A Recipe for Religion

Years ago I picked up a copy of Desmond Morris' groundbreaking book on human behaviour "Manwatching". The whole thing was and still is brilliant. One chapter in particular struck a chord with me - his essay on religion and his theories on its influence on individuals, especially his ideas relating to "neoteny". I had the whole thing transcribed for my own reference and I've just posted it here. I don't sit in judgement of anyone and I respect everyone's right to worship however they so wish - I am just fascinated by the things we humans do, and why. Manwatching By Desmond Morris First published 1977

Chapter on Religious Displays (actions performed to placate imagined deities).

Religious Displays, as distinct from religious beliefs, are submissive acts performed towards dominant individuals called gods. The acts themselves include various forms of body-lowering, such as kneeling, bowing, kowtowing, salaaming and prostrating; also chanting and rituals of debasement and sacrifice; the offering of gifts to the gods and the making of symbolic gestures of allegiance.

The function of these actions is to appease the super-dominant beings and thereby obtain favours or avoid punishments. There is nothing unusual about this behaviour in itself. Subordinates throughout the animal world subject themselves to their most powerful companions in a similar way. But the strange feature of these human submissive actions, as we encounter them today, is that they are performed towards a dominant figure, or figures, who are never present in person. Instead they are represented by images and artefacts and operate entirely through agents called holy-men or priests. These middle-men enjoy a position of social influence and respect because some of the power of the gods rubs off on them. It is therefore extremely important to the holy-men to keep the worshippers permanently obedient to the super-dominant figures, and this is done in several ways:

1. They encourage the social rejection of worshippers of rival deities. This pressure ranges from mild disapproval to scorn and anger, and often to severe persecution. Whether or not they preach social tolerance, many religions have practised intolerance. This is part of the role they play as cultural isolating mechanisms. The loyalty to the locally shared god-figure demands social separation from those who worship in a different way. It creates sects and breeds sectarian violence.

2. They frequently construct convincing evidence that the deities can hurt the non-submissive. In the past, any natural disaster—flood, disease, famine or fire—is explained as a token of the deity’s anger, sent to punish insubordinate behaviour. They exploit coincidences which have given rise to superstitions, and they play on the suggestibility of the worshippers.

3. They invent an afterworld where the subordinates who obey them will be rewarded and those who do not will suffer torment. There is evidence that belief in an afterlife existed many thousands of years ago. Ancient burials occurred with ‘grave-goods’ supplied for the corpse’s journey to the other world. This practice dates back to the Stone Age and has continued with little change over the millennia.

It is surprising that otherwise intelligent men have succumbed to these pressures and fears in so many different cultures and in so many epochs. There appear to be several factors aiding the agents of the gods:

First and perhaps most important, is the acquisition by our early ancestors of a sense of time. Other species can communicate with information about the present—about the moods they are in at the moment of communicating—but they cannot consider the future. Man can contemplate his own mortality and finds the thought intolerable. Any animal will struggle to protect itself from a threat of death. Faced with a predator, it flees, hides, fights or employs some other defensive mechanism, such as death-feigning or the emission of stinking fluids. There are many self-protection mechanisms, but they all occur as a response to an immediate danger. When man contemplates his future death, it is as if, by thinking of it, he renders it immediate. His defence is to deny it. He cannot deny that his body will die and rot —the evidence is too strong for that; so he solves the problem by the invention of an immortal soul—a soul which is more ‘him’ than even his physical body is ‘him’. If this soul can survive in an afterlife, then he has successfully defended himself against the threatened attack on his life.

This gives the agents of the gods a powerful area of support. All they need to do is to remind their followers constantly of their mortality and to convince them that the afterlife itself is under the personal management of the particular gods they are promoting. The self-protective urges of their worshippers will do the rest.

