Publication details

Formalized rituals may have preceded the emergence of religions


LANG Martin

Year of publication 2024
Type Article in Periodical (without peer review)
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description Robin Dunbar’s book How Religion Evolved brings back the ethos of “big theories” that was characteristic of scholars of religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the previous approaches were rightfully criticized for unilinear views of cultural evolution, the aftermath of these critiques condemned (perhaps a bit prematurely) big theories to oblivion (Kundt, 2015). With novel tools for understanding biological and cultural evolution at our hands, it may be a good time to carefully reinvigorate “big theorizing” in a more informed way and ask, as Dunbar does, how religion evolved. The target book represents a valuable step in this direction and provides a general model suggesting that religions first evolved as animistic traditions emerging from individual mystical experiences and later merged into cultural systems facilitating social bonding and creating communities. While I agree that religions (or, more specifically, religious systems) evolved, and we may expect the evolution to be cumulative (building on previous adaptations), I have an alternative view of the timing and sequence of these evolutionary events. Specifically, I will focus my commentary on Dunbar’s proposition about the function of religious ritual and the timing of its evolution. Since ritual behavior is an essential component of any functioning religious system (Sosis, 2016, 2019), the way we model the evolution of ritual will determine our general understanding of the evolution of religion.
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