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Evolution of Religion

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In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett, liberally uses the terms “skyhooks” and “cranes” in order to highlight the differences between man’s belief based off of imagination and man’s belief based off of evidence. “Skyhooks” are objects and ideas that hang from the sky and lack a foundation (5). There are used for easy answers and provide an easy way to get out of difficult situations. “Cranes” are objects and ideas that stand on sturdy foundations built out of material evidence (5).  “Skyhooks” have a purpose and are constant whereas “cranes” are motiveless and random. Using Dennett’s terminology, religion can be seen as skyhooks and biological evolution as a crane.  However, I started to wonder if religion in general is as constant and unchanging, hence as foundational, as we think of it to be? Does religion share some characteristics with biological evolution?

Biological evolution highlights the change of the earth’s organisms over time. There are some main principles of biological evolution: Organisms that are similar to each other (such as chimps and humans or tigers and lions) have common ancestors and all of earth’s organisms share one common ancestor. There have been various and numerous organisms that have walked the face of the earth long ago, but went extinct when they could not adapt to nature’s changes. Organisms that are here today, including us humans, are products of natural selection from the past. Similar principles can be applied to religion as well. Both religions and organisms have been put through the test of time. There have been and are plenty of species and kinds (comparable to “organisms”) of religions. Granted these were not selected by nature, but instead by humans; some “organisms” of religion are old and have existed for many years whereas others may have suffered extinction, and some have been in existence for a short time. And of course, there has to be a common ancestor, or origin that started the existence of religion in our lives.

Just like how it is difficult for evolutionary biologists or other scientists to pinpoint the exact origin of biological life, it hasn’t been easy to detect the exact origin of teleological belief. Archaeologists and anthropologists have uncovered some clues about early human burials and other spiritual practices. Ancestors of humans started to bury their dead over 100,000 years ago (3).  Other symbolic artifacts have been uncovered such as half animal/half human graphic art representing early animal worship as well as Venus statuettes representing fertility goddesses. Ritual dances and sacrifices used to be key parts in worship. (1). Since these signs of the earliest ancestor of religion, organized religion has built a long and rich history with many changes along its path.

Over time, religion evolved from animal worshipping to another species of more organized polytheism. Polytheism, a belief of many gods, was apparent in many regions thousand of years ago from ancient Greece to ancient Egypt to Babylonia and much more (7). Each set of polytheistic beliefs in each region was a variation of the species of polytheism. In most of these polytheistic religions, specific gods had specific responsibilities and they worked together to run the world. For example, in Greek mythology, there were numerous gods and goddesses responsible for life on earth such as Eros (god of love), Athena (goddess of knowledge), and Zeus (ruler of the gods) (6). Most of the polytheistic religions from the ancient world became extinct when people converted to non-polytheistic religions; today we still have some of their “fossils” documenting their proof of existence such as Greek mythological stories and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Some forms of polytheism such as Hinduism, the religion that dominates India (the second most populous country in the world), managed to make it to the modern world.

Pantheism is another ancient religious belief where followers believe that “all is God” and that the universe is divine (7). After polytheism, Ancient Egypt turned to a pantheistic faith under pharaohs. Examples of pantheism today would be ancient Far East religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism (all variations of Pantheistic species) where emphasis is placed on meditation and finding inner peace. As time went by though, some pantheistic and polytheistic religions faced an evolution when some followers converted to monotheism.

Monotheism is the belief of one supreme god (7). It started in the Middle East in 2000 BC; Judaism was the first major organized monotheistic religion.  Later on Christianity, a variation of the species of monotheism, came about in 33 CE followed by another variation, Islam which was introduced in 622 CE (4). Overtime, these religions spread to other geographic areas outside of the Middle East. For example, Christianity made its way to Europe and Islam to Asia (4). With Christianity being the world’s most popular religion in the terms of number of followers and Islam being the second most popular religion, it seems that monotheism has been the dominant religious species for many centuries and overall still is. However monotheism was not completely immune to religious evolution either.

The Enlightenment period in the Western world came about due to a massive interest in all sorts of knowledge from philosophy to the natural sciences and it brought forth a culture that focused on studying the world that we live in based off of reason. Deism, a belief of god on rational grounds with no religious authority, became very popular during this era. Atheism, the denial of the existence of a god, had existed for a long time but was not widely discussed until the 16th -17th century. Agnosticism, the belief that finding the truth of god is uncertain, also came about around the same time. By the 21st century, there were many numerous species of religions from ancient polytheistic religions to fairly new beliefs such as agnosticism. However, the evolution has not stopped. New religions such as Scientology have developed recently. According to a recent CNN article, more people have decided not to identify with an organized religion and have turned to individualism (2).

Religion has come a far way from Venus statuettes and half animal/ half human gods. Over time, it has developed several species and variation among these species. Today we have various religions from polytheistic Hinduism to pantheistic Buddhism to monotheistic Islam to self Individualism and more; some of these variations of belief have further variations in the form of sects. Some species of religion such as ancient Greek polytheism have become extinct; other ancient religions such as Hinduism have made it to the modern world. Monotheistic species such as Christianity and Islam are dominant in today’s global world. Right now monotheism may be dominant but soon enough Individualism can take over or a new species of religion may become dominant, and unlike biological evolution, it’s possible in religious evolution that ancestors can dominate once again if enough people convert to ancient religions such as Buddhism.  Religion is a foundationlist or a “sky-hook” like entity because it is built on a foundation that there are supernatural powers responsible for the construction and/or the function of our world. However, the future of religion, just like the future of biological evolution, is overall unpredictable.







Works Cited:

1) "All about Oscar." Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 13 Mar. 2009 <>.


2) "America becoming less Christian, survey finds -" - Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. 13 Mar. 2009 <>.


3) "British Archaeology magazine, August 2002." CBA Home | The Council for British Archaeology. 14 Mar. 2009 <>.


4) "Comparison Chart: Islam, Judaism and Christianity - ReligionFacts." Religion, World Religions, Comparative Religion - Just the facts on the world's religions. 13 Mar. 2009 <>.


5) Dennett, Daniel C. “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.” Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York. 1995.


6) "Greek Goddesses." Greek gods and goddesses. 13 Mar. 2009 <>.


7) "Origin Of Religion." Religion - 13 Mar. 2009 <>.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolution of religion

The notions of religions evolving is a particularly important notion in the context of conversations that frequently pit evolution against religion as alternatives.  But it is equally interesting as an addition to the course idea that one might usefully think of literature, and culture itself, as evolving.  What new lessons about evolution might emerge from thinking about religion?  What leads to its divergences and convergences?  To some religions persisting over longer and others over shorter periods of time?  Are there parallels to, differences from biological evolution?  literary evolution?