Cara Wall Scheffler: What anthropology can tell us about the origins of religious behaviour

Before I report back on Mark Harris’s second Faraday course lecture, which was on the Bible and human origins*, I want to think about the science behind this subject. At the same course, the biological anthropologist Cara Wall-Scheffler spoke on Anthropology and the Origins of Religion. I’ll reflect on the links between these two lectures later on, but for now it’s worth just exploring the anthropological data and seeing what thoughts they provoke in your own mind.

Anatomically modern humans emerged between 140,000 and 160,000 years ago. A particular set of physical characteristics set us apart from the other Homo species which are now extinct, including Neanderthals. We have brains with large frontal lobes, so our skulls are “balloon” shaped. We have large tongues for talking with, so we also have chins to balance the development of a throat large enough to hold our tongues. We also have a bowl-shaped pelvis, so we walk in a certain way – with our bodies curved up and back. But what about technology, culture and religion – was there anything that set us apart in these areas?

When our species began to move out of Africa, there were still some Neanderthals in Europe. These hominins** used fire and hunted in a more sophisticated way than other carnivores. They also made stone tools using a fairly complex process, and it is thought that they would have needed to use symbols or language to teach each other how to make them. But there is good evidence that Homo sapiens had been doing far more sophisticated things for millennia before that.

For example, in the African Middle Stone Age – before anatomically modern humans left for Europe – there is evidence that they could catch birds and fish. They made tools that involved putting several different parts together, including pointed projectiles and harpoons. They made things out of bone, and ate fruits and grains as well as meat. They were involved in transport over large distances, trading and sharing knowledge. They also made themselves ornaments out of painted shells, and buried their dead alongside other items like ochre or antlers – sometimes processing the bodies in certain ways. All of these behaviours suggest these were people with imagination. They organised their societies so that some had time to exercise their creativity. But did they come together to worship?

As anatomically modern humans travelled throughout Europe from around 100,000 years ago onwards, they took certain tools with them. They had the ability to make a long pointed stone blade, and carried collections of very precise tools, including fish hooks and the first examples of sewing needles. They made ornaments out of ivory beads, and buried their dead with very elaborate grave goods. In their cave paintings, some species seem to be significant because they are drawn more often – bison, horses and big cats – and the larger painting projects would have needed multiple people to work together over a short period of time. Perhaps this was a form of religious symbolism? The statues they made were of anatomically exaggerated women or creatures that were part man and part animal: the sorts of objects that were important later on in religious practices.

The most important evidence for group worship so far is a site in Turkey, which has a series of large ornately carved stone structures. There is evidence that large numbers of people went there to feast together, even before the advent of settled agriculture. Beer was probably made in the area (as that was before bread was invented), so whether this was a bar or a church was questioned by the audience at the lecture!

There is definitely something different about our species. We have not only survived the hominin extinction, but we possess abilities that other hominins may never have developed. We also seem to have been capable of grasping religious concepts long before written accounts of religion began to exist. As Cara was quick to point out, people may have been doing things for a long time before the first evidence of it appeared in the fossil record. All this provides a good deal of food for thought when it comes to discussion of the Genesis accounts. The evidence here suggests that some of the potential interpretations of Genesis 1-3 may not be as satisfactory as they seem.


* My write up on the first is here.

** The word that’s currently used for any bipedal species in our lineage.

New Ways of Seeing Science and Religion: Complexity or Prophetic Conflict?

The opening speaker at last week’s Faraday Institute summer course was Mark Harris, Senior Lecturer in Science and Religion at Edinburgh University. He started by showing a picture of his two favourite workplaces. At the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire he focused in on nature in its finest details, and at the Edinburgh Divinity School he’s now involved in looking up to the heavens and asking very broad questions.

Harris spoke about the relationship between science and religion, asking whether there is a clash of worldviews between the two. He started out by saying that both science and religion are almost impossible to define in general terms. Dictionary definitions of religion never seem to capture the experiences of ‘the other’, of community, or dealing with the hard facts of life that are so important for him in Christianity. Definitions of science are also slippery because there are so many different methodologies to include that it becomes difficult to summarise them in a meaningful way. This is reflected in his own view of science and faith, which he gave at the end of the lecture.

