Throughout the history of humankind, religion has played a number of roles in society. The first religions were probably profoundly different than the popular religions of today. It’s hard to know when exactly religion first developed in humanity, but there is some archaeological evidence of early belief systems.
It’s fair to say that ritual is a part but not the entirety of religion. In 2006, Scientific American reported on a strange discovery in the Tsodilo Hills of Botswana, a place locally known as Mountain of the Gods. In a cave there is a rock carved to look like a serpent. In the debris on the cave floor, thousands of spear heads were found, apparently made from stone far and wide.
It seems like the spears and the snake carving were used in some sort of ritual, perhaps the spear heads were sacrificed. It’s quite hard to know how the cave in Botswana fits into the history of religion but it could be evidence of human spirituality’s deepest roots. Snakes are still important in the mythology of Botswana’s San people and the rituals in the cave date back 70,000 years. Humans are estimated to have first left Africa only 120,000 years ago.
When considering the cave in the Tsodilo Hills of Botswana, I am reminded of the more famous Lascaux cave paintings in France. Lascaux’s paintings are very young in comparison to the snake carving in Botswana, only 20,000 years old. Despite the age difference, they are both clearly ritualistic and the two sites share similarities. Lascaux contains about 2,000 different images painted on cave surfaces, of those images, 900 are animals. In 1948, Pablo Picasso visited Lascaux and was said to have remarked that man hasn’t learned anything since then. There are many interpretations of Lascaux but the cave paintings have an eerie realism that clearly connects them to real animals. The paintings of animals in the cave have been interpreted as a way of invoking success in hunting the animals.
The invocation of animals in early religious practices tell us something important. Animals were clearly of great importance to humans from the very outset. Animals were sources of food, sources of clothing, tents, water bags and most necessities for human life. Those things not provided by animals were supplied by plants, stones, clay, etc. The point here is that early humans were desperately dependent on direct contact with the natural environment for their survival and they were very much aware of it.
It’s only natural that our first stirrings of spiritual awareness would be directed towards the world that sustains our very lives. The religions of modern hunter gatherers often focus on spiritual elements of the natural world as well. Jaguars are held in high regard by Native Americans in central and South America. Polar bears were symbolically important in ancient Inuit religion. Plants in several regions of the world are important for their medicinal, hallucinogenic and ritualistic properties. Animals and plants are but part of a larger spiritual landscape that many hunter gatherer societies embrace. In his book, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez elucidates this notion:
“A Lakota woman named Elaine Jahner once wrote that what lies at the heart of the religion of hunting peoples is the notion that a spiritual landscape exists within the physical landscape. To put it another way, occasionally one sees something fleeting in the land, a moment when line, color, and movement intensify and something sacred is revealed, leading one to believe that there is another realm of reality corresponding to the physical one but different.”
In classic ancient religions that many people are familiar with, there are still echoes of origins in nature based worship. Gods like Zeus and Thor are connected to lightning, other deities have the ability to change into animal forms attributed to them. Seasons and certain crops are attributed to deities in later, polytheistic religions. There is an element of anthropomorphizing in polytheistic religions like those of the Ancient Greeks and Norse. Religions seem to be moving away from literal, direct contact to the natural world towards a more symbolic contact through worship of human-like gods and goddesses.
One of the main ideas of why religion developed in the first place is based on fear. If you lived in the world 20,000 or 70,000 years ago, things were remarkably different from today. Today, the illusion that humans control the world is everywhere. People once lived in caves, under cliff ledges; in whatever natural shelter they could. Agriculture is the norm now, 20,000 years ago agriculture as we know it didn’t exist. Some of the earliest evidence suggests rye fields were first cultivated 13,000 years ago. Ultimately, early religions reflected the realities of early humanity; humans were at the whim of nature and religion was an attempt at mediating the forces of nature. If you worry about rain and you don’t have irrigation, you may make a rain dance or pray to a gain goddess.
Many early religions reflect the idea of a compact made between humans and nature. In many plains Native American tribes, Bison are said to give themselves willingly to feed people and are accorded respect.
In his book, The Tiger, John Vaillant wrote about indigenous beliefs held in the Taiga of Russia that mediated an agreement between tigers and humans. If someone was attacked or killed by a tiger it was widely held that the person transgressed a norm and the tiger was punishing the transgressor. Sometimes punishment was for poaching a tiger or not leaving an offering of meat from a deer hunt for instance.
If we have a small insight into how older religions operated, the question now becomes, what’s changed? Agriculture, permanent dwellings and less interaction with a wilder nature have radically changed human’s thoughts, behavior and indeed their religion. Most of the books holy to the majority religions today were written by agriculturalists and pastoralists. Far from making pacts with tigers or asking bison for their lives, the Bible demands humans to subdue nature:
“God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which [is] upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which [is] the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein [there is] life, [I have given] every green herb for meat.”
With the Judeo-Christian tradition, we see a more human centered view of the universe and a more human-shaped god. The Bible explicitly says that humans were created in God’s image, which in turn makes us god-like and animals and plants less than god-like.
I believe the development of agriculture and other methods of ‘controlling’ nature allowed us to believe in a god more like us and less like the creatures that previously threatened our lives or sustained us. I remember talking to a deeply religious man who told me that humans were incapable of destroying Earth because that would only happen according to God’s will when Jesus returned. The problem isn’t so much that this is an explicitly common view among Christians, it isn’t.
According to Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, Climate Change in the American Christian Mind, 69% of Catholics agree that climate change is happening, as well as 62% of non-evangelical Protestants. The numbers aren’t so good for evangelical Protestants, 51% of which think climate change is happening, 27% don’t believe in climate change and 23% simply claim to not know.
The problem is in the fact that the whole religion is focused mainly on humans. In the Judeo-Christian construct of beliefs, it’s widely held that plants and animals are subservient to humans instead of being part of a greater whole abiding by the same set of rules as humans. Ideas like manifest destiny are connected to Christian belief. In 1845, an anonymous article was published in the Democratic Review,
“The fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions…”
This was the coining of the term manifest destiny. Look at the quote and compare it to the earlier one from the Bible. The idea of multiplying, of subjugating the earth to the will of man is implied just as it’s explicitly stated in the Bible. This is also part of the unique American brand of Christianity, an idea that not only are humans special but so are (white, male) Americans. This idea spread to the branch of Christianity perhaps most firmly rooted on American soil, Mormonism.
Today, the idea that God has given the world to us as a gift isn’t as popular as it once was. According to a report in US News, those affiliating themselves with no religion in the US jumped 7% from 2007 to 2014. The problem is that many of the same habits stick around even after the explicit belief is gone. There is a lingering tendency among atheists and agnostics to feel humans control the whole planet and that we can fix any problem we create. It’s only natural to feel we’re superior in some ways, we celebrate most those things that are uniquely human but this is our bias not reality. If we want to save the planet we must first learn to truly revere it.