than city dwellers do in their houses, which makes plague much less of a problem. In the wake of the plague, parts of the imperial frontier were depopulated, left undefended and ruined, leaving fertile land for the nomads to expand into. A great war between Constantinople and Persia in the early 600s, in which first Persians then Romans triumphed, further exhausted the hegemonic powers and further emboldened the nomadic tribes on the fringes. The Koran contains hints that it is set against this backdrop of a great war, and includes echoes of the campaigns of Heraclius and his attempt to don the mantle of Alexander.
It is only in retrospect that Mohamed is enshrined as a prophet, the Sunni tradition is crystallised and the Hadiths are written down to give Mohamed a realistic and detailed life. By then the Arabs had established a wide empire with firm but brittle self-confidence, and there was clearly a determination to extinguish any hints of intellectual ancestry of Islam within the infidel faiths of Christianity and Judaism. So the sudden, miraculous, a nihilo invention of Islam by Mohamed becomes the story that is told. In fact, what was going on in the 690s was that a newly entrenched Umayyad Amir, Abd al-Malik, set about deliberately cultivating the legend of the prophet, naming him for the first time. ‘In the name of God. Muhammad is the messenger of God’ was stamped on his coins. He did so deliberately to separate his empire’s religion from that of the rival Romans, establish that it was not just a reformed version of Christianity, and ‘rub Roman noses in the inferiority of their superstitions’, to use Tom Holland’s words: ‘Out of the flotsam and jetsam of beliefs left scattered by the great flood tide of Arab conquests, something coherent – something manifestly God-stamped – would have to be fashioned: in short, a religion.’ Thus, Islam was more the consequence than the cause of Arab conquest.
There is nothing uniquely Muslim about this. It is what Christianity and Judaism did also: construct elaborate backstories to obscure their origins. We can see it most clearly in recent religious innovations, like Mormonism and Scientology. Consider the bald facts of the matter about the Church of Latter-Day Saints: in upstate New York in the 1820s, an impoverished amateur treasure-seeker who had stood trial on a charge of falsely pretending to find lost treasure, named Joseph Smith, claimed he had been directed by an angel to a spot where he dug up gold plates on which was written text in an ancient script and language, which he found he could miraculously translate. The plates had since, he said, been put in a chest, but the angel had told him to show them to nobody. Instead he was to publish a translation. Some years later he dictated 584 pages of this translation, which proved to be written in the style of the King James Bible and to be a chronicle of some early inhabitants of North America who had somehow travelled there by ship from Babylon hundreds of years before Christ, but who none the less believed in Jesus.
Of the two possibilities – that this is true, or that Joseph Smith made it up – one is far more plausible than the other. Yet to me there is nothing, except the grandeur granted by the passage of many centuries, to distinguish the implausibility of Mormonism from that of Christianity, Islam or Judaism. After all, Moses too went up a hill and came down with written instructions from God. All religions look man-made to me.