Suzan Mazur asks neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, who offers some thoughts at HuffPost:
Suzan Mazur: What is your understanding of when, historically, humans thought up religion? British anthropologist Maurice Bloch has said humans largely live in their reflective imagination, something that first arose 40,000 to 50,000 years ago and that “[t]he kind of phenomena that the English word “religion,” and the associated word “belief,” can be made to evoke have, at most a history of five thousand years.” You’ve said religious and spiritual ideas have been around “since the dawn of civilization.” When would that be—-“the dawn of civilization”? And what is the evidence?
Andrew Newberg: Certainly, a more formalized aspect of religion has been around for about 5,000 years going back to the Egyptian dynasties. There is evidence before that in the tablets of Sumeria, [circa 3,300 bc]. There was a discovery in recent years at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey of 11,500-year-old stelae inscribed with animal images.
Suzan Mazur: I’ve written extensively about ancient Anatolian art and archaeology, and recently interviewed Ian Hodder, director of the Çatalhöyük project in Turkey. Hodder told me there was religion there on the Konya plain at 9,500-year-old Çatal because he’s found little evidence of fractured skulls, and the ancient inhabitants appear to have swept out their houses. Hodder has described the stelae at Göbekli Tepe as “a scary, fantastic world of nasty-looking beasts.”
Regarding Göbekli Tepe, in the late 1980s I interviewed Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff—- the preeminent expert on Colombia’s pre-Hispanic past—-who after drinking six cups of yajé with the Barasana Amazonians was convinced that their art was drug-induced. Reichel-Dolmatoff also argued, based on his excavations in southwest Colombia at San Agustin that the fierce “jaguar” statuary there did not represent a memorial site but was part of a settlement inhabited by a succession of societies and that the statues were sculpted by its inhabitants while in drug-induced trances.
Some of us think that religion, like philosophy, arose from the discovery that no one is invulnerable and everyone dies. Yet the idea exists.
See also: Breakthrough: Understanding that human creativity requires the whole brain