Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Religion conflicts global issue
Religion conflicts global issue

Religion Is Far Too Complex to Have a Single Evolution Story

Casey Luskin reflects on Yuval Noah Harari’s thesis that religion evolved through stages because humans needed it in order to co-operate in larger groups

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015), historian Yuval Noah Harari recounts a familiar sort of tale about the origin of religion. Casey Luskin, who has been reviewing the book, explains,

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 (July 29, 2021)

According to animist assumptions, everything has a spirit. As Luskin goes on to show, however, any simple explanation of the origin of religion overlooks the complexity of the evidence:

As I noted in my previous installment, there is undoubtedly much truth that religion fosters cooperation, but Harari’s overall story ignores the possibility that humanity was designed to cooperate via shared religious beliefs. His evolutionary story about religious evolution also assumes the naturalistic viewpoint that religion evolved through various stages and was not revealed from above. No wonder Harari feels this way, since he admits his worldview that “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” As a monotheist, I’m skeptical of these accounts of religious evolution, especially since I’m accustomed to evolutionary arguments often leaving out important data points.

Casey Luskin, “Reviewing Sapiens: Getting the Origin of Religion Backwards” at Evolution News and Science Today (July 29, 2021)

Some thoughts here: First, we know very little about the specific content of any religious beliefs before people started to write things down. For example, there is a figure of a man with a bird mask confronting a buffalo in the Lascaux caves from 17,000 years ago.

Is the figure a shaman? Or was the bird mask a decoy? There’s no one we can ask.

When we assume that early religious beliefs were animist, we are extrapolating back from animist societies today. It’s a reasonable inference, not a demonstration from evidence. Similarly, is the Willendorf Venus (28,000–25,000 years ago) a goddess or a representation of a human figure? Theories abound.

We run into a similar puzzle with polytheism (many gods). It is assumed that polytheism arose from animism and later developed into monotheism. But the picture may be more complex than that. It may be that each band had only one god but, when people began to live in larger groups, polytheism was the natural result of everyone bringing their own god. Polytheistic traditions are typically amorphous and overlapping, which is consistent with that view.

For the most part, monotheism did not “develop”; In most known instances (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, for example), it began as — and is certainly treated as — a “revelation from above.” This also seems to have been true of the short-lived monotheistic religion of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (1352–1336 BC). “Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and defied tradition by establishing a new religion that believed that there is but one god; the sun god Aten.” – Discovering Egypt.

Generally, monotheism is favorable to a high level of organization, including complex theologies that don’t just morph a lot but are only changed with much deliberation or controversy. But did that state of affairs evolve so as to foster “cohesive unity,” as Harari suggests? Hard to say. Religion — especially propositional religion, like the monotheisms — can foster either unity or disunity. Monotheism has not been a force for unity in Northern Ireland or the Middle East.

But what makes the problem even more complex is that not all disunity is bad. Many social reformers who were motivated by religion created considerable disunity in their lifetimes (William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King come to mind) but they are honored today for the changes they brought about.

Monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, animism, and atheism can and do co-exist in the same society. Sometimes it’s violent but often it is not. Suppose a math professor is a pantheist (God is ultimately a cosmic unity). She knows that in a distant village, animism is the rule but she may feel no desire to go and disrupt those people’s lives over religious differences.

At any rate, if evolution in religion is taking place, it would seem to be directed evolution: education and evangelization projects. The math professor could possibly become a Muslim or an atheist but she is unlikely to become an animist.

It may happen the other way around though: As animists acquire education, if they retain their basic outlook, they will probably move more toward pantheism. Pantheism is consistent with a high level of understanding of how the world works in a way that animism isn’t. The pantheist may hold that plants participate in consciousness in some sense but need not suppose that they think like people.

Overall, theories about the evolution of religion should be treated with caution because they usually start by assuming what they wish to prove. The theorist can find evidence for his view, certainly, but the history is so complex that there is evidence for many others views as well.

You may also wish to read: is free will a dangerous myth? The denial of free will is a much more dangerous myth (Michael Egnor takes issue with Harari on the issue of free will.)


Can plants be as smart as animals? Seeking to thrive and grow, plants communicate extensively, without a mind or a brain

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Religion Is Far Too Complex to Have a Single Evolution Story