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.Casey Luskin, “Reviewing Sapiens: Getting the Origin of Religion Backwards” at Evolution News and Science Today
Harari’s 2015 book rehashes some very old claims. there. We actually don’t know that it works the way he says and efforts to evolve a theory of religion are falling on hard times:
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 Their study was retracted after a new paper found that their dataset was too limited.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.Casey Luskin, “Reviewing Sapiens: Getting the Origin of Religion Backwards” at Evolution News and Science Today
The oldest type of religion was probably a form of naturalism. Non-naturalist religions are better accounted for by revelation.
See also: If naturalism can explain religion, why does it get so many basic facts wrong?
Evolutionary conundrum: is religion a useful, useless, or harmful adaptation?
Imagine a world of religions that naturalism might indeed be able to explain