Dawkins and the evolution of religion 10 January 2016

Do religions evolve in the same way animals do? Can we trace religious expressions from the simple to the complex? It’s an interesting question, and a question to which one of Britian’s earliest anthropologists, Edward Burnett Tylor, turned his attention.

Tylor was proponent of a form of Social Darwinism, and particularly with regards to religion, saw a trajectory of development from primitive to advanced. There was in his eyes the basic and simplistic faiths of the backward stoneage human, and the sophisticated theologies of the developed modern man. Tylor also argued that religion and magic were attempts to explain and control the world, but one doomed to error since they were based on mistaken assumptions. Religion was in his view nothing more than bad science.  Like many scholars of the era, he was not free of imperialist and cultural chauvinism, he lived at a time when Britain ruled much of the known world, and his view, Judaism and Chrisitanity as monotheistic religions were the most advanced (though still erroneous) of faiths, since of course, Europeans were the most advanced and most evolved of all humans. In his works and writings then, Tylor wrote that primitve religions started with animism, which led to polytheism, before concluding with monotheism, and ending with an enlightened acceptance of science. Sound familiar?

What Dawkins and Tylor are both quite catergorically wrong about however is the supposed trend from polytheism to monotheism.

The first criticisms of this idea came from Wilhelm Schmidt, an anthropologist himself, who in his work The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories pointed to quite a number of so-called primitive religions who were not polytheist but monotheists.The notion that people moved from many gods to one as they developed (or indeed, vice versa) doesn’t really work. If anything, monotheism was more common amongst hunter-gatherer tribes, and polytheism more apparant in agricultural communities. The idea that religions developed as humans moved to greater sophistication doesn’t tally with the evidence. Scholars of religion today have abandoned the quite mistaken idea you can rank religious traditions from simple to complex, basic to advanced, and recognise that the Totemism of the remote tribe is as complex and fully developed as the Trinity of the Oxford professor.

There are in the Humanities very few instances when theories can be proposed that are falsifiable, but in this case, the hypothesis that there is a trend from polytheism to monotheism is demonstrably false through the available evidence, and I’m sure Dawkins as a self-respecting scientist would have no problem with abandoning the idea.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.