The Religious Success Story

“In the beginning, all people lived around a great ironwood tree in the jungle, speaking the same language. One man whose testes were enormously swollen from infection with a parasitic worm spent his time sitting on a branch of the tree, so that he could rest his heavy testes on the ground. Out of curiosity, animals of the jungle came up and sniffed at his testes. Hunters then found the animals easy to kill, and everyone had plenty of food and was happy.

“Then, one day, a bad man killed a beautiful woman’s husband, in order to get the woman for himself. Relatives of the dead husband attacked the murderer, who was defended in turn by his own relatives, until the murderer and his relatives climbed into the ironwood tree to save themselves. The attackers tugged on lianas hanging from one side of the tree, in order to pull the tree’s crown down towards the ground and get at their enemies.

“Finally, the lianas snapped in half, causing the tree to spring back with tremendous force. The murderer and his relatives were hurled out of the tree in many different directions. They landed so far away, in so many different places, that they never found each other again. With time, their languages became more and more divergent. That is why people today speak so many different languages and cannot understand each other, and why it is hard work for hunters to catch animals for food.”

That story was related to me by Sikari people, a tribe of six hundred New Guineans. The story exemplifies a widespread class of myths called origin myths, familiar to us through accounts of the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Despite those parallels with Judeo-Christian religions, traditional Sikari society lacked churches, priests, and sacred books. Why is the Sikari belief system so reminiscent of Judeo-Christian religions in its origin myth, yet so different in other respects?

All known human societies have had “religion,” or something like it. But what really defines “religion”? Scholars have been debating this and related questions for centuries. For a belief system to constitute a religion, must it include belief in a god or gods, and does it necessarily include anything else? When, in human evolutionary history, did religion appear? Human ancestors diverged from the ancestors of chimpanzees around six million years ago. Whatever religion is, we can agree that chimps don’t have it, but was there already religion among our Cro-Magnon ancestors of 40,000 years ago? Were there different historical stages in the development of religions, with creeds like Christianity and Buddhism representing a more recent stage than tribal belief systems like that of the Sikaris? These longstanding questions have become acute to all of us reeling from recent terrorist attacks, and struggling to comprehend the fanaticism that drove them. We tend to associate religion with humanity’s noble side, not with its evil side: Why does religion sometimes preach murder and suicide?

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