The June issue of National Geographic contained a fascinating article pondering the origins of religion in human civilization – Charles C. Mann, “The Birth of Religion,” in National Geographic June 2011, 34-59. Mann’s article discusses the archaeological find of an ancient temple at Gobekli Tepe, in contemporary Turkey, which overturns traditional theses concerning the birth of religion.
Sociologists of religion for the past hundred years have postulated that religion is the result of humanity’s move towards systematic agriculture. The theory holds that as the last Ice Age ended, around 10,000 B.C., vegetation and wild game became substantially more abundant. Prior to the thawing, all humans were believed to have been hunter-gatherers, nomads living in small groups in temporary settlements, moving from season to season. As the Ice Age ended and the environment warmed, humans began to domesticate both plants and animals, allowing them to settle in permanent communities. Religion then arose, driven by the need for social cohesion and cooperation. Such is the traditional picture of the rise of human religion. The traditional picture accommodates numerous variations on a theme. All such variations share the common trend: first civilization, then religion. Humans first began to gather in permanent communities, and then began to develop religious expressions.
Charles Mann’s article suggests that the finds at Gobekli Tepe and other ancient sites in Turkey may overturn the traditional understanding of the birth of human religion. Gobekli Tepe is a collection of massive stone pillars, neatly and cleanly carved and decorated with “bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars.” (39) Gobekli Tepe is understood by its investigators and interpreters to have been a religious site—a temple where some type of worship, sacrifice, or offerings took place regularly. Gobekli Tepe is clearly a monumental structure, and to everyone’s surprise, dates to about 11,600 years ago—earlier than Stonehenge, and considerably earlier than the Egyptian pyramids. Mann reminds his readers that at the time of Gobekli Tepe’s construction, “much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals.” (39) The massive, 16-ton stones were cut, hauled, and erected without the benefit of “wheels or beasts of burden.” (39) That in itself is a stunning feat, a massive human achievement for its time.
Perhaps most remarkably, Gobekli Tepe was built in an area entirely bereft of any sign of permanent human settlement. Despite extensive archaeological digs in the surrounding areas, it is evident that Gobekli Tepe was not the site of a permanent settlement; furthermore, there were no settlements in the immediate area. Gobekli Tepe had no water source – “the nearest stream was about three miles away.” (48) The hundreds of workers required to erect the temple would have needed both homes and food, but there is no sign of either huts, houses, or agriculture anywhere nearby (48-49). Instead, it seems clear that the humans who built Gobekli Tepe “were foragers.” (48)
Thus, Gobekli Tepe poses a significant challenge to the traditional picture of the development of human religion. The orthodox thesis holds that human settlement came first, with the rise of domesticated animals and agriculture; Gobekli Tepe suggests, to the contrary, that religion came first, with a monumental temple edifice with absolutely no sign of human settlement, domesticated animals, or human agriculture. Mann’s suggested reconstruction holds that as the Ice Age ended, “wonderment at changes in the natural world” led to the development of “organized religion.” (41) People began to gather “for rituals, creating the need to grow food for large groups gathering near sacred sites.” (41) As the need arose for centralized food production and distribution, humans began to domesticate plants and animals. The development of agriculture facilitated the growth of permanent human settlements, which enabled the continued development of organized religion.
So there are now two competing theories put forth by sociologists of religion. The traditional theory holds that the development of agriculture and permanent human settlements led to the birth of organized religion. The new rival thesis holds that human wonderment at environmental changes led to religious speculation and ritual, which then led to the development of agriculture and permanent human settlements. In some ways, the competing theories are a little bit like the chicken and the egg. Either reconstruction is necessarily speculative, and difficult, likely impossible, to prove with reasonable confidence.
I want to suggest something more fundamental and foundational, however. Both theories—traditional and new—have something significant in common. Both are theories put forth by secular sociologists of religion who discount the possibility of a supernatural (divine) source of human religion. What is most notable, in my opinion, about both theories is what they rule out—the Christian theory of the origin of human religion.
From a biblical worldview, there is a certain and definitive source of human religion—the image of God imprinted within each and every human being. The birth of religion is not a puzzle to be solved for Christians; rather, it is a natural, perfectly reasonable and comprehensible result of God creating mankind in His own image. God created human beings to know Him and to be in fellowship and communion with Him. God walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden; Adam and Eve were able to talk face-to-face with God.
Ever since the fall of humanity in Genesis 3, human beings have had an insatiable hunger to know and to touch the divine—to be in relationship with God. Thus, since the dawn of human civilization, or more properly, for as long as there have been human beings, there has been human religion. There is either true religion—knowledge of the one true God and relationship with Him on His terms; or there is man-made religion—a seeking after divine reality and an attempt to encounter and/or control the supernatural forces that man has always acknowledged at work in the world.
It is both ironic and sad that many mainstream sociologists of religion are apparently unwilling and/or unable to consider a supernatural source for human religion. Ideally, sociologists of religion would be able to contemplate the possibility that there truly is a God who created the world and crafted human beings to seek after Him. Were they to open themselves to that possibility, they might just see how readily explicable the ‘puzzle’ of the birth, growth, proliferation, and development of human religiosity is.
Whether secular sociologists ever contemplate the Christian explanation of the birth of religion, however, it is right and good for Christians to embrace and promote such an explanation. Religion is the result of the image of God. Humans are incurably religion, insatiably spiritual; we have an unquenchable demand for the divine, because we are created by and for the one true God who made all that is (including us). Religion is not just the result of “wonderment” at changes in the natural world, nor of the development of agricultural and civilization.
Mann’s article, “The Birth of Religion,” then, is a fascinating insight into the theses put forth by sociologists of religion who cannot conceive of religion being the result of a God-infused universe. The temple at Gobekli Tepe is truly awe-inspiring and instructive. But neither Gobekli Tepe nor the traditional theory of the birth of religion is the final word on the issue—the existence, nature, and purpose of the Triune God is.