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.

Christ, the Kirk, and the North Sea

What types of experiences take someone from “wanting nothing to do with organised religion”, to leading the Church of Scotland’s National Youth Assembly? Today we get to chat with a scientist who has taken that very journey and is able to give personal testimony about how the Church of Scotland is inspiring and including young adults today Continue reading

Wonder and Worship: Beauty in Science

Tamsin Whitfield. Silver contaminents crop
© Tamsin Whitfield

Last week saw the opening of my first ever science-faith gallery exhibition. The space is a white-walled corner of my church, set aside for creative members of the congregation to display their handiwork. The pictures were all provided by members of the church who are scientists and engineers. Our aim is to showcase some of the beauty we see in the course of our work, and communicate how it helps us to worship God. Continue reading

God’s Universal Orchestra: Tuning in with shrimp, mountains and stars

Rainbow Gate by Christos Tsoumplekas. Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Bible says that all creation praises God, but our human-centred view might make us call this into question. How can non-human beings and even inanimate elements of creation praise their maker? How are we to understand Continue reading

Joy to the World: Environmental Ethics from the Birth of Jesus

Dr Hilary Marlow

Today I am tucked away in the nice warm office of Dr Hilary Marlow, Biblical Scholar and Course Director at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, who will be talking to us in this Christmas podcast. Hello Hilary!

Hello Cara.

…you can listen to our conversation here or read the transcipt provided below. Continue reading

Interview: Communicating science and faith in schools

DSC_0708 (2)
© Stephanie Bryant

One of the main issues for conservation is communication. How can scientists share their knowledge with the people whose behaviour is affecting the land? This is one of the questions that drew zoologist Stephanie Bryant into Continue reading

Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion

© Revati Upadhya,

This absurd cathedral which struts about

on flopping slabs of meat,

flip-flop, flip-flop,

This crazy lug-eared moon,

Big Ben whose driven face

helplessly ding-dongs

its incidental time and place,

This masked intruder

on the African plain,

Peerer through twin key-holes,

Bearer of a vastly hidden space,

is the entirely given vehicle

and the lovely means of grace.

This poem, titled ‘Grace Notes’, was written by the Oxford Physics Professor Andrew Steane. He used it to open his seminar on The Role of Science in Religion at the Faraday Institute earlier this year. Blending references to different branches of science with other types of knowing, it communicates that everything we are and have is a gift, enabling us to give something back. In this way, religion adds nothing to science, but it also adds everything.

Science, said Steane, also adds something to religion. For a start, it highlights the difference between genuine faith and ignorant superstition. A Christian can also celebrate science and do it well, not as an add-on to his or her spiritual activities, but alongside everything else that is part of ‘God’s kingdom’.

Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, James Clark Maxwell, J.J. Thompson, Lord Kelvin, and Arthur Eddington, were all famous for their contributions to physics. They also made known their deeply owned and reflective faith in God, worshipping him with all of their heart, soul and mind. Steane’s own contribution – his seminar, book, poetry and blog – demonstrate this point more than adequately, so I will simply finish with another of his poems.

Red shift

Courtesy of NASA
Courtesy of NASA

Held by an image of our outer space:

Spots, dots, and whirls of white and red,

Time-tunneling in silent grace,

Parsecs where only thought can tread.


Blue blazes of the younger fire,

Red smudges of the ancient mist,

Vast mergers of the flowing gyre

Down ages of the world persist.


These distant forms of space and truth

Work back upon the thoughts we frame;

Prayer wrestles with a shaping sieve:

Dead words or else a larger name.


Come, heart, and ask in mindful voice,

Draws over there that which can love?

Lights there a dance which can rejoice?

Rests there a hold of things above?

241cAndrew Steane’s recent book, Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion, is available from Oxford University Press for £19.99. He blogs at, and an explanation of his poem Red Shift can be found here. Poetry reproduced by permission of the author.