The Uses of God

Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions

by Walter Burkert
Harvard University Press, 272 pp., $29.95

Walter Burkert is professor of Classics at the University of Zurich and a scholar of great distinction. He is also a man of remarkably wide interests. Works of his that have already been published in translation by American university presses cover matters as various as the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth, ancient mystery cults, and the penetration of Near Eastern religions into archaic Greece. His more general work on Greek religion between 800 to 300 BCE was hailed by a reviewer in these pages as a masterpiece.* The aim of Creation of the Sacred is even more ambitious: to uncover the very origins of religion.

Religion, Burkert observes, has always been recognized as a universal feature of human society. It is very old: there are clear traces of religious practices in the Upper Palaeolithic period, and the ceremonial burial of the dead practiced by the Neanderthalers a hundred thousand years ago suggests that religious ideas may have existed already then. Religion is also very resilient: from the neolithic to the Industrial Revolution it has survived the most drastic social and economic changes. And it is still with us. Creation of the Sacred is devoted to trying to explain these extraordinary facts.

Burkert is fully aware that such an undertaking runs counter to the prevailing trend in the social sciences, including social anthropology. For some generations now it has been held that each culture should be studied as an autonomous system—so that Greek religion, for instance, should be studied solely in the context of the Greek citystate. But while fully appreciating the contribution which that approach has made to our understanding of particular religions, he insists that it cannot solve the problems that most concern him: “if cultures remain enclosed each in its own signifying system, what about the interactions of cultures, influences, and traditions that link the present to the past?… And how do we account for the ubiquity and persistence of a phenomenon such as religion?”

Burkert is by no means the first scholar to try to answer such questions, but he does so in a new way. The subtitle of his book refers to biology, and it is in human biology, broadly conceived, that he seeks an answer to his problems. His bibliography lists plenty of items with such titles as The Regulation of Physical and Mental Systems, The Extended Phenotype, Languages and Species, The Sociobiology Debate, Primate Social Systems, Biosocial Anthropology, The Chimpanzees of Gombe.

Not that religion is inscribed in the genetic code—on the contrary, it has to be taught afresh to each generation, just like language. Still, the argument goes, religion performs a biological function in that it provides direction and meaning for those who feel helpless in the face of the infinite complexity of the world—and particularly in the face of the ineluctable fact of death. “The idea of the supernatural emerges within the landscape of nature…. If reality appears dangerous or downright hostile to life, religion calls for something…

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