The philosophers who make this claim are not evangelists. Victor Kumar is director of the Mind and Morality Lab at Boston University and Richmond Campbell is the George Munro professor of philosophy emeritus at Dalhousie University.
In an essay at IAI News, adapted from their book, A Better Ape: The Evolution of the Moral Mind and How it Made Us Human (Oxford University Press 2022), they argue that “it was the cultural institution of religion, and its ability to create large tribes, that made us into modern humans.”
Sometimes there is a story in titles. The official title of this piece is “Nature didn’t make us human, culture did.” The subtitle is “How religion made us a successful species.” But here’s an interesting point: The URL title is “evolution-didnt-make-us-human-culture-did-“ Possibly, the authors (or their editors?) did not want to be seen right away as casting a friendly eye on religion or, much worse, offering a critical look at expansive claims for evolution. So the team settled on “culture.” Good choice; there is not yet a lobby that vociferously denounces the existence of human culture.
And now, what do Kumar and Campbell say about religion?:
Sapiens were able to colonize the rest of the world and supplant other human species because they had achieved a new and more complex form of life. Our ancestors were at last dimly but recognizably like us—they had become “behaviorally modern.” They carried out religious rituals, including burying their dead. They adorned their bodies with pigment and jewelry. And they made not just decorations but art—musical instruments, figurines, and the famous, breathtaking paintings preserved in French and Spanish caves. What made all that possible? Many have argued that it has to do with an important turn in our biological evolution. But it was actually religious morality that made us modern humans.Victor Kumar, “Nature didn’t make us human, culture did” at IAI News (December 15, 2022)
In the excerpt, they argue that, although humans existed for about 200,000 years, it was only in the last 100,000 years or so that human culture, presumably including religion, really took off.
They are admirably willing to grasp the tail of the dragon: Their theory “will help to understand theories that appeal to biological evolution and why they fail.” Well, good. Such theories tend to be materialist and deterministic. They reassured researchers that Neanderthals could not do art, until the researchers stumbled on Neanderthal art. They reassure some researchers today that Neanderthals could not meditate. Happily for the naysayers, no one can likely prove or disprove that in the foreseeable future.
Kumar and Campbell point out that theories about human development based on biological evolution depend on claims based in genetics:
A final, even more decisive problem damns the standard story, indeed any theory that attempts to explain the origins of behavioral modern humans by appealing to biological evolution. Genetic evidence shows that Sapiens populations in Africa began to diverge well before they started to become modern. Some humans would then lack the secret genetic trait that supposedly makes the rest of humanity different. The problem is not only that the standard story invites racist classification of humans into superior and inferior “breeds” but that all humans are capable of modern thought and behavior, not just those biologically descended from the first moderns.Victor Kumar, “Nature didn’t make us human, culture did” at IAI News (December 15, 2022)
In short, the mere capacity for modern thought and behavior does not make a complex civilization inevitable. Something else must have been at work: Kumar and Campbell see the key ingredient as the development of social institutions, which enabled groups to become much larger and more complex than, say, families or bands. They see religion as the origin of such institutions:
Though religion involves faith, it is not just a matter of belief. It is as much about belonging to a particular community, one that shares a real or imagined history, communal rituals, forms of prayer and worship, narratives about deities and heroes. All of this contributed to a religious community’s shared “moral identity.” Thus, we who share a religion are of a single flock, children of a common parent. When we are one people, cooperation is compulsory. Refusal to cooperate is betrayal.Victor Kumar, “Nature didn’t make us human, culture did” at IAI News (December 15, 2022)
Come to think of it, in traditional pantheons of gods, specific deities are in charge of technologies such as smithing or weaving, enterprises like war, medicine, or music, or ruling concepts like oaths, justice, marriage, etc. Religion turns everyday enterprises into a culture that can unite and absorb an indefinite number of unrelated people. So a traditional account that tells us that the Goddess So-and-So introduced weaving to mortals is in effect saying that the craft is now organized around her persona. That makes developing a complex civilization easier. Monotheism seems to be a later, more philosophical development, as some hardy souls began asking deeper questions about ultimate reality.
Overall, Kumar and Campbell’s approach has the advantage of treating human beings as human beings. They don’t try to pretend that no bridge has really been crossed, that we are just glorified apes, or whatever. If critics wish to argue that religion did not play the role described, they will need to posit an alternative force with just as much influence in antiquity that is capable of doing the same things. The critics will doubtless be at it a long time.
You may also wish to read: Why is Neanderthal art considered controversial? It makes sense that whenever humans started to wonder about life, we started to create art that helps us think about it. Science writer Michael Marshall reports that some researchers are accused of banning others from taking samples that would prove a Neanderthal was the artist.