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Fear of Death, Joy of Life and the Origins of God

By including the supernatural, community rituals that had incidental health and healing effects became shamanistic rituals of individual and community healing. The effects of these healing rituals were quite real.
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Two juxtaposed images of religion: A priest in ancient Egypt moaning out an elaborately ritualized incantation over the mummified body of a dead pharaoh, and Tevye and his friends from Fiddler on the Roof drunkenly dancing and shouting l'chaim("to life"). Both images tell us something about the origin of religion. The first is probably better known. Religion, it is often claimed, arose amidst humanity's anguish over death. Humans of long ago invented comforting myths about a loving God and a blissful afterlife in order to cope with the intolerable awareness of personal mortality. Help of the helpless, abide with me.

While there's probably some truth to this, it is unlikely to be a complete explanation for why religion emerged. A serious problem with it is that religion often intensifies death anxiety as much as it mollifies it. For example, Ah Puch, the Mayan god of the dead, was a gruesome character whose putrid, decomposing, skeletal form offered little in the way consolation to new arrivals. The ancient Greeks had a similarly disheartening view of the afterlife. In book XI of The Odyssey, the dead Achilles laments to Odysseus: "Say not a word in death's favor; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house ... than king of kings among the dead."

There is much in religion's history to indicate that life was as salient a theme as death. In his book Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler expresses surprise at how little attention the Pentateuch pays to death (p. 385). Early Judaism, he concludes, was far more concerned with living a holy life than achieving a blessed afterlife. Likewise, religion scholar Mircea Eliade argues that in traditional religions, life -- not death -- was the central mystery demanding explanation. Indeed, recent research suggests that the origin of religion lies more with Tevye than with the Pharaohs.

In his recent book The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade discusses genetic studies indicating that three traditional societies -- the !Kung San of Southern Africa, the Andaman Islanders of Southeast Asia and the Australian Aborigines -- very likely represent humanity's most ancient populations. The latter two, in fact, may trace back to the earliest "out of Africa" migration of Homo sapiens. Common to all three are religious rituals involving vigorous, highly emotional, night-long sessions of singing and dancing. Ritualized singing, dancing and chanting, and the alterations of consciousness associated with them, are known to produce powerful psycho/physical health and healing effects.

For example, clinical studies in music therapy have shown that steady, soothing rhythms used pre-surgically can reduce patient pain and anxiety and promote faster recovery. Rowers pulling together rhythmically as a group have higher pain and exhaustion thresholds compared to those who row alone. Finally, there is evidence showing that people who move in synchrony together treat each other with greater cooperativeness and generosity. Thus, we have good experimental evidence showing that people who move together, emotionally bond together and reap individual health benefits in the process.

Adding the supernatural further enhances these effects. Two recent studies have shown that ritualized meditative practices that include a supernatural element produce stronger psycho/physical effects than purely secular ones. In one study, volunteers were randomly assigned to one of three groups practicing different meditative/relaxation techniques: a group that used a spiritual mantra such as "God is love" or "God is peace," a secular group using a phrase such as "I am happy" or "I am joyful," and a control group that was simply given relaxation training. After practicing their technique for 20 minutes a day for two weeks, subjects were tested on measures of anxiety, mood and pain tolerance measured by the amount of time they could keep their hands in water of two degrees Celsius. Those practicing spiritual meditation were able to keep their hands in the near-freezing water twice as long on average as the other groups. Additionally, the spiritual group showed greater anxiety reduction and mood elevation.

This effect has been replicated in another study where electric shock was delivered to both devout Catholics and atheist/agnostic volunteers. Both the religious and non-religious subjects were pre-tested for equivalent levels of pain sensitivity. Subjects were then tested in two sessions where electric shock was administered to the hand while viewing either a religious image or a matched non-religious image. Catholic subjects showed a significant increase in pain threshold when viewing the religious image. No changes in pain threshold were found for non-religious subjects. Furthermore, Catholic subjects also showed increased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain known to be involved in the evaluation of sensory experiences including pain. Similar activation was not found for the non-religious subjects.

If ritual is good, then ritual infused with the supernatural is even better. This is what our ancestors discovered thousands of years ago. Our ancestors were singing, dancing and chanting together long before anyone conceived of the supernatural. Religion was born when already existing social rituals became "supernaturalized." Initially, the supernatural was probably envisioned as just a vague healing force, accessible through a ritually induced altered state of consciousness. By including the supernatural, community rituals that had incidental health and healing effects became shamanistic rituals of individual and community healing. The effects of these healing rituals were quite real: anxiety levels were reduced, immune systems were strengthened, pain tolerance was increased, social bonds were reinforced, participants' mental and emotional states were elevated. In short, life was made better.

Singing, dancing and chanting are fun and adding the supernatural intensifies the experience, making it even more fun. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why religion endures. Viewed with the wide lens, it is easy to wonder how institutionalized religions survive the corruption, hypocrisy and other self-destructive tendencies that too often have been a part of their history. But for most believers, religion is not about "The Church." It's about "my church," and it is there that people often find the community, camaraderie and ritual life that produce measurable emotional and physical benefits. They keep coming back because it feels good, and in a very real and empirically demonstrable way it is good.

(Note: references for studies discussed can be found in my book Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved. Pp. 118-120).