Apropos of reading Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, as a sometime scholar of religion a number of points struck me. According to both material artifacts and DNA, several changes took place among human beings some 50,000 years ago. Having just read P. W. Singer’s Wired for War as well, the early coalescence of war and religion in human history was unavoidable. Wade ties the emergence of both with the development of language. It is only when we can speak that we can begin to express our theological speculations and, as history continues to teach us, despise those who disagree with us. It becomes clear quite early in the tome that Wade has an interest in explaining religion. Like many science writers he struggles with the issue of why religion persists, despite the explanatory value of science. We know how multiple aspects of our world work, yet we still defer to a divine that no one has ever seen or registered in any empirically verifiable way.
Not only does this tendency stretch back to our distant, distant relatives. The Natufians, about whom I generally lectured my students (itself ancient history), are marked as well by the dual achievements of religion and war. Wade is one of the few scholars I’ve discovered who concurs with my assessment that religion was among the earliest of human behaviors. In my mind, it is tied to consciousness and its evolution. Once we begin to realize that we are not in control of our destiny, we start to seek explanations from above, and hope that God loves us. Otherwise the picture isn’t so pretty. Indeed, Wade suggests that religion evolved as a socially cohesive force. Tying the concept to ethics and trust, he suggests early people had to learn to get along with strangers and religion cemented that bond.
I’m not a scientist, so I cannot assess whether this explains religion or not. It does seem clear, however, that if Wade is right religion itself has evolved into a more aggressive beast. Sure, religions still serve to bind people together—but only so far. As populations separated, their various religions evolved and led them to distrust one another. Instead of bonding humans together, religion began to put them into competition for the truth. Here, Wade’s analysis is sadly true—religion and war evolve together. Our small planet is yet too big for everyone to get along, to know and trust the stranger. Religion had helped us at the critical stage when we needed social bonding, and now it has naturally evolved into the opposite—a socially divisive force of orthodoxy and heresy. If Wade is correct, we all need religion to take on its most ancient role and bring people together instead of giving us excuses for war.