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Lance Grande — The Formation, Diversification, and Extinction of World Religions

Thousands of religions have adherents today, and countless more have existed throughout history. What accounts for this astonishing diversity?

This extraordinarily ambitious and comprehensive book demonstrates how evolutionary systematics and philosophy can yield new insight into the development of organized religion. Lance Grande―a leading evolutionary systematist―examines the growth and diversification of hundreds of religions over time, highlighting their historical interrelationships. Combining evolutionary theory with a wealth of cultural records, he explores the formation, extinction, and diversification of different world religions, including the many branches of Asian cyclicism, polytheism, and monotheism.

Grande deploys an illuminating graphic system of evolutionary trees to illustrate historical interrelationships among the world’s major religious traditions, rejecting colonialist and hierarchical “ladder of progress” views of evolution. Extensive and informative illustrations clearly and vividly indicate complex historical developments and help readers grasp the breadth of interconnections across eras and cultures.

The Evolution of Religions marshals compelling evidence, starting far back in time, that all major belief systems are related, despite the many conflicts that have taken place among them. By emphasizing these broad historical interconnections, this book promotes the need for greater tolerance and deeper, unbiased understanding of cultural diversity. Such traits may be necessary for the future survival of humanity.

Lance Grande is the Negaunee Distinguished Service Curator, Emeritus, of the Field Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Chicago. He is a specialist in evolutionary systematics, paleontology, and biology who has a deep interest in the interdisciplinary applications of scientific method and philosophy. His many books include Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums (2017) and The Lost World of Fossil Lake: Snapshots from Deep Time (2013). His new book is The Evolution of Religions: A History of Related Traditions.

Shermer and Grande discuss:

  • Why is a paleontologist and evolutionary theorist interested in religion?
  • Evolutionary systematics and comparativism in evolutionary biology, linguistics, and the history of religion
  • What is a comparative systematicist?
  • E. O. Wilson’s consilience approach
  • Agnostic approach: not addressing the truth value of any one religion
  • What is religion?
  • Variety: 10,000 different religions: Christianity (33%), Islam (23%), Hinduism/Buddhism (23%), Judaism (0.2%), Other (10%), Agnosticism (10%), Atheism (2%)
  • Evolutionary trees of religion
  • Biological vs. cultural evolution & diversification: Lamarkian vs. Darwinian
  • Historical colonialist progressivism and social Darwinism
  • Frans Boaz, Margaret Meade, historical particularism
  • Rather than focusing on differences, focus on similarities
  • Nature/Nurture & The Blank Slate in anthropology & the social sciences
  • Early evolutionary origins of religion: the cognitive revolution, agenticity, patternicity, theory of mind, animism, spiritism, polytheism
  • Gobekli Tepe as the earliest religious ceremonial structure
  • Machu Picchu and Inca religion
  • Human sacrifice and religion
  • Apocalypto
  • Pizzaro, Atahualpa, and Spanism/European colonialism & eradication of New World religions
  • Time’s arrow and Time’s cycle: Asian Cyclicism
  • Dharmic religion (India), Taoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Shinoism (Hirohito)
  • Old World Hard Polytheism (vs. Soft?) & New World Hard Polytheism (Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Celtic, Greek, Old Norse, Siberian totemism, Alaskan totemism
  • Colonialism and missionaries extinguished many polytheistic religions
  • Linear Monotheism: Atenism, Zoroastrianism, El, Yahweh, Jehovah, Monad, Allah (linear time: one birth, one life, one death, one eternal afterlife; dualistic cosmology: good vs. evil, light vs. dark, heaven vs. hell); proselytic: conversion efforts
  • Abrahamic Monotheism 6th century BCE Second Temple Judaism and Samaritanism
  • Included prophets: Noah, Abraham, Moses (60% of all religious people today)
  • Tanakh sacred scripture 6th century BCE: Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, Quran
  • Jesu-venerationism (1st century CE): Ebionism (Jesus as prophet but not divine), Traditional Christianity, Biblical Demiurgism (primal good god Monad, evil creator spirit Demiurge; saw Jesus as the spiritual emanation of the Monad), Islam
  • Reformation: Catholicism split into Protestantism, Anglicanism
  • Islam: revered 25 prophets from Adam to Jesus, ending with Muhammad
  • Expansion of Islam through conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries CE
  • 4 Generalizations:

    • Organized Religions are historically related at one ideological level or another (illustrated by trees);
    • Largest major branches today were historically intertwined with major political powers;
    • Authority of women declined with the rise of male dominated pantheons, empires, clergies, caliphates;
    • Religion played a role in our species’ early ability to adapt to its social and physical environment: tribalism was a competitive advantage for early humans in which communal societies that developed agriculture, commerce, educational facilities, and armies out-competed less communitarian groups.

Show Notes

How We Believe

In my 2000 book How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God, I defined religion as “a social institution that evolved as an integral mechanism of human culture to create and promote myths, to encourage altruism and reciprocal altruism, and to reveal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of the community.” That is, there are two primary purposes of religion:

  1. The creation of stories and myths that address the deepest questions we can ask ourselves: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What does our ultimate future hold?
  2. The production of moral systems to provide social cohesion for the most social of all the social primates. God figures prominently in both these modes as the ultimate subject of mythmaking and the final arbiter of moral dilemmas and enforcer of ethical precepts.
From Shermer’s book Truth

“Jesus was a great spiritual teacher who had a profound effect on many people,” writes Lance Grande in his magisterial The Evolution of Religions, admitting that “he became what is probably the most influential person in history.” But this says nothing about the verisimilitude of the miracle claims made in Jesus’ name. In fact, as Grande notes, neither during his own lifetime (4BC-30 CE), nor in the earliest writings of the New Testament by Paul, were miracle claims made in Jesus’s name. Even Paul’s mention of the resurrection of Christ was described in 1 Corinthians (15:44) as a spiritual event rather than a literal one: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” In Paul’s writings about Christ, says Grande, “he speaks of him in a mystical sense, as a spiritual entity of human consciousness.” Many contemporary groups, in fact, “saw Christ as a spirit that possessed the man Jesus at his baptism and left him before his death at the crucifixion” (called “separationism”). But since political monarchs in the first century CE were treated as divine, Christian proselytizers began to refer to Jesus as the “King of Kings,” and so came to pass the deification of an otherwise mortal man. Here is how Grande recaps the transformation:

Reports of specific miracles only began to appear several decades after the death of Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark (65-70 CE) and in later gospels (80-100CE). This suggests that stories of miracles (e.g., controlling the weather, creating loaves and fishes out of nothing, turning water into wine, healing the sick, and raising the physical dead) were layered into the story of Jesus as expressions of an ultimate God experience.

And as is typical of myths in the making, in the retelling across peoples, spaces, and generations, layers of improbability are added as a test of faith:

Once the stories of miracles began to appear in early Christianity, they were retold repeatedly, until they became ingrained beliefs. More stories were added, such as miracles about singing angels, stars announcing earthly happenings, and even a fetus (that of John the Baptist in his mother Elizabeth’s womb) leaping to acknowledge the anticipated power of another fetus (that of Jesus in his mother Mary’s womb). These details, many of which probably began as metaphorical lessons, gradually became accepted by many followers as literal historic truths. It is probable that some of these stories were never intended as documents of historical fact.

From metaphorical lessons to historic truths. Perhaps this is what the author of the Gospel of John meant when he wrote (John 20:31): “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”

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This episode was released on April 6, 2024.

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