– by B. T. Newberg
Were our earliest human ancestors naturalistic? Some might assume so, reasoning that before the first gods were invented, people must have been naturalistic. But was that really the case?
The column Naturalistic Traditions, hosted by Patheos, is investigating the history of naturalism in an ongoing extended series. After an introduction and examination of naturalism in modern cosmology and evolution, it has investigated early hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. This post summarizes the findings thus far on prehistory.
Misconceptions of naturalism
There are two key misconceptions that tend to foul up investigations into early naturalism:
- Nature religion does not equal naturalism
- Doubt does not equal naturalism
First, many people assume that if our ancestors revered nature, they were naturalists by default. Unfortunately, that’s incorrect. Naturalism, as we shall see shortly, is a worldview with a particular conception of nature that may or may not overlap with that of various nature religions.
Second, many believe that a lack of belief in gods, spirits, and magic amounts to naturalism. This is fallacious as well. One can lack belief in such things without adopting any particular worldview and conception of nature.
With those two misconceptions out of the way, let’s look more closely at naturalism itself.
So what is naturalism, really?
There are many definitions of naturalism. For the purposes of this post, we can quote Littré’s 1875 Dictionnaire de la langue française, which defined naturalism as:
“the system of those who find all primary causes in nature” (Furst and Skrine, 1971).
This definition, like almost all I’ve ever encountered, hinges on the definition of nature. It strikes a contrast with the supernatural, a Western concept that didn’t emerge till the Medieval period (Saler, 1977). Thus, it would be anachronistic to apply it to earlier ages without significant qualification. We must characterize the modern concept of nature, and see if prehistoric peoples did, in fact, attribute all primary causes to it.
Although today’s conceptions of nature are by no means uniform, the view emerging from contemporary science generally overlaps with that of naturalism. This view characterizes nature as operating according to impersonal physical laws (for a detailed discussion of what this means, go here and here).
So, the question is, did prehistoric peoples find all primary causes in an impersonal, physical, and law-like nature?
Much can be said of early doubt and nature reverence. There is good reason to believe that even our earliest ancestors included those who doubted majority interpretations (Hayden, 2003) or were disinterested in magic and ritual (Douglas, 1970). Ritualized behavior may have emerged prior to any particular explanation of it related to divinity or magic, perhaps as early as the age of our great ape ancestors (Goodall, 1975). Hunter-gatherer religions may have been more experiential than theological (Basso, 1985), and included cosmologies depicting a single nature with nothing standing outside it (Leeming, 2009). As we’ve seen, however, these things do not equal naturalism. We cannot infer with confidence the presence of such a particular worldview.
What we can say with relative confidence is that early Homo sapiens shared much the same cognitive capacities as we do today. Recent research in cognitive science is revealing our mind’s de fault modes of perceptions to be largely anthropomorphic (Guthrie, 1993) and dualistic (Bering, 2006). In other words, our brains tend to perceive the world as personal, not impersonal, and physical-spiritual, not just physical. Moreover, there is no good reason to take a law-like perception of nature for granted, as many historical cultures across the globe have seen the natural order as malleable and open to magical manipulation. Thus, an early nature-concept of impersonal physical laws, though not impossible, seems unlikely.
In short, there may never have been a time before the first gods. We should look not for the invention of deity, but for that of naturalism.
For a more detailed discussion of these issues, go here.
If early hunter-gatherers were not likely naturalists, what about early agriculturalists? Neolithic changes in subsistence and living arrangements transformed these cultures dramatically. Was naturalism one of those changes?
Most of the arguments against hunter-gatherer naturalism apply to agriculturalists as well. Although agricultural religions largely focused on the forces of nature on which crops depended, this does not indicate a naturalistic worldview. Even if the theories of a matrifocal, Goddess-worshipping Neolithic were true (see Eller, 2000, and Nelson, 2004, for thorough critiques), it would not imply an impersonal, physical, and law-like concept of nature.
In fact, early peoples need not have had any generalized concept of nature at all. Small-scale peoples tend to be more concerned with particular situations than general principles (Boyer, 2001; Evans- Pritchard, 1976; Keesing, 1982). Reverence for particular aspects of nature such as rain and soil does not require reverence for nature generally, just as veneration of goddesses does not usually correlate with enhanced status for women overall (Eller, 2000; Campbell, 1982; Tentori, 1982; Whyte, 1978).
Thus, early agriculturalists were probably not naturalistic. However, it is possible that these peoples may have initiated a change crucial to the emergence of naturalism.
Whitehouse and Hodder (2010) believe there is evidence at Çatalhöyük for a shift from an imagistic mode of ritual, characterized by rare but intense experiences interpreted in various ways by the individual, to a more doctrinal mode, characterized by frequent low-arousal rituals with a shared interpretation. While the two modes are always mixed, some degree of the latter mode is a prerequisite for any shared worldview, including naturalism. Personally, I do not find the particular case of Çatalhöyük compelling, but it remains possible that the new living arrangements of agriculture may have precipitated more widely-shared worldviews.
For a more detailed discussion of these issues, go here.
Next on the agenda: Archaic civilizations
The next territory the Naturalistic Traditions series will cover is that of early urban peoples, using archaic Egypt and Mesopotamia as examples. For these peoples, changes in social organization, living conditions, and tools for extended reflection (such as writing) had vast effects on their worldviews. Did any of them become naturalistic? If not, did they lay the foundations for a naturalism to come not much later in the first millennium BCE?
A call for responsibility
It is always tempting to believe one’s own view is the most ancient, original, or authentic. The assumption that the first humans must have been naturalistic may be appealing to some of us.
However, as naturalists beholden to evidence, we have a responsibility to strive toward accuracy. I hope this summary, and the more detailed series it encapsulates, sheds some light on the facts about our earliest ancestors.
Keep an eye on this monthly series to discover more of the truth about naturalism in the ancient world.
Basso, E. B. (1985). A Musical View of the Universe: Kalapalo Myth and Ritual Performances. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Bering, J. (2006). “The Folk Psychology of Souls.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences (29), pp. 453–498.
Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.
Campbell, E. (1982). “The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Female Self-image.” In: Preston, J. J., ed., Mother Worship, Chapel Hill: North Carolina University.
Douglas, M. (1970). Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. London: Barrie & Rockliff.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1976). Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Furst, L. and Skrine, P. (1971). Naturalism. London: Methuen.
Goodall, J. (1975). “The Chimpanzee.” In The Quest for Man, Goodall, V., ed., New York: Praeger.
Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hayden, B. (2003). Shamans, Sorcerors, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
Hodder, I., ed. (2010). Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Keesing, R. (1982). Kwaio Religion: The Living and the Dead in a Solomon Island Society. New York: Columbia University Press.
Leeming, D. (2009). The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nelson, S. M. (2004). Gender in archaeology: analyzing power and prestige. AltaMira Press.
Saler, B. (1977). “The Supernatural as a Western Category.” Ethos, 5( 1), pp. 31-53.
Tentori, T. (1982). “An Italian Religious Feast.” In: Preston, J. J., ed., Mother Worship, Chapel Hill: North Carolina University.
Whitehouse, H. and Hodder, I. (2010). “Modes of Religiosity at Çatalhöyük.” In: Religion in the Emergence of Civilization, by Hodder, I., ed., New York: Cambridge.
Whyte, M. K. (1978). The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
The mind is made of matter – but what does this really mean?
Matter thinking over mind, by Thomas Schenk
Appearing Sunday, July 7th, 2013