Second, the holy-men are aided by man’s neoteny. Neoteny is a biological condition found in certain species in which the juvenile form of the animal becomes increasingly adult. Or, to put it another way, the adults become increasingly juvenile. It is the ‘Peter Pan’ syndrome—the case of a species that never grows up, but starts to reproduce while still in the juvenile condition. In many ways, man is a neotenous ape. An adult man is more like a young ape than like an adult ape. He has the curiosity and playfulness of a young ape. When the ape becomes mature, he loses his infantile playfulness; but man never loses it.

In the same way, dogs are really neotenous wolves. Man likes his ‘best friend’ to be playful and so he breeds more and more juvenile dogs. A fully grown domestic dog still leaps and bounds and plays with his master like a young wolf cub. But wolf cubs grow up and stop playing. Young dogs grow up too, but like man they remain infantile in their behaviour—they never stop playing. This means that they will respond to man as if he is a parent. The dog’s owner becomes the dog’s dominant father-figure, or mother-figure. Being neotenous, the dog can mate and breed, but it still responds to parental domination and obeys its master. This makes it the perfect pet. To the dog, in other words, man is a god.

Man’s evolution as a neotenous ape has put him in a similar position to the dog’s. He becomes sexually mature and yet he still needs a parent—a super- parent, one as impressive to him as a man must be to a dog. The answer was to invent a god—either a female super-parent in the shape of a Mother Goddess, or a male god in the shape of God the Father, or perhaps even a whole family of gods. Like real parents they would both protect, punish and be obeyed.

It is a fair question to ask why a man’s real parents could not play this role themselves. The answer is that, biologically speaking, parents must be bigger than their offspring if they are to remain truly parental. A child must physically look up to its parents. They must have superior strength to be biologically protective. Once the children have grown up and become the same size as their parents, and started to breed like their parents, the true parent-image has gone.

But the gods and goddesses are immense. Like parents, they are ‘up there’ —we must look up to them in the heavens. And they are all-powerful, like good parents should be. No matter how old we become, we can still call them ‘Holy Mother’ or ‘Father’ and put a child-like trust in them (or their agents, who often adopt similar titles for themselves).

Third, the holy-men are aided by man’s highly evolved cooperativeness. When our ancient ancestors became hunters, they were forced to cooperate with one another to a much greater degree than ever before. A leader had to rely on his companions for active cooperation, not merely passive submission. If they were to show initiative there was a danger that they would lack the blind, unquestioning allegiance to their leader or to their tribe. The intelligent co-operation that was desperately needed by the hunting group could easily work against the equally necessary group cohesion. How could a leader command both blind faith and questioning intelligence? The answer was to enlist the aid of a super-leader—a god- figure—to take care of the blind faith and to bind the group together in a common purpose, while leaving the members of the group free to exercise intelligent co-operation among themselves.

These, then, are the three main factors helping the holy-men in their successful promotion of god-figures and religious behaviour: man’s need to protect himself from the threat of death; man’s need for a super-parent; and man’s need for a super-leader. A god that offers an afterlife in another world, that protects his ‘children’ regardless of their age, and that offers them devotion to a grand cause and a socially unifying purpose, triggers off a powerful reaction in the human animal.

One of the demands put upon the priests and holy-men is that they should provide impressive rituals. Nearly all religions include ceremonial procedures during which the followers of a particular deity can indulge in complex group activities. This is essential as a demonstration of the power of the gods —that they can dominate and command submissive behaviour from large numbers of people at one and the same time —and it is also a method of strengthening the social bonding in relation to the common belief. Since the gods are super- parents and super-leaders, they must necessarily have large houses in which to ‘meet’ with their followers. Anyone flying low over human settlements in a spacecraft and ignorant of our ways would notice immediately that in many of the villages and towns and cities there were one or two homes much bigger than the rest. Towering over the other houses, these large buildings must surely be the abodes of some enormous individuals, many times the size of the rest of the population. These—the houses of the gods—the temples, the churches and the cathedrals—are buildings apparently made for giants, and a space visitor would be surprised to find on closer examination that these giants are never at home. Their followers repeatedly visit them and bow down before them, but they themselves are invisible. Only their bell-like cries can be heard across the land. Man is indeed an imaginative species.