With anatomically modern humans comes culture in a way that had never happened before. And from that culture came religion, with various proposals to map the hows and whys of its emergence. Until recently, the proposals fell into two broad groups – ‘big gods’ theories and ‘false agency’ hypotheses. Big gods theories envisage religion as conjuring up punishing deities. These disciplining gods provided social bonding by telling individuals that wrongdoing incurs massive costs. The problem is that big gods are not a universal feature of religions and, if they are present, they seem correlated to big societies not causes of them. False agency hypotheses...assume that our forebears were jumpy and superstitious: they thought that a shrub swayed because of a spirit not the wind; and they were easily fooled, though their mistakes were evolutionarily advantageous because, on occasion, the swaying was caused by a predator. The false agency hypothesis has been tested and disconfirmed across many experiments.
...there is a need for a new idea, and coming to the fore now is an old one revisited...The explanation is resurfacing in what can be called the trance theory of religious origins, which proposes that our paleolithic ancestors hit on effervescence upon finding that they could induce altered states of consciousness...Effervescence is generated when humans come together to make music or perform rituals, an experience that lingers when the ceremonies are over. The suggestion, therefore, is that collective experiences that are religious or religious-like unify groups and create the energy to sustain them.
Research to test and develop this idea is underway in a multidisciplinary team led by Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford. The approach appeals to him, in part, because it seems to capture a crucial aspect of religious phenomena missing in suggestions about punishing gods or dangerous spirits. It is not about the fine details of theology, but is about the raw feelings of experience...this raw-feelings element has a transcendental mystical component – something that is only fully experienced in trance states...this sense of transcendence and other worlds is present at some level in almost all forms of religious experience.
...there’s evidence that monkeys and apes experience the antecedents to ecstasy because they seem to experience wonder...a few hundred thousand years ago, archaic humans took a step that ramped up this capacity. They started deliberately to make music, dance and sing. When the synchronised and collective nature of these practices became sufficiently intense, individuals likely entered trance states in which they experienced not only this-worldly splendour but otherworldly intrigue... What you might call religiosity was born. It stuck partly because it also helped to ease tensions and bond groups, via the endorphin surges produced in trance states. In other words, altered states proved evolutionarily advantageous: the awoken human desire for ecstasy simultaneously prompted a social revolution because it meant that social groups could grow to much larger sizes via the shared intensity of heightened experiences.
The trance hypothesis...rests on the rituals that produce peak experiences, which means it doesn’t require speculating about what ancient people did or didn’t believe about spirits and gods...Asking when religion evolved is not a good question because religion is more than one thing...asking when the various elements such as supernatural agents and moral obligations started to coalesce together is a better question. And they invariably start to coalesce around rituals.
...when villages and then towns appear...new techniques for managing social pressures are required...religious systems (Doctrinal religions) that include specialists such as priests and impressive constructions we’d call temples and/or domestic house-based shrines...sustain the prosocial effects of earlier types of religiosity for groups that are now growing very large indeed...a tension .. arises when religious experiences are institutionalised....what’s on offer is somewhat thinner than experiences gained in the immersive rites that precipitate altered states. Encountering spirit entities directly in a dance or chase is not the same as the uplift offered by a monumental building.
...religions are caught between the Scylla of socially useful but potentially dreary religious rites and the Charybdis of altered states that are intrinsically exciting but socially disruptive. It’s why they bring bloody conflicts as well as social goods. This way of putting it highlights another feature of the trance theory. It interweaves two levels of explanation: one focused on the allure of spiritual vitality; the other on practical needs.
..science cannot decide whether the claims of any one religion are true. But the new theory still makes quite a strong claim, which brings me back to the role of the supernatural, transcendence and religious gods that today’s secularists seem inclined to sideline. If the science cannot confirm convictions about any divine revelations received, it does lend credence to the reasonableness, even necessity, of having them. Where the big gods and false agency hypotheses seemed inherently sniffy about human religiosity, the trance hypothesis positively values it...The trance hypothesis is neutral about the truth claims of religions whether you believe or don’t, though it does suggest that transcendent states of mind are meaningful to human beings and can evolve into religious systems of belief.
And in this final observation there is, perhaps, some good news for us, whether we’re religious or not. It’s often said that many of today’s troubles, from divisive political debates to spats on social media, are due to our tribal nature. It’s added, somewhat fatalistically, that deep within our evolutionary past is the tendency to identify with one group and demonise another. We are destined to be at war, culturally or otherwise. But if the trance theory is true, it shows that the evolutionary tendency to be tribal rests on an evolutionary taste for that which surpasses tribal experience – the transcendence that humans glimpsed in altered states of mind that enabled them to form tribes to start with.
If we long to belong, we also long to be in touch with ‘the more’, as the great pioneer of the study of religious experiences William James called it. That more will be envisaged in numerous ways. But it might help us by prompting new visions that exceed our herd instincts and binary thinking, and ease social tensions. If it helped our ancestors to survive, why would we think we are any different?