A Decade

Please pardon my being sentimental, but today marks one decade of blogging on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I realized, thinking this over, that I used to make some interesting, perhaps even quotable statements back then.  Why not, I thought, farm those older posts to celebrate what I was thinking when I was a tenth-of-a-century younger?  So for today’s post, I’m presenting some quotable quotes from July 2009, starting with one of the zingers from my very first post.  For convenience, I’ve even provided the links to the posts so you can see them in context, if your July has somehow not filled itself up already.

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, by the way, was the name given when one of my nieces thrust a recorder in my face and asked me what I would call a blog, if I had one.  She subsequently set this site up for me.  One aspect of the title may not have been evident: it’s a quasi-anagram for my initials.  It has been, from the beginning, mostly metaphorical.  Without further ado, then, a few of my favorite lines from a decade long gone:

“He had a sidekick called Cypher (sold separately), and arch-enemies with such names as Primordious Drool and Wacky Protestor. I marveled at the missed opportunity here — they could have called them Text Critic and Doctor Mentary Hypothesis!” First post: Bible Guy, July 12, 2009. <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/12/bible-guy/>

“Technology has outstripped reality.” Asherah Begins, July 13, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/13/asherah-begins/>

“Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.”  God is Great (not)?, July 14, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/14/god-is-great-not/>

“When he [Aqhat] refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes.” Sects and Violence, July 15, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/15/sects-and-violence/>

“Indeed, one may think of them [religion and monsters] as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear.” Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost, July 16, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/16/vampires-mummies-and-the-holy-ghost/>

“Better to consider it [weather] human than to face unfeeling nature.” Changing Faces of the Divine, July 18, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/18/changing-faces-of-the-divine/>

“As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?)…” Drunken Moonshine, July 20, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/20/drunken-moonshine/>

“As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.” Not Lion, July 22, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/22/not-lion/>

“A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word ‘yes’ to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates!” Religious Origins, July 23, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/23/religious-origins/>

“I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.” Who We Were, July 27, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/27/who-we-were/>

“I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.” Yes, Mammon, July 28, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/28/yes-mammon/>

Where do you suppose we’ll be a decade from now?

Apes and Atheists

Bonobo&AtheistFrans de Waal is among the sanest of popular science writers. I’ve been following his non-technical work since Our Inner Ape through The Age of Empathy to The Bonobo and the Atheist. As de Waal himself explains, he tended to leave religion out of his earlier works since, for a scientist such topics are generally taboo. His direct address to religion in The Bonobo and the Atheist is refreshing and enlightened. As he notes, de Waal does not believe in God, but he doesn’t believe in the abolition of religion either. This sets him against his fellow biologist Richard Dawkins, who is so bright that the rest of us are burnt out dimmer bulbs by comparison. As de Waal soberly asks: what does science offer in place of religion? What is the point of taking away something that has evolved from our early primate days without offering anything to fill its spot? Even an ape would object.

What makes The Bonobo and the Atheist so engaging, apart from de Waal’s writing, is the openness of his outlook. De Waal suggests that the origins of morality and empathy can be glimpsed in apes and monkeys. He cites the reaction of chimpanzees to rain storms and even waterfalls that hint at early religious development. As I’ve suggested on this forum before, religion may even be allowed to animals. Their experience of religion is certainly not the same as ours, but there is evidence of both thought and feeling. When these are brought together they form religious belief in Homo sapiens. Why not in our ancestors and fellow animals? No, animals don’t develop elaborate doctrines or precious rituals. They do, however, reverence the powerful, ponder death, and feel emotion. Some of our great thinkers are ready to cast all that aside in the name of progress. More humbly, and circumspectly, de Waal considers that evolution is telling us something. And when evolution speaks, its children should pay attention.

Descriptions of reactions and behaviors that we consider unique to humans among the animal world draw me to de Waal’s books. As a scientist de Waal has to draw logical conclusions, and those conclusions point to an inner world that is not so much unique in humans as it is evolved. Religion, I believe, is one of those traits. If animals show some of the early stages of religious development, including a basic form of ethics, how does that devalue our human efforts to explain our universe? Religion is in good company, along with opposable thumbs and basic language comprehension. Looking at how we treat each other, I consider being related to animals a compliment most of the time. Without a doubt some of the ethics Frans de Waal illustrates among the bonobos exceed those I’ve experienced at the hands of many who think of themselves as made in the image of God.