The most common models for the relationship between science and religion are conflict, independence, dialogue and integration. These were the four categories used by Ian Barbour, who was one of the founders of the field of science and religion. Conflict tends to be promoted by those who shout the loudest – the people whose agenda is to diminish the importance of the other side – whether it is science against religion, or religion against science. Independence was promoted by the late palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who wanted a clear separation between science and religion. Is this what is being embraced by some Christians when they say that science and religion are different sides of reality, or ask different types of question? Perhaps not, but this is one place where we need to be careful about the words and definitions we use.

Dialogue suggests that science and religion can learn from each other, as they did in the past when an education in natural philosophy (as science was called back then) was a step on the way to a career in theology. We still assume that there are laws in nature and that the world can be understood in a logical way, even though the theological arguments behind those things have been forgotten. So can dialogue still happen, building on this heritage?

The idea of integration probably sounds wacky to most natural scientists, but there are other ways of viewing science and religion besides these four. Perhaps a more helpful way of seeing the two might be complexity, which is based on the work of the historian John Hedley Brooke. In his book, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, he pointed out that science and religion are “social activities involving different expressions of human concern, the same individuals often participating in both”.

One of Harris’s favourite models for relating science and religion is what he has called prophetic conflict, based on the work of the philosopher Willem B. Drees. In Religion and Science in Context, Drees writes that the academic field of science and religion is a product of secularisation, and is driven by conflict – but conflict can sometimes be a good thing. He says that religion should have a ‘prophetic’ dimension, pointing to a better world and offering a critical perspective. If religion holds science to account in a healthy way, conflict is inevitable from time to time.

For Harris, science and religion cannot be neatly pigeonholed into a single model. Our views may change many times over the course of our lives (Darwin’s certainly did!), and different aspects of science and religion may also relate in different ways. He started his lecture by talking about worldview, or a personal philosophy of life. For him, the doctrine of creation makes sense of both science and religion. If the world had a beginning, if it was made from nothing, and if it relies on God for its continued existence, then all the sciences have the same starting point. So although our views about the relationship between science and religion may be constantly changing as we go through life, this may be a way of bringing them all together and making sense of them.

Other Faraday summer course lecture reports will be featured in the coming weeks. Videos and audio recordings of the lectures will be appearing on as they become available.

White for Harvest: The art and science of microbes


“Look at the yeast fields, for they are already white for harvest!”, wrote Dr Maria Eugenia Inda, one of the winners of the American Society for Microbiology ‘Agar Art’ contest. I’m not sure she meant anything more than to pick up a quote remembered from the Bible and subvert it for a scientific message – the “Harvest Season” of yeast knowledge – but it made me think. Continue reading

Guest Post, Part 2: The Arch, the Stone and the Structure of Science

Virtualization of Knowledge
Virtualization of knowledge 0005 by agsandrew. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Science is not about discovering a low-level “theory of everything” that captures everything that can be said about what happens in the physical world. The structure of the natural world is not like that. To illustrate this, I began with a simple parable, which has an obvious application to the structure of scientific explanation. Continue reading

Guest Post, Part 1: The Parable of the Arch and the Stone

Roof by mr. rollers. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Once, two friends were disputing about the structure of buildings, and why the roof does not fall down. They agreed to do some research, so each set out in search of a good example to study.

Walking in the woods, the first man came across a large and splendid building, and stepped inside. He saw that the structure was made of stones piled on top of one another, with mortar in between. He stayed for a while and made a close study of the stones and the mortar. Continue reading

Artificial Intelligence: Machines, Minds or both?

CCO Public Domain. Pixabay

Is your smart phone really smart? Do you ever fear it will get too smart? Will it wake up one morning and decide to start running your life – deleting contacts it doesn’t like, booking holidays online that it wants to go on with you or shifting your calendar appointments to suit its tastes? Continue reading

God in the Lab: Is the Christian a methodological naturalist?

Pexels. CC0 License

A Christian’s faith will affect their work in many ways. For the scientist, it usually affects their behaviour and ethics in the lab. It may also have an impact on the research topics they choose to study, and the other activities they get involved in. They believe that God Continue reading