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An article donated by Alton C. Thompson:

"Religion as a Natural Phenomenon"

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The reason I’ve put quotation marks around my title is that it’s the subtitle of Daniel C. Dennett’s book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (2006). 1 This essay, however, has only that in common with Dennett’s book!  

My goal in this essay is to demonstrate that the assertion in James 1:27 is a "natural way of thinking about "religion, normatively, and should then be used to evaluate any philosophy and/or organization (Western ones in particular) that claims to be a "religion and/or is commonly thought of as a "religion. Here is James 1:27:

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." New International Version (NIV)

However, as the "God" concept is a troublesome one for many of us moderns, 2 I ignore here the claim that a "God" has given his/her "stamp of approval to the assertion that—in a modernized form—"religion" should be thought of as involving:

  1. Engaging in helping behavior directed at those in need of help.  (I give "helping behavior a broader interpretation than is usual, however.)

  2. Resisting the ideologies in one’s society that blind a person from perceiving Reality accurately.

To understand why the assertion in James 1:27 is so "on point, we must begin here with some comments on how our distant ancestors lived:

"FOR 5,000 years, humans have grown accustomed to living in societies dominated by the privileged few.  But it wasn’t always this way. For tens of thousands of years, egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies were widespread.  And as a large body of anthropological research shows, long before we organized ourselves into hierarchies of wealth, social status and power, these groups rigorously enforced norms that prevented any individual or group from acquiring more status, authority or resources than others." *

Decision-making was decentralized and leadership was ad hoc; there weren't any chiefs.  There were sporadic hot-blooded fights between individuals, of course, but there was no organized conflict between groups.  Nor were there strong notions of private property and therefore any need for territorial defense.  These social norms affected gender roles as well; women were important producers and relatively empowered, and marriages were typically monogamous.

Keeping the playing field level was a matter of survival.  These small-scale, nomadic foraging groups didn’t stock up much surplus food, and given the high-risk nature of hunting -– the fact that on any given day or week you may come back empty-handed -– sharing and cooperation were required to ensure everyone got enough to eat.  Anyone who made a bid for higher status or attempted to take more than their share would be ridiculed or ostracized for their audacity. Social anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that suppressing our primate ancestors’ dominance hierarchies by enforcing these egalitarian norms was a central adaptation of human evolution.  It enhanced cooperation and lowered risk as small, isolated bands of humans spread into new habitats and regions across the world, and was likely crucial to our survival and success.

I’m not sure that I agree with the author’s 3 "grown accustomed" phrase in the first sentence of the above quotation:  If she means adapted well, I would need to point out the numerous social problems that our society has, including poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.  (See, e.g., this article.)  If, though, she means "taking for granted as a part of current life in our society, I would agree.

The author then goes on to note:

How, then, did we arrive in the age of institutionalized inequality?  That has been debated for centuries. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau reasoned in 1754 that inequality was rooted in the introduction of private property.  In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels focused on capitalism and its relation to class struggle.  By the late 19th century, social Darwinists claimed that a society split along class lines reflected the natural order of things -- as British philosopher Herbert Spencer put it, "the survival of the fittest."  Even into the 1980s there were some anthropologists who held this to be true -- arguing that dictators’ success was purely Darwinian, providing estimates of the large numbers of offspring sired by the rulers of various despotic societies as support.

My view as to why egalitarianism began to disappear, however, is that the small size 4 of the foraging groups within which our distant ancestors lived conduced relatively harmonious relationships within those groups:

  1. Most members of any given group tended to be related genetically.

  2. If a group member was dissatisfied with the group within which he was living, he could leave the group for another group (or even start a new group).

It was the addition of agriculture into a group -- if it then began to displace foraging as the principal source of sustenance -- that made the invention of agriculture "the worst mistake in the history of the human race"!  I would cite these specific reasons for the introduction of agriculture into early foraging groups as becoming a "mistake":

  1. Group size began to increase. That fact, in conjunction with the fact that humans differ genetically one from another, served to loosen the social bonds that had formerly connected group members one to another.

  1. That loosening enabled some members of a group to begin exploiting other members of the group.

  2. Given that humans had become "designed -- physically, psychologically, and sociologically -- for life in small forager-based groups, this meant that all members of these new groups now had an "unnatural way of life, but that those who especially suffered from this fact were those being exploited. 5

However, because the exploiters had created an ideology that justified their exploitative activities, this helped in maintaining societal order.

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The ancient Hebrew prophets lived in a civilizing society, recognized the exploitation that was occurring, sensed that this was "unnatural, and thus wrong, and protested against it.  To take just a few examples: 6

First, in Hosea: 6:6 we find (speaking for God 7):  

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, . . .

That is, I want you primarily to treat your fellows in a merciful way; I’m not interested in your animal sacrifices!

Amos expressed much the same point of view.  In Amos 5:21-24 we find:

"The LORD says, ‘I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them!  When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them:  I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps.  Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry.’ (Good News Bible (GNB) Translation)

The only difference between Hosea and Amos is that for Hosea, mercy was of most importance, for Amos, it was justice.

Finally, let me close this brief discussion of the prophets by quoting a beautiful passage from Micah (6:6 - 8):  

"What shall I bring to the LORD, the God of heaven, when I come to worship him?  Shall I bring the best calves to burn as offerings to him? Will the LORD be pleased if I bring him thousands of sheep or endless streams of olive oil?  Shall I offer him my first-born child to pay for my sins? No, the LORD has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God." GNB translation

My earlier point that "the assertion in James 1:27 is a ‘natural’ way of thinking about ‘religion,’ normatively is based on the facts that:

  1. James 1:27 is basically consistent with the passages from Hosea, Amos, and Micah quoted above.

  2. The statements made in Hosea, Amos, and Micah reflected the fact that these three individuals were living in an unnatural society, at least sensed this fact (in recognizing its wrongness), and in effect expressed a desire to live in a more natural state.

It should be obvious to anyone that what currently goes under the label "religion" is anything but that!!  I need not elaborate, right?!

A final point: My reason for saying earlier:  "I give ‘helping behavior’ a broader interpretation than is usual . . . ."

Given that it was societal changes that were the root causes of the behaviors to which the Hebrew prophets objected, it should be obvious that the task of religion today is to work for societal changes.  Ones that would not only eliminate our various social problems, but save our species from extinction.  

My article on Academia titled: "A Road to Survival" has both goals!

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Reference used:

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  1. book cover Daniel C. Dennett, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Penguin Books; Reprint edition (2007). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store. Available in Kindle, Audiobook, Hardcover and Paperback editions.
  2. A fact that led to theologian Daniel C. Maguire to write his Christianity without God:  Moving beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative (2014).
  3. The author is Deborah Rogers, who is an affiliated researcher at Stanford University's Institute for Research in the Social Sciences and directs the Initiative for Equality.
  4. Kirkpatrick Sale wrote a huge book on the virtues of smallness (!)—Human Scale — published in 1980.
  5. Because a Discrepancy began to develop between (a) way of life “designed” for, and (b) actual way of life, that Discrepancy itself became a major causal factor in human history.  See my The Discrepancy:  Concept and Consequences.
  6. For much more detail see my Continuing the Tradition by Further Developing It.
  7. Jack Miles points out (in effect, at least) that “God” was a 24-headed hydra (in his God:  A Biography, 1995)!

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Original posting: 2019-MAY-13
Author: Alton C. Thompson
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