Evolving Morals

CNN recently interviewed Frans de Waal about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates. Of course the book immediately went on my “to read” list. I’ve followed de Waal’s non-technical work for years and I have come to trust his judgment. As director of part of Yerkes Primate Research Center, de Waal knows apes better than most of us know our neighbors. He has been exploring the origins of altruism and empathy in the great apes and has come to some amazing conclusions. His past work has shown that much of what we have attributed to special revelation has actually arisen in people through regular evolution. The apes, particularly the bonobos, but also chimpanzees, show startlingly human reactions to moral situations. In the interview, de Waal notes the implications for religion. In his opinion, morality predates religion since the former is seen in other primates while the latter is not.

As much as I trust de Waal’s judgment, the unanswered question remains: what exactly is religion? Animals display rudimentary religious behaviors, but in human-speak religion is often intertwined with belief. In watching a recent episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole—“Is There Life After Death?”—it was clear that while scientists tend to stand on the “no” side of this divide, in the end it comes down to a matter of belief. Not all religions, however, are tied to belief. Some religions assert that what you believe is not important, but rather, what you do. In such religions morality is much more like our primate kin’s version of religion. As Freeman points out, you really can’t know what another person believes. You can ask, but if you believe their response is always an open question. Here is the dilemma of religion as a matter of belief. Even Jesus putatively said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Morality here sounds like religion.

Frans de Waal suggests in his interview that morality differs from religion by being earlier in the evolutionary scale. If, however, religion evolved—which it surely did, as we can continue to observe its evolution today—it may be of a piece with morality. We object to suggesting animals have religion; this suggestion would knock humanity off its pedestal as the only species to which an incredibly human-like god revealed (as it is said) himself. What de Waal has gone beyond proving in his previous books is that much of what qualifies as religion is found among the great apes. De Waal doesn’t put it in those words, but as a lifelong student of religion I have observed the connections first-hand. A scientist may not feel qualified to define religion, just as a religionist is not qualified to correct a scientist. I eagerly await the chance to read The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I already know that I will find much of what de Waal writes to be beyond question, and we may all be much closer to the origins of religion than we realize. Even our great ape kin.

Michelangelo's muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

Michelangelo’s muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

I Think, Therefore I Believe

This week in Time, an article by Jeffrey Kluger explores the intelligence of animals. Quite apart from many examples of how bonobos can string together relatively complex concepts using symbol cards (thus evidencing more intelligence than New Jersey’s current governor), the article demonstrates that many animal species display what we would recognize in other humans as intelligence. The article then develops the corollary that if animals think then perhaps they sense emotion as well. Having raised my daughter on Kratt’s Creatures and Zoboomafoo, none of this was new to me. I may be no scientist, but watching closely how animals behave, it has always been obvious to me that we are more like points on a continuum rather than a “special creation.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is what lies behind the human obsession with its non-animal status. As Kluger states, “For many people, the Bible offers the most powerful argument of all. Human being were granted ‘dominion over the beasts of the field,’ and there the discussion can more or less stop.” Unfortunately for our animal companions, the use of the Bible to repress others does not stop at human beings who don’t share your religious views. Many use the Bible as an excuse to do as they please to creatures who demonstrate similar emotional responses to people in similar situations and who, increasingly we realize, also think. Kluger’s article opens with an interview with Kanzi, a bonobo. One of the inevitable conclusions is that this great ape is able to think ahead and make plans. Evolution on this point has apparently skipped many Neo-Cons.

For years I have been telling my students that animals display behaviors that we label as “religious” in humans. The difference is that we are able to ask other humans what they are thinking and thereby gain somewhat direct access to their thought process (if they are telling the truth). Because we fail to share language with animals, we assume we are superior thinkers. To me this does not stand to reason. Animals are as fully members of this planet as humans are. Our desire to exploit them is more a reflection of human dominionist tendencies than a reflection of their lack of intelligence. We may even have animals to thank for the basic tenets of religious thought since religions are better described as evolved than revealed.

Maybe not the best sign of animal intelligence, but consider the Neo-Cons...

Not My Daddy!

They spy each other across a crowded room. He sure is big: barrel-chested and even a bit brutish. She’s cultured and refined, but there’s no denying that spark…

Today’s issue of Science announces the startling news that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens once interbred. The theological implications are enormous. I used to tell my students that the earliest evidence of religion falls not only among the artifacts of the Cro-Magnon branch of the hominid tree, but also among the remains of Neanderthals. If they had religion, and if they weren’t “human,” what happened to their souls when they died? I received a lot of puzzled looks from seminarians and more than one or two angry stares. The Bible, after all, claims that each was made according to its own kind. Seems like Adam and Eve might have been sleeping around with the non-Eden set. Looks like we’re in for another theological conundrum!

