Back when I was in high school, I remember reading an article in Discovery or some such magazine that anthropologists and geneticists had begun to determine one of the core reasons that humans (and other Great Apes) had evolved culture: a lack of mutative catalysts in our genes.

The idea at the time (which, may mean jack squat at this point) was that because Great Apes – including hominids – had less “junk DNA” in their genomes, we all evolved mental/behavioral abilities for adaptation as opposed to the traditional biological ability seen in the evolutionary process. Chimpanzees use primitive tools and pass on the knowledge of how to make and use such tech; gorillas have been known to use a primitive form of sign-language in the wild; and orang utans have been observed practicing forms of social interaction that vary from band to band even a few miles a part.

Humans, obviously, have created the Internetz.

So, the idea went, cultural traits and variations seen in human societies represented analogs to biological adaptations to changing environmental factors. The tools and ritualistic behavior that one society used to hunt or fish or deal with surrounding groups was an adaptation that represented their specific situation and would probably differ greatly from another group 1,000 miles away.

Being that I’m a big religion nerd, over the years I’ve come to figure that (even if the “genetic argument” is less than tenable at this point) religion is a cultural adaptation to a society’s surroundings. Religion, in my opinion, expresses a human culture’s understanding  of its collective and individual (as in the individual members of that culture) relationship to:

  • other human groups and individuals
  • the rest of the World/Cosmos (both inanimate & animate aspects)
  • “the Divine”

Taoism is different from Christianity because there were different social and environmental factors at work in the China and the Middle East. Aztec beliefs were different from pre-Christian Celtic beliefs because there were different social and environmental factors at work in Meso-America and Northwestern Europe.

One can even see this form of cultural evolution at work within differing sects of a specific religion or along the lifetime of its existence. The different sects of Islam arose as a response to various social factors within Arabic/Semitic societies in the Middle East; different “cults” of Greek/Roman/Norse/etc. deities evolved in slightly separate directions due to the surrounding social factors and environmental factors of place (e.g. – the mythos and understanding regarding Cretan Zeus is slightly different than Athenian Zeus). One can see this evolutionary process at work when one considers the differences between Paleo-Paganism, Meso-Paganism, and Neo-Paganism: Paleo-Paganism generally only had other polytheistic faiths to interact with and color it until the advent of Christianity in the first several centuries of the Common Era; Meso-Paganism is marked by the revival of some Paleo-Pagan traits and practices, but firmly within the context of a wider Judeo-Christian society; and Neo-Paganism is marked by the reconstruction of as many Paleo-Pagan practices and beliefs as is possible, but within the context of a wider Judeo-Christian/Humanistic society (e.g. – modern Neo-Pagans generally don’t perform animal sacrifice or head-hunting, etc.).

A similar cultural evolution can be seen in Christianity: from the diverse gnostic and Jewish-Christian sects of Judea during the First Century C.E., to the establishment of the Roman Church and the eventual ascendance of Christianity to the position of Imperial religion, to its evolution into both a cultural and political superpower unto itself  during the Medieval period, to its Babel-like “diaspora” and internecine warfare during the Renaissance in the 1500s & 1600s due to the Protestant Reformation, to its sectarian rivalries to continue shaping the cultural future of the West in the Modern period. At each step, changing cultural and physical factors of the environment – both at home and abroad – forced evolutionary adaptations.

Of course, this is not to support the fallacious understanding of “evolution” as the future forms or developments are better than older ones – evolution, whether it’s biological or (hell, especially) cultural, doesn’t work like that. Evolved mutations to environmental factors (whether social, biological, or physical) are simply those that will possibly work better than previous ones. Given time, it may turn out that the previous adaptation was actually better than its “offspring”.

We also have to consider that actual paranormal (a.k.a. – “spiritual” or “religious”) experiences with beings considered gods or ancestral spirits or “non-god” spirits of place/nature/etc. would, of course, elicit their own evolutionary adaptations; but they just represent one more factor that has to be considered alongside the more mundane ones of cultural, physical, and biological factors, and not necessarily as primary determining factors in and of themselves.

This view, I think, can help us to understand why some religions “succeeded” when others didn’t. Why did Christianity ascend to such prominence within the late Roman Empire when previous Imperial cults meant to unite the Empire, like those of Mithras or Sol Invictus, didn’t? Because the right environmental factors were in place for a religion like Christianity to take root and grow strong – not necessarily because it is a “One True Religion for all the World.” (No offense to any Christians who might be reading this, but I’m trying to consider this from as academic and objective a perspective as possible). What those exact factors were (e.g. – appealing to the marginalized and “down-trodden” of Roman society, etc.) is a field that could fill dozens of books and academic papers, and I really don’t have the time or inclination to ponder them here at the moment. But, hopefully this serves as a good jumping off point for others.


~ by crow365 on June 29, 2011.

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