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens diverged once the human lineage left Africa, but once they met in a smoky Paleolithic bar, well, nature took over once again. And if these two hominid species interbred, who is to say what went on back in the days of Lucy? What happened in prehistory stays in prehistory, religions must needs proclaim. If we are honest with the evidence, our bonobo cousins share ancestors so do they share souls?

Some of the present human race, according to the DNA evidence, is walking around with Neanderthal blood, while others are not. I suppose gene sequencing might reveal which camp you are in. Will there be a Church of the Neanderthals? And will non-Neanderthals be allowed to share communion? And were the founders of the world’s great religions all Cro-Magnon or not? If they were of a slightly differences species, can I still join? Theologians, it is time to grab your pencils!

Maybe your dad, but not mine!

Ape Versus Primate


I have just finished reading one of the most important books I’ve found in quite some time: Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape. My attention was first drawn to the author when Rutgers University sponsored a talk he gave in the fall that I was unfortunately unable to attend. Simultaneously I saw his book footnoted in a text I was reading and decided to follow up on it. In addition to containing fascinating, documented anecdotes concerning ape behavior (he tells of a bonobo that attempted to help an injured bird fly!) de Waal holds a mirror up to the great apes and sees humanity reflected back. His discussion of the origins of morality makes far more sense to me than any theory I’ve seen a professional ethicist concoct. Our sense of empathy, de Waal notes with considerable evidence, derives from our common ancestor with the apes.

After discussing the understudied trait of kindness in the apes, de Waal writes: “With morality firmly rooted in sentiment it’s easy to agree with Darwin and Westermarck on its evolution and to disagree with those who think culture and religion contain the answer. Modern religions are only a few thousand years old. It’s hard to imagine that human psychology was radically different before religions arose. It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being most conspicuous in the bonobo and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply these tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in the works since time immemorial” (225).

These might just be platitudes if ample evidence did not demonstrate their veracity. Apes plan ahead, recognize fairness, and can even see issues from the point of view of others (something Gorgias Press might benefit from learning). They are clearly inheritors of the moral sense that evolution has crafted among all cooperative animals over the eons. Religions like to lay claim to the origins of morality: we behave this way because our god told us to. In a sense that may be true, but only if the “god” is nature itself and the instruction it gives is the way for a species to thrive. Caring for one another, all religions aside, is the formula that evolution presents as the most successful choice of natural selection.

Religious Origins

There’s no question that religion is a distinctly human phenomenon. Although the concept of “religion” is used to lump together all kinds of belief and praxis systems around the world, it is now an aspect of every culture ever studied. When on an interview recently for a religion teaching post, I pondered whether to be entirely frank or to play it safe: should I discuss the origins of religion or a more conventional topic? (I went the safe route and did not get the job, if anyone wonders if there might be a moral to all this…)

For several years now I have been exploring whether it is possible to trace religion back to the animal coinhabitants of our planet. While my musings have taken me from singing Neanderthals to mourning penguins, it has become quite clear that at least the most basic levels of religion also exist in what is often termed “lower” life forms. My epiphany began while watching David Attenborough discussing the purpose of birdsong. Religion and music have been nearly inseparable in human experience (if one can overlook some extremist reformers). My thoughts turned to elephants who “bury” their dead with branches and penguins who clearly mourn the loss of their young — watch March of the Penguins if you doubt it! Death and religion have walked the long and disjointed journey of humankind hand in bony hand. By the time we get to primates we find baboons stopping to watch the rising sun (an act the ancient Egyptians supposed to be solar worship) and chimpanzees raging against thunderstorms as if they despise Baal even more than Hosea. A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word “yes” to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates! For those who doubt that animals are capable of worship I would suggest the true acid test — purchase a dog.

The C of E's newest primate?

The C of E\’s newest primate?

We guard far too jealously that which makes us better than our animal companions. As observation and research progress and that line in the speciological sand grows ever more effaced, I wonder why religion might not have its roots in our very animal nature. While reading a book on biblical flora recently, I pondered if a even larger step back might be taken. Consider the heliotropes, for indeed they do toil and spin.